The lineage of Mercedes’ C Class goes back to 1982 and the W201 series 190 models. Produced as a direct competitor to Audi’s 80 and BMW’s 3 Series, this car marked a move down-market by Mercedes into a segment with a larger sales volume than the sectors where Mercedes had traditionally competed. The timing was perfect, as throughout the 1980s, sales of premium-badged cars and those with a sporty or executive image really took off. Mercedes responded by expanding the range with a wider choice of engines beyond the initial 2.0 carburettor or fuel-injected offering of the first years. Such as the success of the W201 that a successor was a no-brainer, and following BMW’s lead, not only did the new W202 car of 1993 come with a wider range of engines fro the outset, but there was also an estate body which proved popular. The C Class became a part of the premium car landscape just like its closest rivals from BMW and Audi and has now evolved through three further generations. The latest of these, codenamed the W205 made its debut at the 2014 Geneva Show. Like its rivals, every successive generation has increased in size, to ensure that there is more space in the car for people and luggage, and equipment levels seem positively lavish compared to those very austere W201 cars of 1982. There are now four body styles and a bewildering array of engines, which undergo constant update during the life of the model. Whereas in the 70s, Europeans looking for a large family car would likely have selected something such as a Ford Cortina, or a VW Passat, a Renault R18 or a Fiat 131 Mirafiori perhaps depending on which country they lived (people tended to buy the domestic product), these days it is cars like this which – thanks to creative financial deals such as the PCP – they are likely to select, so sales of the C Class and its German rivals are very strong with the cars featuring in the Top 20 models in many European markets month after month. With over 9.5 million C Class cars sold and the model now accounting for one in every five Mercedes cars sold, this is an important and popular car. You would like to think it is a good one, too. And that’s where I had some cause for doubt when I got to sample one. That was a US market C300 in 2016, which actually had a 2 litre 4 cylinder engine under the bonnet. Much of the car was impressive, but the engine most certainly was not, being rough and ill-becoming of the car’s prestige aspirations and price tag, it did not ride well and the numerous creaks and rattles had me questioning the build quality. Subsequently I got to drive the very top of the range C63 AMG and that, of course, was a very different matter – which really wow-ed me, as I had hoped it would Wonderful though the C63 is, it is the more prosaic models which need to convince as this is a highly competitive sector of the market, with rivals beyond the German duo from Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, Volvo and others now competing for sales as well. Mercedes applied a mid-cycle update in early 2018 with a lot of detailed changes that it would take an expert eye to spot, but crucially they also made major changes under the bonnet with most of the range getting a brand new engine. That meant that a test was long overdue, and my opportunity came when I collected this test car, a C220d Estate from Hertz’ facility at Milan Malpensa airport. It was a nearly new car, finished in a very dark blue that looked black in many light conditions. I had it for a weekend to go to events in Milan and further afield in Brescia and can now report on my findings.
My test car was a C220d which is still the most popular version in Europe. Mercedes fitted new engines to the C Class as part of the 2018 facelift, and the evidence of the C300 petrol model I drove in the US a few years ago suggested that they needed to. The 220 badging does not tell you anything useful about the capacity, as the earlier W205 models had a 2.1 litre 4 cylinder engine and in the facelifted car you get a 2.0 litre 4 cylinder diesel unit, which generates a healthy 192 bhp and a thumping 295 lb/ft of torque. It comes coupled to a standard 9-speed automatic gearbox. The car has rear wheel drive as standard, with all-wheel drive an option in some markets. This new engine is impressively refined. There is no trace of the diesel rattle when you start it up and noise levels remain low once underway. Smoothness is the order of the day rather than outright speed, though there is ample power to give the C220d a decent turn of speed and acceleration that is perfectly good enough to cope with the ebb and flow of traffic on the autostrada around Milano. The engine and gearbox are well-matched with ratios being swapped seamlessly. There are paddles on the wheel if you want to do the job yourself, but one you’ve tried it a couple of times you’ll probably do like me and let the system do it for you. 9 speeds mean that the upper ratios are high so engine revs can be cut down a lot for steady speed cruising, and couple this with noise suppression which takes not just the sound of the engine but also the wind and the road out of the equation and this is a restful cruiser. I was expecting that this would also be an economical car. It took 22 litres after I’d driven 300 km, which computes to 37.8 mpg, a decent but not spectacular result, though there is the usual rental car disclaimer that notes that as I used less than a full tank, it is possible that I refilled it more than the previous renter had done. The engine is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the driving experience, as the rest of it is perfectly OK, but nothing special. Mercedes claim to have altered the steering system with the mid-cycle facelift to give it more feel, but it is still largely devoid of much sensation. This makes the car light to drive, but you’ve not got a lot of idea where the steered wheels are really headed. On the mix of roads where I drove the test car, it was evident that the car holds the road well, with plenty of grip and a nice safe feel to the handling. Perhaps of more relevance for a car which is perceived more as a comfort-oriented car than the more overtly sporting BMW, Alfa or Jaguar, is the ride and here the car’s damping coupled with the 225/50R17 wheels made things pleasingly comfortable, doubtless better than you would experience with an AMG Line version on larger wheels and lowered suspension. It certainly rode far more comfortably than the 2016 US test car, which I found fidgety and unforgiving. There were no issues with the brakes which did their job well. There is an electronic handbrake which is mounted on the dash. Visibility could be better, with the door mirrors rather small, limiting their field of view. There was no reversing camera, either, so judging the back of the car called for some guess-work, and this is now really rather a large car.
A first glance inside suggests a high quality cabin, and by and large this impression persists as you inspect more closely There are lots of soft touch plastics here and the design is cohesive, with the various mouldings of the dash and door casings fitting together very neatly. There is a leather wrapped wheel which proved pleasant to hold. There is a large area of shiny gloss black inlay on the centre console, which might look good for a few minutes but it quickly gathers fingerprints and dust and so rarely looks good for long, but there are other trim inlays available if you prefer them. Mercedes have clearly tried with the design to reduce the apparent bulk, taking inspiration from the latest S Class, and they would perhaps have succeeded had they not then ended up putting the infotainment screen on the top of the centre of the dash where it looks like a sort of iPad that was added as an after-thought. The instruments are grouped together in recessed cowls within the instrument cluster. The speedometer and rev counter house smaller gauges for fuel level and water temperature in their lower parts. There are an awful lot of graduations which make them look fussy and actually quite hard to read at a glance. Between the dials is the trip computer display area which is very like you find in any modern Mercedes with lots of potential displays to choose from, selected by buttons on the steering wheel boss. In true Mercedes fashion there is only one prime column stalk, on the left of the wheel, as the space to the right is reserved for the gear selector. The stalk does wipers, by twisting, as well as indicators and thankfully it is mounted high enough that you are not going to mix it up with the cruise control which is operated by a stubbier stalk lower on the left side of the wheel. The lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash. Wheel mounted controls are used for audio repeater function and to alter the trip computer displays and there are paddles mounted just above the spokes. The centre of the dash swoops down into the centre console as a one piece moulding. High up in the centre of the dash is that 10.25″ colour screen that looks like a stuck-on iPad, which is used for audio, entertainment, navigation (if fitted) and car settings purposes. The screen is larger than on the pre-facelift cars but it does not have all the very latest Mercedes functions that you will find on some more recent models. It has a touch interface, but you may find it easier to use the touch pad in the centre console. Those who are used to the Mercedes way of doing things will be at home with this, but I found that things like audio settings were rather more cumbersome than in say BMW’s iDrive system. As well as the traditional inputs, the system does accept gestures and hand movements, which does take a little getting used to. The graphics are crisp and the system proved quite responsive. As is often the way, menu options list everything but when you select things like navigation if they are not there, as was the case with the test car, you just get a message telling you so. Below the screen there are three circular air vents that look a bit cheap, them there is an analogue clock and beneath that there is a line of metal-effect – but obviously plastic when you touch them – buttons for the dual zone climate control. One final observation from the cabin was that the sunvisors felt particularly cheap and nasty. Further evidence that Mercedes quality is not what it used to be. These days it is more of an illusion than a reality, sadly.
In the Executive trim of the test car, the seat upholstery was a sort of cloth which some may actually prefer to the man-made artico leather that features in posher spec models, but the cloth was not the sort that impressed me that much. Also a bit surprisingly for a car of this price, seat adjustment is not fully electric. A motor will help you seat the backrest rake, but for fore/aft movement, there is an adjuster under the seat and there is a lever on the side for seat height. There is a wide range of adjustment, so people of any size ought to be able to get comfortable, and there is generous headroom, so you don’t feel like you are hemmed in. The steering column has a telescoping feature with up/down and in/out movements, so it was easy to get the driving position I wanted. I did spend a couple of hours on the seat, driving over to Brescia and the seat, although quite firm proved comfortable. With a large and relatively high-set centre console you feel like you are sitting quite low in the car even if you are not. I certainly would not want ever to have to get into the car and slide across to the other front seat, but this is a challenge in a lot of cars these days. Space in the rear may well prove adequate for a family, but it is not as generous as you will find in some rivals. The first problem arises when getting in, where I found I had to duck my head to clear the roof line which was a surprise as it does not slope unduly like it does in the CLA. Once inside, there was actually enough space for my head. If the front seats are set well back, leg room is acceptable but far from generous, and the central tunnel intrudes somewhat, so a middle seat occupant might not be that comfortable. There is a drop-down armrest which has cupholders in its upper surface and there are air vents on the back of the centre console. Surprisingly, there are no map pockets, so the only place for odds and ends here is in the rather slim door pockets.
Of course the reason for selecting the Estate version as opposed to the other body styles is for the available extra luggage space, and this C Class should not disappoint. The boot is a good size, even with the load cover in situ, slightly larger than that of the Saloon version. It is a nice squared-off shape with no intrusion from the rear wheel arches. The boot floor is flush with the bottom of the tailgate, so sliding large or heavy objects in would be as easy as it gets. The boot is long from front to back and there is a small area on one side with a retaining net for a few bits and pieces. There is a well under the boot floor which would allow you to store a few more small oddments, though of course the reason this is here is because there is no spare wheel. More space can be created by dropping down the 40:20:40 asymmetrically split rear seat backrests. The levers to release these are by the tailgate, and the duly lowered backrests fold so they are level with the boot area to create a long load platform. Inside the cabin there is a disappointingly pokey glovebox, a central armrest cubby, door bins and a lidded cubby at the base of the centre console, which combined should be just about enough for those things you want to have handy whilst underway.
There’s a wide range of petrol, diesel and hybrids engines available in the C-Class. Confusingly, but in typical Mercedes-Benz fashion, the badging bears little relation to the size of the engine As of late 2018, the diesel line-up is made of a 1.6-litre four-cylinder C200d with 160PS (available with a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic gearbox), a 2.0-litre four-cylinder badged the C220d producing 194PS (paired with the nine-speed auto and two- or four-wheel drive) and another 2.0-litre four-cylinder badged the C300d with 245PS (also paired with the automatic gearbox and available in rear- or four-wheel drive). There’s also a C300de plug-in hybrid model. Petrol engine options consist of the entry-level C180 four-cylinder 1.6-litre petrol with 156PS and available with a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic transmission. There’s also a C200 mild hybrid, powered by a 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine producing 184PS and available with two- or four-wheel drive, while the four-cylinder 258PS C300 tops the standard C-Class range. For those looking for something a bit sportier, there are also AMG models. These include six-cylinder C 43 and eight-cylinder C 63 and C 63 S models, with power ranging from 390 to 510PS. Once you’ve selected the engine you need to choose a body style: 4 door saloon, 5 door estate, the 2 door coupe and convertible. Not all engines are available with all body styles. After that, you get to trim versions, which vary from market to market. In the UK we see SE, Sport and AMG Line, but this Italian spec car was an Executive Edition model which would seem to be closes to a UK market SE though it seemed to lack a few of the features that come as standard as a UK market SE. In the UK, an SE comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, Artico leather upholstery, 7-inch Audio 20 CD with Touchpad, agility control, comfort suspension, reversing camera, rain sensitive wipers, collision prevention assist plus, cruise control with hold function, tyre pressure monitoring, DAB, media interface (for connecting iPhones etc), three-spoke steering wheel, Direct Steer with speed sensitive steering. Sport adds 17-inch alloys, aluminium interior trim, contrasting stitching, exterior chrome trim, Garmin Map Pilot Navigation, heated front seats, LED high performance headlights, 15mm lowered comfort suspension, mirror package, Parktronic with Active Park Assist, split folding rear seats, sports seats in Artico leather. AMG Line has 18-inch alloy wheels, AMG bodystyling, AMG floor mates, AMG sports pedals, AMG sports seats in Artico leather, AMG sports steering wheel, black rooflining, chrome splitter, sports Direct-Steer system, 15mm lowered sports suspension, gearshift paddles on automatic gearbox models. Needless to say there is an extensive list of options, either grouped together or orderable individually, though the usual warning of what these will do to the price applies here.
This C220d Estate struck me as a perfectly pleasant car, with no serious flaws apparent, though longer term ownership may prove to you that Mercedes are nothing like as well built as they used to be, as there are still plenty of reports of reliability issues, which can cost big money to put right. So, a nice car, for sure, but whether it is the pick of the class is less clear cut. I drove one of the Mercedes’ main rivals, a 3 Series BMW only a few weeks before this test, and my conclusions of that car were broadly similar: nice but not a slam-dunk “best in class”, at least not in the spec I sampled. There is only really one other premium-badged rival available in estate car format, the Audi A4 and my experience suggests that were I in the market for a 2.0 litre diesel estate from this class, that is probably the one I would pick. The inexorable rise of the crossover is perhaps the reason why some of the saloon versions’ rivals, such as the Jaguar XE and Alfa Giulia are not offered in estate format, which is a pity as I rate both of these highly in saloon car guises. I can’t see the market getting more rivals in time, so you really do have to choose between the three Germans cars, and the reality is that which one appeals to you most will probably come down to personal taste. All of them are very good products.