They offer a combination of low running costs, good residual values and tax friendliness that is biting huge chunks into the upper-medium sector below.
Audi and BMW have had cars in this area for a while and Jaguar entered in the summer with its super smooth X-type 2.0D. Previously, Mercedes-Benz had started its C-class line up with the C220, which nominally means 2.2-litres, but with emissions-related company car tax herding drivers into the lowest tax bands possible, it has added a C200 CDI to the line-up.
It's worth first pointing out that what you read is not always what you get here.
Although badged C200, the engine is in fact 2,148 cc – exactly the same as the C220 CDI. However, there is less power and torque, at 122bhp and 199lb-ft as opposed to 143bhp and 232lb-ft, so what you are getting is effectively a detuned version for lower CO2 emissions and better fuel economy.
For the manual version tested here, that means 156g/km of CO2 – as opposed to 170g/km for the C220 – and a benefit-in-kind tax bracket of 18%, as it is not yet Euro IV-compliant. That will start rising from 2004/2005 as the bands tighten though.
The question is whether neutering the engine a little will have a negative effect on the driving experience. As this version is derived from the existing C220, there is no great leap in refinement, such has been seen with the Jaguar X-type or Honda Accord, and it is a little grumbly at most speeds with some vibration and noise, but at least it's not harsh.
It is not particularly quick from getaway either, but I didn't find the car frustratingly slow. In fact, this size of engine proves more than adequate if you are doing long distance motorway work. It may take a while to reach a cruising speed, but is relaxed when it gets there. And if you need to increase pace or come up against a steep hill, there is more than enough in reserve.
The car on test made Bambi look geriatric, with less than 200 miles on the clock, but it already felt well run-in. Interestingly, it was returning excellent fuel economy figures. I did about 800 mostly motorway miles and it managed mid-forties mpg most of the time.
There are other aspects of its performance that are less impressive though. Interior space is no better than average for its class, with elbow room for the driver limited, and legroom for rear passengers is pretty poor.
The inclusion of cheap materials not usually expected of Mercedes-Benz has been a previous moan from C-class drivers, but this one felt trim and built to a high standard.
On a slightly eclectic note, the model we had came fitted with the £410 Comfort pack, which has electric folding mirrors and rain-sensing wipers. Automatic headlights are already standard. I think automatic headlights are a waste of time on all cars – they seem to have a mind of their own and in twilight I get paranoid about whether they are on or off.
Although this has no basis in scientific fact, I reckon Mercedes-Benz's rain-sensing wipers are the best. I know manufacturers share components, but in this country constantly varying showers can send the things schizophrenic, leaving you peering through a water-soaked windscreen, waiting for the next swipe, or going manic when there is only light spitting. The Mercedes wipers applied the right rate all the time and are a real boon.
Mercedes-Benz C200 CDI Elegance
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £23,670
CO2 emissions (g/km): 156
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 18%
Graduated VED rate: £135
Insurance group: 13
Combined mpg: 46.3
CAP Monitor residual value: £9,900/42%
Depreciation (20.17 pence per mile x 60,000): £13,302
Maintenance (3.62 pence per mile x 60,000): £2,172
Fuel (8.08 pence per mile x 60,000): £4,808
Wholelife cost (33.87 pence per mile x 60,000): £20,322
Typical contract hire rate: £475
Three rivals to consider
WE are only comparing the cream of the premium sector in this contest. The Mercedes-Benz in Elegance trim is the most expensive on P11d and is nearly £2,000 more expensive than the Audi A4 in Sport trim. This means you could throw in a few options to bring the Audi up to the C-class's level on price. The Jaguar looks good value when compared with the C200 and the BMW, fresh from borrowing and tweaking Ford's TDCi engine for the X-type.
THE figures here might show the Mercedes-Benz in second place, but they disguise the fact that BMW currently has a special offer of free servicing on diesel 3-series models over five years/60,000 miles, which would give the 3-series a significant advantage. Ignoring the special offer, the Jaguar takes top spot in the comparison, working out £72 cheaper than the Audi A4 over three years/60,000 miles and £498 cheaper than the C-class. Without free servicing the 320d would be the most expensive.
A CLOSE contest in fuel costs as manufacturers strive to hit or exceed the 50mpg mark. However, the C200 CDI fails to hit 50mpg by the largest margin, costing £4,848 for diesel over 60,000 miles. The BMW just misses out on 50mpg and costs £4,680, while the Jaguar and Audi are a cigarette paper apart on £4,614 and £4,608 respectively. Obviously, leaden-footed drivers are likely to incur higher costs than this.
A CLEAR victory for the Audi A4 over the Mercedes-Benz, but bear in mind the task is made easier by the Audi's P11d price advantage. It means the A4 1.9 TDI would be £714 cheaper than the C200 CDI over three years/60,000 miles, with the Merc as the best of the rest in this contest based on CAP Monitor's predicted residual value figures. Historically the C-class has held its value slightly better than the 3-series, while the Jaguar also nips in ahead of the BMW by virtue of its lower front-end price.
ADDING up all the figures drives home the Audi's advantage, with the Mercedes-Benz coming third behind the Jaguar. It would lose out to the BMW too, taking into account its free servicing package, which some market analysts estimate could save a fleet about £1,200 per vehicle compared with the SMR figure listed for the 320d. While Mercedes-Benz needed an entry-level C-class diesel, it hasn't done enough to make it the class leader on cost.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
THE BMW 320d has recently become Euro IV compliant, meaning that a company car driver will not be subject to the 3% diesel supplement on company car tax and thus qualifying for the lowest benefit-in-kind tax banding. It is the only car of the four that meets the strict emissions regulations at the moment. The difference between the 3-series and the C-class models selected here is about £300 a year for a 40% tax-payer, which is not to be sniffed at.
BMW (Euro IV) 153g/km/15%
Without wishing to sit on the fence too much, any of these cars would provide an excellent ownership proposition. The Jaguar is the most refined, the BMW is the most sporty, the Mercedes-Benz has the class and the Audi is the most stylish. If I had to jump down off the fence, the Audi would win it for me. It has low running costs and if the disparity in the P11d prices could be evened up with the addition of an optional extra such as leather seats, that would clinch it for the A4.