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BBC Autos

Review

Mercedes-Benz C-Class: Bringing up baby

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In a caffeinated set of compact sport sedans, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class has preferred to pour creamy luxury.

And despite a bracing jolt of available twin-turbo power, smoothness remains the dominant sensation of the all-new 2015 C-Class. With the petite, youth-baiting $30,825 CLA assuming the C-Class’ former place as the most painless entry to Benz ownership, the C has been freed to explore its real nature, adopting the style, features and technology once reserved for Mercedes’ priciest models.

Let’s get right to it: inside and out, the C-Class’ stylistic explosion leaves the old version for dead. This may be the most striking, shamelessly deluxe sedan at the entry-lux end of the market. It’s a beckoning mélange of arches, scallops, extrusions and creases, a guided tour of design cues from the flagship S-Class, the rakish CLA and every model in between.

The C-Class’ newfound swagger made France’s tony Côte d’Azur a logical test spot, with cliff-hung roads overlooking Mediterranean harbours peppered with bobbing yachts.

Viewed in profile, the C-Class’ windswept cabin seems to sit a mile back from a classic, formidable hood. The more demure Luxury model is distinguished by a traditional star ornament atop the hood, with the Sport specification flaunting a fat, glittering star on its chesty grille. A third body style, Sport AMG, adopts a pair of dramatic, gulping front air inlets, tilted up like the wings of a bow tie. Available signature LED headlamp eyebrows glow in hot, Tron-like blue when doors are locked or unlocked, then switch to white when the car is in motion.

The cabin also comes on strong, drawing clear cues from the S-Class. Stretched 3.7 inches from the outgoing model and built on a three-inch longer wheelbase, the C-Class carves out welcome room in back and slims its front roof pillars for airier views. Overall weight drops by up to 220lbs, with aluminium forming 50% of the chassis, up from less than 10%, according to Mercedes.

A robust, elliptical steering wheel (flat-bottomed when AMG trim is specified) fronts a pair of binocular-like bezels that house deep-set analogue gauges – a break from the S-Class’s virtual-instrument wizardry. A slim display screen stands like a billboard atop an uncluttered centre stack, with aircraft-style metal vents and rich finishes such as open-pore ash wood. (Skip the piano black, a fingerprint-catching design cliché whose time has come and gone.) Sculpted seats are ribbed and muscular, available in striking maroon leather, with a powered thigh extender for another high-end touch.

That tablet-like centre screen and its myriad functions are managed by a new controller that resembles a Star Trek phaser cantilevered over Benz’ Comand rotary-control knob. The phaser portion is a console handrest with built-in touchpad that manages to improve on Audi’s standard-setting version – allowing not only letter, number or character entry with fingertip strokes, but access to screen menu functions as well.

Digital realm notwithstanding, the C-Class essentially tries to steal anything from the S-Class that isn’t nailed down, including the Air Balancing system that wafts driver-selectable fragrances in the cabin. An optional Burmester audio system pumps rich sound through artful, laser-perforated speaker grilles that evoke metallic seashells.

Benz is proudly pushing its optional Intelligent Drive suite, priced at the same $2,800 as in the S- and E-Class. It harnesses sensors, laser, radar and stereoscopic cameras to offer semi-autonomous driving. Set the Distronic adaptive cruise control, and the Benz will actually steer itself along gentle curves, while controlling its own speed and brakes. The safety suite adds 360-degree camera views, lane-keeping and blind-spot functions, as well as Attention Assist’s drowsy-driver monitor and even fully automated braking at up to 124mph to avoid pedestrians and collisions. An active self-parking system is an option, along with a crystalline head-up display in the driver’s sight line.

At a Michelin test facility in Salon de Provence, drivers were urged to try and smack both a “pedestrian” (actually a mannequin smartly outfitted in Mercedes gear) and a slow-rolling trailer capped with an inflatable, make-believe A-Class hatchback. No chance. Even with foot on gas and heart in throat (thumbing a text message would have completed the careless-driver scenario) the C-Class performed partial and then full-on braking, coming to a halt just short of danger, every time. Those brakes, strong and sensitive in equal measure, are a performance high point.

Consumers with a greater stake in driver involvement will find the C-Class a high roller at heart: fast, professional but less athletically inclined than, say, a Cadillac ATS or BMW 3 Series. Our French expedition featured an international cast of C-Classes, but North America will initially see two versions beginning in September. The all-wheel-drive C300 4Matic’s 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine will put out 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. The C400 4Matic, meanwhile, plays a surprising twin-turbo trump card: an all-new 3-litre V6 engine with 329 horsepower and 354lb-ft of torque, both figures best-in-class. (At 328 horses, the Infiniti Q50’s non-turbocharged V6 is bested by 1hp.) That’s also an 81-horse boost over the departing C300 4Matic and its 3.5-litre power plant. With its seven-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission, the C400 rushes from zero to 60mph in a manufacturer-estimated 5.4 seconds, accompanied by a distant but somewhat hoarse engine sound. Figure a mid-6 run to 60mph for the C300. Both models initially arrive with 4Matic all-wheel-drive only, but a rear-drive C300 – whose superior handling balance should make it the enthusiasts’ choice – goes on sale in spring 2015.

Still, don’t dismiss the heady power of the twin-turbo C400. Several rips through the gears underscored the eager torque of its V6, and even shifting to fifth found it pulling with undiminished gusto.

Free-spending hooligans should also mark calendars for spring 2015, when the C63 AMG is set to arrive. (European showrooms welcome it later this year.) The speediest C-Class will drop its bellowing 6.2-litre V8 for a more fuel-efficient 4-litre bi-turbo unit – built from a conjoined pair of Mercedes’ 2-litre four-cylinders – that aims for well over 450hp. A C350 plug-in hybrid goes on sale in autumn 2015, but diesel fans in North America must wait until 2016 for a C250 Bluetec.

The C-Class’ road-cushioning Airmatic air suspension (standard on the C400) represents another laudable leap. Not unlike the slippery CLA, the C-Class’s aerodynamics help create an impeccably quiet cabin, with the steering and ride aloof and isolated in big-Benz style. With the Agility Select switch, drivers can toggle through Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus settings for engine, transmission and steering – plus suspension, if you opt for Airmatic – represented by slick animated displays on the central screen.

But the car’s personality – aside from more aggressive throttle and shifting points – doesn’t change dramatically as a driver moves through settings. As with Audi’s indifferent Drive Select, many owners will likely set and forget the system, calling its usefulness and complexity into question. And in all but Sport Plus mode, the Benz may feel too marshmallow-y for meatier tastes, with some unwanted body roll in turns and over rippling pavement.

For all its gains, the C-Class remains a luxury car first and a sport sedan second. Come September, this upsized exercise in pampering will exact a slightly higher price over its predecessor, with the starting sticker for the C300 likely coming in near $38,000 and the C400 around $44,000.

Luxury customers, particularly in the US, are discovering that a modestly sized sedan, SUV or even hatchback can address their needs and still boost their egos. For buyers who want S-Class styling, features and safety in a smaller Mercedes at half the price, the C-Class’ math definitely adds up.