When Mercedes-Benz introduced the current E-class cars for the 1996 model year, its major launch motif was the unusual headlamp treatment. You know, the two pairs of unequal-size discs? Well, with the new C-class cars, those headlights have morphed into two irregular guitar-body shapes. And these artful new asymmetrical forms perfectly suited the latest C-class's launch venue earlier this summer in Frankfurt, Germany, at the Schirn Kunst-halle (art gallery), where a retrospective exhibition of the surreal works of Man Ray was being held.
In truth, the headlamp shapes are the only surreal aspect of the new line. The new C-class cars are, in every other way, a literal realization of the company's present power and sophistication. Karen Makris, U.S. product manager for Mercedes-Benz, said her response to the new styling was "Wow!" but we believe this latest addition to the Benz family bears a clear—and perhaps unsurprising—resemblance to its relatives.
Think of the new C-class as the result of a liaison between an S-class and an E-class, and nobody will dispute the parentage. Check out the C-pillar swoop, and you'll probably agree there's even a bit of the CLK in there. All of which is good. Particularly as the new range has the voguish distinction it needs to assume the huge financial responsibilities of the old C-class (35 percent of Mercedes-Benz's global car sales) and tackle the growing, 900, 000-unit entry-level luxury-car market in the U.S.
Inside the new C-class cars we find an all-new dashboard design with a cigar-shaped dashboard top element, a tidy center-console layout, a steering wheel with remote-control buttons, a center speaker in the upper dash, and a large and legible gauge cluster. Considering the long list of occupant-controlled equipment—dual-zone climate control, an elaborate audio system, etc.—the apparent simplicity of the interior is nothing short of amazing.
Here in the U.S., we will get two of the three trim versions marketed else-where. Our standard cars will be outfitted as Elegance models (but not called that), which sport top-of-the-line luxo-level leather-and-wood duds, and our Sport package, which gets wheel and suspension upgrades, will take the so-called Avantgarde interior trim, which features textured aluminum inlays instead of glossy timber.
There is a short list of items that are options on both models, including a navigation system, xenon headlamps, heated seats, a six-disc CD changer, a cell phone, and split fold-down rear seatbacks. But both cars are very well equipped as they come, and this should offset the expected price increase.
In the short test drive laid out for us in the Taunus hills outside Frankfurt, we found the new C-class cars to be extremely quiet and particularly resistant to wind noise. They steer with great accuracy, but we found the diesel-powered C270 (with more weight on the front wheels) to have better feel through the wheel than models with lighter powertrains. All the cars demonstrated remarkable roadgoing poise and surprisingly high levels of grip, and the C320, in particular, felt as torquey as some V-8s. We think the new cars ought to do extremely well in the marketplace and are now keenly looking forward to whatever AMG will do to further embellish this latest, greatest C-class.