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The Mercedes C-Class marks a return to the company's old-school values of all-round quality and maturity

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Mercedes-Benz must feel a little like Sisyphus every time it tries to roll a new Mercedes Mercedes-Benz C-Class up the mountain of talent presented by the BMW 3 Series, only to lose the struggle within sight of the summit.

For as long as there’s been a C-Class, so there’s been a 3 Series for it to aspire to. That’s not to say all versions of the C have always been inferior to the Three, but overall and across the board, Munich has usually held sway over Stuttgart.

The C-Class underwent a serious update in spring 2011, followed by more revisions in 2013

Which is not to say Mercedes has been less than solicitous in its attempts to get that rock to the top. Twenty years ago, a C-Class was a car more likely be driven by an elderly gentleman in a hat than a dynamic young professional, and much has been done in the interim not only to the way the car is marketed but also to how it is designed to appeal to a far wider audience.

One way this has been achieved is to produce a C-Class for everyone who’s ever fancied the idea of a quality compact German saloon. Or, for that matter, coupé or estate. So now you can buy a C-Class with a choice of engines offering eight different outputs from as little as 136bhp to as much as 507bhp. There’s one that’ll do almost 70mpg, and another that, were you to remove its electronic limiter, can bit almost 200mph.

Trim levels also reflect the thrusting dynamism of the Mercedes C-Class. Traditional Elegance and artsy Avant Garde models are out, replaced by AMG Sport and AMG Sport Plus, while the base SE model is now the Executive SE.

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And what do they call the real AMG version? Just AMG, a name that needs no further embellishment.

DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz C-Class xenon headlight

The W204 generation of Mercedes C-Class faced a tricky brief when introduced in 2007.

On the one hand, there was an absolute imperative to ensure the car reached people who’d hitherto never have considered buying a Mercedes. At the same time, the brief precluded alienating the still sizeable constituency of people who’d hitherto never have considered buying anything else. These were, after all, Mercedes’ most loyal customers, and their money was as good as anyone’s.

The C-Class looks elegant in all three of its bodystyles

So at its heart the car stayed conventional, with a traditionally long wheelbase and a short front overhang. The theoretical temptation to extend the still innovative original Mercedes A-Class and Mercedes B-Class platform was obviated by its obsolescence, so the car remained resolutely rear-wheel drive and remains so to this day, at least in right-hand drive markets where the four-wheel-drive option is unavailable.

To make it more attractive to customers who also had BMW and Audi on their radar, Mercedes styled a muscular yet attractive car with a much more planted stance and stronger presence on the road.

And in order to not frighten the establishmen, Mercedes made less sporting models available with a multi-bar grille and the three point star mounted in traditional fashion on the bonnet. The young guns, meanwhile, got the big central star in the middle of the grille and a much more open mouth. So successful was this latter approach that when the car was facelifted in 2011, the more restrained face was dropped.

Until that time, the C-Class had been happy to exist as just a saloon and, to our eyes at least, a better looking estate. But the new model brought also a new model line in the curvaceous shape of the C-Class coupé, a conventional two-door car with no rear hatch.

With the E-Class coupé, four-door Mercedes-Benz CLA and Mercedes-Benz CLS coupés, and range-topping CL coupé, Mercedes has now plugged the final gap in its array of sleek and stylish offerings from the bottom to the top of its ranges.

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz C-Class interior

The quality of its interiors, or perceived lack thereof relative to times gone by, has been the source of many a stick with which Mercedes has been beaten over the head in recent years. But if you want proof that Mercedes has learned the lesson of the late 20th century and applied it not only to its big executive and luxury cars but also to its more family-orientated transport, the Mercedes C-Class provides it in spades.

The plastics are almost uniformly soft and evenly textured and the leather feels thick and designed to last. Everything that looks like metal really is metal and the design of the dashboard offers the sheer functionality of a BMW with a sizeable slice of the style you’d expect from an Audi.

The speedo needle sweeps around the exterior of the gauge only; the trip computer sits in the middle

But there are problems in here: not all will like the steering wheel stalks, with a main arm that controls everything from the wipers to the indicators and which can be too easily confused with the nearby cruise control stalk. Nor will the italicised numbers on the dials be to everyone’s taste.

Even so, no one’s going to quibble with quite the best driving position in the class, offering unrivalled amounts of rearward seat travel and similarly generous reach control for the wheel. Mercedes' Comand sat-nav system is now slightly feeling its age relative to BMW’s latest iDrive configuration, but it’s still one of the best you can buy.

Those not blessed with a front seat view may be rather less chuffed about life on board a C-Class. Rear room is never generous in cars of this class because all the major players have larger, more profitable models that they’d rather sell you instead if back seat accomodation is a primary buying criteria, but the C-Class now offers a little less room for rear seat passengers than the BMW 3 Series.

As for luggage space, both the saloon and estate offer boots of decent shape and proportion but which are near-identical in size to those of rival models, even seats-down in C-Class estate form. In this regard the C-Class takes an entirely different approach to its vast Mercedes E-Class sister model, whose unrivalled carrying capacity in estate form is a key USP.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz C-Class front quarter

It’s never poor, but the acceleration of the base-level Mercedes C-class, the C 200 CDI (which uses the same 2179cc motor as found in the C 200 and C 250) is never better than adequate.

For most people most of the time, however, the C 220 CDI will provide all the shove they need and quite a bit more besides. Six-speed manual transmissions are available with the lower-powered diesels and the C180 petrol model, but now the seven-speed automatic is available throughout the range (early in this generation automatic C-Classes had just five gears, which was an almost deal-busting shortcoming), it’s the clear choice for this car. So equipped, the best-selling C 220 CDI hits 62mph from rest in just 8.1sec and, given space and the legal freedom to do so, will proceed directly to 143mph.

The AMG version offers up supercar-like performance

Other engines are less satisfying. The C 250 CDI does offer a substantial performance upgrade but you have to bear in mind it will be of use to you only when road conditions allow; by contrast, the extra noise it makes and the lack of resulting refinement will be with you every time you drive it.

Similarly, the C 350 CDI makes attractive reading on paper and does bless the C-class with an unlikely amount of shove, but as we shall see in a later section, there’s a price to be paid at the pumps, too. It’s hard, too, to make the case for the petrol engines in the UK, save for those buyers who cover very low mileages and who won't be able to recoup the additional cost of the diesel-powered cars through the pump or better residuals. These four-cylinder petrol engines are effective and, of their type, quite frugal, but for almost all, diesel is better.

As for the C63 AMG version, it retains the older 6.2-litre V8 engine long since eschewed by bigger AMGs in favour of the newer, more punchy and more frugal 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8. Which means that if you like the old engine with its so-sharp snarl and ferocious top end, in can now only be found in the C-Class and, for rather more money, the Mercedes-AMG SLS.

It’s a wonderfully characterful motor but, despite all its vast capacity, it needs revs to give its best and is terrifyingly thirsty. The W205 Mercedes-AMG C63 will have an all-new 4.0-litre biturbo unit.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz C-Class cornering

There is no area in which the Mercedes C-Class has advanced further in this current generation. While the previous Mercedes C-Class that ceased production in 2006 felt vague, imprecise and no kind of driver’s car, the current model actually had the best chassis in the class until the current F30 generation of BMW 3 Series was introduced in 2012.

Whether you buy a C 180, a C 63 AMG (2011-2015) or any one of the myriad models between these two poles, you can be sure it will be beautifully damped and properly balanced. These are cars that exploit the inherent advantage of their rear-drive configuration and the sheer class of wishbone front suspension and a five-link rear axle to the limit.

The old C-Class was always underrated and subtly effective at covering ground

But that’s not what you notice most when you first head down the road. It’s the steering that’s the standout talent in this category, an area in which many Mercedes have been historically notably deficient. The precision with which the car can be guided and the feel it provides through the thick rim speaks of a car with great structural stiffness and an exceptionally rigidly mounted rack. It’s good enough to make the humblest, slowest C-Class rewarding to drive and far more sporting in feel than many more powerful, quicker machines.

Ride quality is excellent too, so long as you steer clear of the stiffer suspension of the AMG-branded models. In standard form the car offers exceptional compliance which could lead to a sense of looseness in lesser cars, but with expert control of roll rates the C-Class instead simply feels supple and able to soak up the worst a British B-road or city street might throw at it.

The stiffer suspension does provide more grip and a more sporting feel on a smooth, dry road, but at the price of a substantial chunk of that compliance. It's a trade we’d feel disinclined to make.

By contrast, you need that level of control to handle the performance of the real AMG, and it provides it complete with the opportunity for lurid slides whenever conditions allow. Traction is obviously a limiting factor but the car never feels nervous or anything less than demonstrably on your side.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Buy a Mercedes C-Class and you know it’s going to be well built and residually stronger than most, though the three-year warranty is small beer compared to what, for instance, Korean manufacturers offer on cars costing half as much.

In fuel consumption terms, the AMG is a nightmare: the official stats say 23.5mpg, which is bad enough but still a world away from what you’re likely to achieve if you drive as its maker intended. Even with a fuel tank seven litres bigger than the 59-litre tank used in other C-Classes, you’re looking at a real-world range on the wrong side of 250 miles.

The relatively low running costs of the diesel models will make them appealing to those covering high mileages

The petrol models are commendably frugal given which pump they fill from, but the 47.9mpg offered by the 1.6-litre, 156bhp C 180 is no better than that achieved by the C 350 CDI with its 3.0-litre V6 motor, 265bhp and well in excess of twice the amount of torque.

As for the smaller diesels, you’d think the C 200 CDI would use least fuel, but you’d be wrong. On paper at least it manages 57.7mpg in manual or automatic form compared to the outstanding 68.9mpg of the manual C 220 CDI with its band B tax disc.

Think about that for a moment: this is a 144mph Mercedes saloon that costs nothing to tax in year one and a paltry £20 per year thereafter

VERDICT

3.5 star Mercedes-Benz C-Class

The Mercedes C-Class is a car of which its maker should be proud. As the entry point to traditional Mercedes ownership where cars have their engines at one end and their driven wheels at the other, it is a fine example of the breed. Additionally, it leaves you curious to find out how much better even than that must be a Mercedes E-Class or Mercedes S-Class, so for Mercedes it does its job to perfection.

It also performs its less traditional but no less important task with impressive skill. If ever a car was going to convince prospects that Mercedes is no longer an old man’s marque, the C-Class should. Even the slowest, least powerful model is fun to drive, and it's an enjoyment level that ratchets up through the ranges until you reach the Mercedes-AMG C63 (2011-2015), our favourite ultra-high performance small saloon or estate.

A likeable and capable contender, but not quite as good as the BMW 3 Series

As ever, however, the C-Class has one problem, and it’s got a BMW propellor on its nose. This generation of C-Class has run its F30 BMW 3 Series (2014-2018) neighbour closer than any other, but if you compare the core models on the key battleground it's possible to conclude that an F30 BMW 320d is still a better car than a Mercedes C 220 CDI.

The margin is not large, but it is there. It looks like Mercedes will be pushing that rock uphill for just a little longer yet.

Mercedes-Benz C-Class 2007-2014 First drives