Fleet News

Mercedes-Benz C-class



##mercc.jpg --Right##I KNEW my father was old when he bought his first Mercedes. He'd been slowing down for a while, but confirmation of his advanced years came in the shape of a seven-year-old 190E automatic in which he trundles around at about 45mph - you've probably been sat behind him.

He bought it for the same sound principles that cost-conscious fleet operators (and Parisien taxi drivers) buy Mercedes. They're built like tanks, don't go wrong, don't cost much to maintain and hold their value well.

These solid fleet virtues have stood Mercedes in good stead for the last decade or so, but with the chasing pack catching up fast and downward pressure on front end prices impacting on residuals, the boys at Benz have had to up their ante.

Unveiled earlier this year, the new C-class, with its distinctive headlights and voluptuous lines was hailed in some quarters as a mini S-class. Gone was the 'hewn from granite' slab-sidedness of its predecessor, to be replaced by the sensuous symmetry of a coupe clone.

There's no doubt that in the looks department, the newcomer is a vast improvement over previous incarnations of what was, until the arrival of the A-class, Merc's entry level motor. But in the hotly contested company car parc, beauty is far more than skin deep. Thrusting young reps with large expense accounts and egos to match want performance and handling to inspire and insist on plenty of in-car toys to keep them amused while stuck in traffic. If a glance at the options list tells them something as commonplace as air con is going to push a car above their monthly leasing allowance, they'll plump for the fully loaded Far Eastern import Tarquin from marketing has just ordered.

The challenge Mercedes has set for itself is to appeal to the hallowed thirty-something age bracket while retaining the loyalty of the many devotees of the three-pointed star.

In the flesh, the new C-class is undeniably easy on the eye.To suggest its performance pretensions, it sports a slightly more purposeful posture without screaming 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough'. Under the bonnet, a choice of three diesel and four petrol engines deliver between 129bhp and 218bhp - all but one offering improved performance over its predecessor.

We drove the new supercharged 2.0 Kompressor and 2.2 CDI turbodiesel on a variety of roads in Portugal and found them both wonderfully quiet and refined. The Kompressor needs to be worked hard to extract the performance its 163bhp suggests, but the diesel was superb, and one suspects for all-round ability, its 2.7 litre bigger brother could be the pick of the bunch.

Despite improved performance, fuel economy improves virtually across the board and the smaller engined models also boast excellent CO2 figures. The Kompressor and entry level C180 emit 222g/km, while the C220 CDI churns out just 163 g/km. The now familiar trim levels of Classic, Elegance and Avantgarde will be available, with Esprit and Sport deleted to simplify matters.

A new six-speed manual gearbox will be standard across the range, when it goes on sale in September and Mercedes claims it is much lighter and slicker than the clunk-click linkages of old. We were unable to verify this on an 80-mile appraisal in a brace of autos, but noticed fantastic ride quality and cultured damping. Whilst not really having the space to cut loose, a twisty mountain pass allowed us to establish that initial gentle understeer gave way to easily controlled oversteer, suggesting that the new C-class will indeed appeal to more enthusiastic drivers.

The test cars were built in Bremen, but right hand drive production will switch to Mercedes' new South African manufacturing facility early in 2001. Much speculation surrounds whether the famed Benz build quality can be replicated overseas, but Mercedes management insist that quality control will be just as rigorous. If I was being picky, I'd say the interior finish, while on a par with the previous C-class - is surpassed by Audi's attention to detail and possibly Volkswagen's new standards - exemplified in the Passat and Golf.

Still, when you factor in standard air conditioning, brake assist, electronic stability program, multi-function steering wheel, electric seats, six-speed transmission, cruise control and four airbags ACROSS THE RANGE and then discover that prices, though still to be announced, are likely to be in line with the old model and the new C-class starts to look like real value for money.

Mercedes sold 62,368 cars in the UK last year - around a third of which were the old C-class. In its first full year of sale in Britain, the manufacturer wants to hit 20,000 sales of the new car while increasing overall sales to 70,000, so the marketing chaps face another challenge in making sure there are enough loving homes for the increased production - or face eroding Mercedes' famous residual values.

Recognising that a significant proportion of new Mercedes go to company car drivers and small businesses, new general manager of corporate sales Nick Ratcliffe has recruited a nine-strong team to develop corporate business - particularly in the contract hire sector.

'The growth we have achieved to date has not been based on forcing cars into market places that don't want them,' said Ratcliffe. 'Demand for this car is going to be strong and will continue to be strong for several years so residual values will remain strong.

'This car is about reaching out from our heartlands and attracting new customers, but we aren't going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It's a more dynamic car, but it has to offer traditional Mercedes Benz values and low costs of ownership, which means good RVs.'

To this end, Mercedes is embarking on its biggest ever programme of ride and drives and will make more demonstrators available than ever before.

'We want to get closer to our customers - particularly in the contract hire sector and build relationships throughout the supply chain and we have put in more resources at head office and in our dealerships to enhance our service to corporate customers.'

In these uncertain times in the car industry, Mercedes seems to have jettisoned the slight air of arrogance bred of years of building some of the best cars in the world. The cars are still excellent and probably more desirable than ever, but the big difference fleet operators may notice is a new hunger to do business.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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