C-Class is here. Finally. On first acquaintance in Europe, we praised everything from its quality to a starting price of $60,900 and rating it an early contender for Car of the Year. After our first local drive, it's a shortening favourite.
After 250km of very mixed motoring, from inner-city Melbourne tram tracks to a stretch of muddy forest road, there is barely anything to fault. It's a five-star car for me, a very rare honour.
The new C-Class gets better fuel economy than a Toyota Camry, costs the same as a fully loaded Chrysler 300, is about to outsell the Mazda6, has more standard safety than cars that cost more than $150,000, and is available as a miserly hybrid.
A reversing camera is standard, it will brake automatically in an emergency — earning a 15 per cent discount from some insurers — and it has wipe-down vinyl seats that are family-friendly.
Yes, it's a Mercedes-Benz, and that must go against it. We mark hard because we expect the world's oldest car maker to do good work and because we know there is a bias against the brand.
But the world has turned from the time when only super-rich people could afford to park a three-pointed star in the driveway. These days, thanks to starting prices as low as $35,600 — the same as a Holden Commodore — there are more Mercedes in Middle Australia than ever before and people are shopping the star against a VW Golf or top-end Ford Falcon.
It still busts most budgets despite that relatively affordable bottom line, and it's easy to romp past $80,000 for a C250 with extras, but it's a lot of car for the cash. It drives like a much costlier car and you could happily live with the no frills C200. For a very long time.
The C-Class starting price is up by $1000, a rare rise in a time of red-pen pricing A basic petrol C200 starts at $60,900, with the flagship C300 BlueTEC Hybrid at $74,900 for deliveries next year. In the middle ground, the petrol C250 starts at $68,900 and the cheapest diesel, the C200 BluteTEC, from $62,400.
What's significant is that all five of the C-Class sedans are priced below the luxury car tax threshold — although the belter V8-powered C63 AMG will bust that barrier next year — and Mercedes-Benz Australia claims a $9000 improvement in standard equipment.
The list now runs to power seats, LED lights, 18-inch alloys, auto braking and satnav. To give some pricing perspective, a basic BMW 320 costs $60,500 and a Chrysler 300C Luxury starts at $51,000.
Most of the good stuff in the compact C-Class comes from the S-Class flagship, from the automatic safety braking to electric window switches that don't feel remotely cheap. It's a car that's loaded with safety stuff but also benefits from a new generation of engines with stop-start and turbocharging.
In the C200, performance is almost a match for the outgoing C250 yet its claimed fuel economy is 6.0L/100km (I saw 5.7L on my preview drive). It uses old-school rear-wheel drive for refinement and driving enjoyment, with a seven-speed automatic gearbox.
The new body is bigger but nearly half of the panels are made from aluminium, which cuts weight by up to 40kg. The hybrid in the C-Class is a diesel job, claiming 4.0L.
The body follows Benz's latest styling direction, which is more aggressive than the outgoing car, but the interior has been modernised without losing its effectiveness. There's a large touch screen — 7 inches to start, 8.4 with an infotainment upgrade — and old-school dials with an optional head-up display. Paddle-shifters are standard.
Deft touches include a choice of interior lighting colours and an "agility" switch for the engine/transmission/steering computer. Smart work inside the bigger body enhances usable space, particularly in the back where the outgoing C-Class was upright and cramped. The boot is also bigger at a claimed 480L.
The C-Class earned five stars from ANCAP, no question. The basics are right, from the body structure to nine airbags. The extra gear — including automatic emergency braking that initially flashes you a noisy warning — and even a fatigue reminder set the C-Class up for a maximum score.
It's crunch time as I slide into a C200 for a loop that goes out and about from Melbourne central. It's cold and wet, ideal to find any flaws. But the car feels solid, composed and sensationally refined. Within 10km, I know I could happily drive for 1000, thanks to everything from well-shaped seats and a sports-style wheel to great headlamps and a chassis that copes easily with everything nasty I can find. It's very, very quiet, too.
After an hour, I'm searching for things to dislike. There is the lid on the centre console, which feels a bit flimsy, and also looks from other drivers which are anything but envious.
This C200 also has a couple of extra-cost options and I can't see the point in the sunroof, although the head-up display is brilliant and I also like the full-sized infotainment screen and creamy Burmester sound. But it's the basics that do it for me, and make a five-star rating an easy decision.
The car copes so easily with bumps and lumps, and even potholes are dispatched with none of the bump-thump of the previous C-Class or the latest 3 Series and Audi A4. There is nothing nasty in the handling, which is generally neutral in all corners, and it cruises quietly and effortlessly on the freeway.
I return to Mercedes-Benz and jump into a C250 with more power and equipment. It also has an AMG package with good-looking wheels and hugging front bucket seats. It's nice but not nicer enough for me at $68,900 plus options — I'd take the C200 every time.
I haven't been as impressed by any new arrival since my first run in the Golf. The C200 will some beating come COTY time.