THIS may sound like stating the bloomin’ obvious, but the all-new C-Class is vitally important to Mercedes-Benz.
The Stuttgart marque was the only one of the German prestige brand trio not to record a rise in sales in the UK fleet market last year.
Although the three-pointed star was only 1% down in 2006, this figure is in stark contrast to BMW and Audi which grew fleet sales by 10% and 20% respectively. Mercedes-Benz sold 31,000 cars in fleet last year, while Audi sold 45,000 and BMW 56,000.
It is in the premium upper-medium sector where the majority of this growth is coming – so much so that the BMW 3 Series was the ninth best-selling car in fleet in 2006 and accounted for 24,000 of the model’s 40,000 total sales. Impressive stuff, especially when you consider that the firm still maintains strong residuals despite selling in ever-increasing numbers.
That’s not to say the old C-Class was unappealing to fleets – 56% of last year’s sales were to the corporate market, but the problem is that Mercedes-Benz only sold 17,370 of them in total.
While the firm won’t commit to any volume predictions for the new C-Class, due on sale in June, it’s fair to say that selling around 9,000 a year in fleet won’t be acceptable anymore.
And there’s every sign that this new C-Class will be far more successful than the old one. There’s a whole new look to begin with, featuring a more muscular stance, aggressive look and design cues such as the flared wheelarches from its S-Class big brother. The interior’s all new too, with a dashboard that is improved in look and quality.
But the most significant change to the C-Class’s DNA is under the skin, with a renewed focus on making it good to drive – something which the 3 Series has excelled at for a very long time.
It debuts Mercedes-Benz’s new Agility Control system – a cover-all term for enhanced dynamics which will appear in future new models. It includes the suspension system by offering variable damping, the steering which is more direct and offers greater feedback, and the transmission which has shorter shifts and a more sporty feel.
Also included as standard is the Pre-Safe accident mitigation system which primes the car if it detects an accident to lessen occupant injuries, and the Neck-Pro active headrests.
But it is the driving dynamics which Mercedes-Benz is really pushing, and there’s even a subtly different looking Sport model to hammer the message home. Unlike the rest of Europe which continues with the Classic, Elegance and Avantgarde trim levels, UK models come in SE, Elegance and Sport. SE will be the volume seller, and therefore of most interest to the fleet market, while Elegance adds more luxury to appeal to private buyers.
Sport versions (as in the pictures on this page) feature a more prominent three-pointed star built into the front grille and some subtle, yet effective, body styling parts to boost the car’s on-road presence.
There is a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic gearboxes, plus a wide range of more powerful engines – the supercharged C180 and C200 Kompressors, the C230, C280 and C350 V6s, and three turbodiesels – the four-cylinder C200 and C220 CDIs, and the V6 C320 CDI. Prices range from £22,965 to £35,565.
Behind the wheel
First things first – the new C-Class is not the drivers’ car that the BMW 3 Series is. Instead, it a more comfort-orientated car – motorway cruising is far more this model’s forte than back road thrills.
That said, it handles far better than the previous version and is now closer to its key rival than ever before. However, the C-Class is peerless when it comes to devouring miles. The suspension gives an exceptionally supple ride, soaking up bumps and holes in the road surface with barely a murmur.
The steering is also excellent. It has very direct action meaning that tight hairpin turns can be completed with just one armful of lock.
Both models available to test, the 3.5-litre V6 petrol and the 3-litre V6 turbo diesel, were fitted with the 7G-tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox which offers exceptionally smooth shifts.
Even more impressive, though, is the level of noise suppression, with wind roar and the engine kept to a muted level no matter what speed you are travelling at. It all adds up to make the C-Class a supremely relaxed and comfortable car.
The engines help too. Refined, easy revving and, in the diesel’s case, with plenty of mid-range power, they make travel effortless.
The 3 Series remains the driver’s choice, but for anyone else the C-Class should be their port of call.
WHILE it is still more expensive than its rivals, the new C-Class has the looks, poise and badge appeal to make it a real success in the fleet market.
With a wide choice of engines, and the differentiated Sport trim, it might just be the car to finally move the C-Class out of the 3 Series’ shadow.
|Model:||C180K||C200K||C230||C280||C350||C200 CDI||C220 CDI||C320 CDI|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||154/5,200||181/5,500||201/6,100||228/6,000||268/6,000||134/3,800||168/3,800||221/3,800|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||170/2,500||184/2,800||181/2,900||221/2,500||258/2,400||199/1,600||295/2,000||376/1,600|
|Max speed (mph):||138||149||149||155||155||133||142||155|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||36.2||35.8||29.4||30.1||29.1||46.3||46.3||39.2|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||187||188||N/A||225||232||160||160||199|
|On sale:||June||(C320 CDI – summer, C200 CDI/C180K/C230 – autumn)|