I think it would pushing it a bit to feel sorry for Mercedes-Benz.
It makes all those loopy AMG and Black Series models featuring more testosterone, rage and animal desire than the locker room on the women’s tennis tour, and yet it still struggles to shake off the image that the only passion its buyers share is for a really good book.
There’s nothing wrong with having buyers who’s first flush of youth has long since swirled down the U-bend, but to be a premium brand today, rather than a luxury one, you need sexy, youthful thrustiness and innovation.
Luxury is aged, crusty, made of mahogany and exclusive while premium is pricey but desirable, no matter how many you sell.
Just think of the number of iPods or swirly Paul Smith clothes around. High volume is not an impediment to success as a modern premium brand.
And that’s where BMW and Audi have been very clever, with models such as the A4 and 3 Series selling in huge numbers without harming their brands.
The products are perfectly judged for the younger market that wants prestige inclusivity rather than luxurious exclusivity, and that means high volume is not so likely to hugely harm residuals – flying in the face of the perceived industry lore.
But a couple of events have coincided that might irrefutably put Mercedes-Benz in this very clever little club.
The first is the launch of this more purposeful C-Class.
The second is named Lewis Hamilton.
The C200 CDI Sport certainly looks the part, with a long, lean bonnet, grated grille and standard 17-inch AMG alloys. It is altogether sharper, meaner and more angular than the old one.
Even the three-pointed star has been blingingly enlarged on the Sport model. The type of buyer who chooses this car will want to show it off to the world.
And as young Lewis circumnavigates the globe trailing brilliant driving, race wins, millions of pounds and star quality in his wake, that three-pointed star is looking like the badge to have. Youthful, modern, techy and successful.
Inside, it’s thankfully more spacious than the cramped last version, while quality has improved, too.
The cabin follows the angular looks of the outside: sharp creases and angles in the dash, door panels and transmission tunnel are almost retro in design – like trusty dusty Mercs of old – and convey the sense of permanence and solidity that cars such as the 190E evoked.
It’s a very subtle psychological ploy to evoke those traditional Mercedes-Benz strengths some felt had been lost in the last decade or so.
This car comes with the 2.2-litre diesel detuned to 136bhp, hence the C200 badging, rather than the C220 which comes with 170bhp, but there is still enough refined performance available.
It handles well, striking a good balance between feeling sporty, especially as the suspension feels fairly firm – helped no doubt by the big wheels and low profile tyres – although it is more at home as a fast cruiser than being thrown around.
But overall, this is a very good car. Right image, right looks, right performance. Mercedes-Benz is sexy again.
- Looks great
- Improved quality
- Competitive costs
- Best-handling C ever
- BMW fuel economy
- High-ish tax bill
Three rivals to consider
- Audi A4 2.0 TDI TDV S line
- BMW 318d M Sport
- Lexus IS220d Sport
Most striking is just how cheap the Audi is compared to the rest, but it is it soon to be replaced. For those who don’t want the latest thing, the A4 looks a good deal, but this market is all about status and latest, which gives the new Mercedes-Benz and BMW the edge.
Emissions and tax rates
The emissions from the Lexus are almost prohibitively high. The
BMW’s advantage is negated by the tax bands starting at 140g/km. Both the Audi and Mercedes-Benz share the mid-ground, costing a 40% taxpayer £163 and £205 a month in benefit-in-kind tax respectively.
The three German brands are very evenly matched when it comes to service, maintenance and repair, although of course BMW does offer its Service Inclusive package to fleets running more than 25 vehicles. The Lexus is expensive, even for this usually expensive company. Wide, costly rubber is the main cause.
The BMW is in a different league in fuel economy, thanks to Efficient-Dynamics. With the Lexus especially poor in the uprated 170bhp Sport version at 38.2mpg, it costs nearly £3,000 more in fuel over 60,000 miles than the 143bhp 318d. That’s a lot to pay for an extra 27bhp.
Audi’s RVs have been getting healthy and sensible management of used volume has benefited the A4. The others are closely matched, due to the C200 CDI being the newest, the IS220d being the lowest volume seller and the 318d’s fuel economy making it a strong used proposition.
The Lexus cannot cut it on costs. When your vehicle is £2,000 more expensive than a Mercedes-Benz to run you know you’ve got an expensive vehicle. The Audi started with a front-end advantage which carried it through, but the C200 CDI is close to the BMW in cost terms.
First to go is the Lexus: it’s simply way too expensive. The Audi looks a very good bet and is still a strong contender even in the last moments of its life, but this sector is about appearance, and it will look an old car in three months’ time. Which leaves the 318d and C220 CDI. The new C-Class is a superb car in almost all areas, but the 318d’s combination of M Sport pack, brilliant fuel economy, superb handling and low tax make it our choice.
Winner: BMW 318d M Sport