First Drive: 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class makes a move to stop serving so many masters, in an attempt to be the master of a single quality. Net result: Grey Poupon, anyone?

Up until recently, the words “luxury” and “small” just haven’t seemed to jive together for Americans. Perhaps that stems from a culture obsessed with supersizing everything, or perhaps the idea of spending premium coin on something so compact (short of a diamond) just hasn’t clicked. Even so, that trend has started to shift with haste, and the automakers haven’t hesitated to surf the small car wave.

This car, dubbed the W205, is larger than it has ever been before, but it’s also lighter, thanks to a hybrid steel-and-aluminum chassis.

A once slow-selling Audi A3 has become one of the most anticipated cars of the year, BMW has redesigned its compact 1 – I mean – 2 Series coupe and launched a front-wheel-drive ‘economical’ wagon. And Mercedes finally brought its smallest car stateside in the form of the CLA-Class sedan. That particular Benz has sold so well and with such high demand that some dealers have started a waitlist for customer orders.

With the debut of these new entry-level premium cars, those automakers now have the opportunity – or curse – to reimagine what their previous ‘cheapest’ cars will become.

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is the first to step into the ring.

Economy comfort to business class

As a frequent traveler, I’ve found myself with a handful of sky miles to my name, as well as the opportunity to sit in ‘economy comfort’ on nearly every trip. That means a couple inches of extra legroom, but little else.

For this particular vehicle launch, Mercedes asked that I hop on a plane from Atlanta to Paris, and Paris to Marseille, where we’d spend a few days experiencing the new C-Class in the south of France. The flights were booked, and I’d get the rare chance to sit in business class both ways.

It seems fitting, then, that the new C-Class gains a few extra inches in length, most of which are found in rear-seat legroom. This car, dubbed the W205, is larger than it has ever been before, but it’s also lighter, thanks to a hybrid steel-and-aluminum chassis. And, it’s still offered in Luxury and Sport trims, depending on which nose you’d prefer.

2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class interior drivers

On approach, the C-Class looks like a near twin to the all-new S-Class, from which it derives it head and taillights, beltline, and generally handsome looks. In lieu of the W204’s angular and boxy design, you’ll find soft lines, smooth curves, and a design profile that simply looks more feminine, in a sensual way, rather than a girly one.

Inside, Mercedes has dropped its previous “buttons, buttons everywhere” approach to dash design, and replaced it with large, wide expanses of real wood and metal trim, as well as leather on seats, dash and door panels. It is without question the most handsome interior on any car in its class today, and it rivals many machines that cost far more money. Simply put, the interior looks more like it belongs in a Bentley than it does in anything else, and that should have more expensive brands trembling in their boots (I’m talking to you, Maserati).

Simply put, the interior looks more like it belongs in a Bentley than it does in anything else.

Mercedes includes a few very upscale features and technologies in the car as well. The C-Class receives the same semi-autonomous driving system that debuted in the S-Class, meaning it can follow cars on the road, even in curves, without driver intervention. You need only remind the steering wheel that you’re still present every few seconds, but the car’s computers handle most of the heavy lifting. The collision avoidance system is now standard on every C-Class, which should help avoid low-speed collisions with slowing cars and jaywalking pedestrians.

And, there’s the Burmester audio system, which looks just as beautiful in the door panels as it sounds with the volume cranked. The only downside here would be with the new infotainment system, which is handsome, but not terribly intuitive.

Perhaps that comes with the loss of all of the extra buttons, but Mercedes COMAND has never been such a challenge to use, even with the inclusion of a new, very attractive track pad control. The good news there is that Mercedes partnered with Apple as one of the first brands to make use of CarPlay, so there’s a chance that you may be able to use iOS instead.

Cross your fingers.

300 or 400

Under the hood, Mercedes offers a variety of engine choices at a global level, but we’ll only receive two of those options at launch: the C300 and the C400.

The C300 is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, producing 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.

The C400 produces 329-hp and 354 lb-ft with its 3.0-liter turbo six. With time, we’ll also receive a diesel and AMG model stateside, and there’s a chance that we’ll get a hybrid and plug-in hybrid, too.

None of those cars has been announced for the US at this point, though. The air suspension, a first for the segment, can also be adjusted into Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ modes on all models.

Marseille, Cassis, Aix-en-Provence

The route planned by Mercedes offered us a mix of highway stretches, winding cliffside roads, and inner-city traffic.

The inner-city traffic proved about as frustrating as you’d expect, but the car’s Start/Stop system kept the engine from burning gas unnecessarily, and that gave me time to really appreciate the Burmester sound system, too. It’s brilliant.

On the highway, the C-Class shines its brightest.

While I was a little too nervous to put the safety systems to the test during rush hour, the pedestrian detection kicked in more than once, thanks to the occasional Frenchman stepping out into the street before he was given the light. It became a lesson in patience and keen observation for me, but the C-Class performed flawlessly.

We visited Cassis for lunch, where we drove the historic Routes des Crêtes, a single-lane road that winds around the cliffs of the Mediterranean. At this point, I switched the car’s drive mode all the way up to Sport+, where I found power delivery more than willing, but the suspension never quite inspired confidence.

It’s not that the new C-Class doesn’t handle well; it’s fine. However, it’s a 9 on the 1-to-Tourer scale, which translates to a general lack of suspension rigidity, even at its sharpest. With that in mind, I slowed my speed and chose to enjoy the scenery as I drove leisurely, rather than with gusto. If we’re lucky, we can try those same roads again when the C63 AMG model arrives.

2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class front angle

On the highway, the C-Class shines its brightest. It was here that I was able to really open the engine up at high speeds, switch the suspension to ‘comfort,’ and settle in for the long haul. The seats offer exceptional support and comfort, and I’d be hard-pressed not to recommend this as a commuter or road trip car. Plus, the experience of just being wrapped in leather, accented in wood, and booking it down the road in a Mercedes really does feel as fancy as it sounds.

A car apart

With the CLA filling the shoes of the affordable Mercedes option, the C-Class has grown into its own with more technology, luxury and creature comforts than ever before. With those strides, it has set itself apart from the competition; it’s nowhere near the same kind of car that you’ll find in a much sportier BMW 3 Series, and the Benz makes the Audi A4 feel downright old.

Instead, the 2015 C-Class takes full ownership of its luxury credentials, and it makes no excuses for the midsize executive sedan that it has become.

If you’re shopping for something silly and fun, you’ll want to look elsewhere. This car is not that. However, if your goal is to buy something with the maturity of a flagship sedan, but with a slightly smaller budget, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is likely the car for you.

Highs

  • Looks expensive from every angle
  • Unmatched luxury for the segment
  • Comfortable, serene ride
  • Handsome interior

Lows

  • Only semi-sporty … for now
  • Confusing infotainment system
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