The First “Baby Benz”
When Mercedes-Benz introduced its first small sedan back in 1982, the press immediately dubbed it the “Baby Benz.” The first U. S. press drive was from the old-money Homestead in West Virginia (perhaps to remind us all of its luxury bones), to the Indianapolis Speedway. The goal was to see which two-person team of reporters could achieve the highest fuel economy. Snore.
Brock Yates and I made our own game plan, with very different rules: First one to Indy wins. We put the hammer down and beat everyone else by hours, won the hastily created Friends of OPEC award, and we were lustily cheered by the German mechanics as we collected our prize. “Real men don’t give a flying (insert bad word here) about fuel economy, Lindamood!” Yates snorted. “Yeah!” I shouted.
Not an auspicious start to what has become the bread-and-butter car of the three-pointed star. That first “starter” Benz was dubbed the 190 and didn’t really get interesting until it got a high-performance 2.3-liter16-valve head and boy-racer bodywork to redeem itself. The 190 officially became the C-class in 1993, which was redone in 2000 and again in 2007. That fourth-generation has sold more than a million worldwide. Including the 190-badged years, the C-class has racked up over 8.5 million sales for Mercedes-Benz.
We’re all a lot more sophisticated today. Well, I at least bring a lot more luggage along than I used to. But in my defense, we would be hitting the motor show in Geneva, where cold, wind, and rain were predicted, then flying to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, known for it’s near-80 temps this time of year to test the new C-class. It takes a village worth of luggage to support the sophisticated me. On the other hand, one look at the 2012 C-class says volumes about its upscale metamorphosis from Baby to premium player in the crowded entry-luxury segment. And I can’t say enough about the size of the trunk.
This C-class is actually being billed as a facelift, but there are more than 2000 new parts, from the new a four-cylinder engine (returning to the U.S. after a long absence), to a new lightweight aluminum hood and five new safety systems. Its sleek exterior (with an incredible drag coefficient of 0.26) features a stronger face (the Sport version’s bigger three-pointed star mounted mid-grille is our favorite) and a cleaner profile, which move the C-class deeper visually and emotionally into the upscale heart of the M-B lineup. It’s an image enhanced by a much richer standard leather interior, a longer list of high-end options, and upgrades like new state-of-the-art telematics that allow cars equipped with the COMAND system to access the web. It can even alert you to ideal car pool lane entry and exit points.
Body styles and powertrains
You don’t pull big sales numbers without a lot of variants, and the new C-class will be coming to market as a sedan, a coupe, and a wagon — with AMG versions of all three — available for order right now in Europe. A convertible is most assuredly on the way. While the rest of the world gets to choose between some combination of three four-cylinder and two V-6 gas engines, or five inline fours and one V-6 diesels, M-B’s U.S. marketing team is keeping it simple for us. The C-class sedan will be available this August with a choice of three gasoline engines, all mated to the very fine seven-speed automatic transmission, which is a critical tool in the fuel economy war. The C300 4Matic has a carryover 228-hp 3.0-liter V-6 with 221 pounds-feet of torque. The C350 Sport has a much more robust 302-hp 3.5-liter V-6 from the E-class with 273 pounds-feet of torque. But it was the brand new turbocharged 201-hp 1.8-liter direct-injected inline four powering the entry-level C250 that had the attention of the press corps. It was all about the torque — a solid 229 pounds-feet, beating the 3.0-lter V-6’s. Well, it was torque, a very sophisticated turbocharger, and the weight advantage the smaller engine has over the bigger V-6s. All in, the C250 weighs 400 pounds less than the C300, and even beats the modern C350 by 300 pounds.
The appeal of the C250 was especially noticeable after a long day of driving on the sinuous and narrow mountain roads of Tenerife, which led from lush vegetation in the south into a harsh moonscape of lava spilling from the steep center of the island to its north coast. Roads are fairly well maintained, as befitting a place geared directly to a well-heeled tourist clientele, but the interior roads snake for miles along the edges of vast crevasses reminiscent of Kauai’s canyons, and you can see the canary-yellow paint of way-too-short stone blocks lining the road edge for miles in the distance, a cheerful reminder that nothing but a very long drop awaits you on the other side if you overcook a turn.
The V-6 in the C350 is a full 1.2 seconds faster from 0 to 60 mph than the C250, which feels great when you’re passing the tourist buses waddling uphill, and when you’re on the island’s fast ring road. But flinging along with those yellow rocks in your peripheral vision is a much more entertaining proposition in the C250. Its combined fuel economy is being touted at an estimated 24, a nice bonus over the C300’s 20mpg and the C350’s 21 mpg.
For you diesel fans, it’s coming. The late arrival of the C250 CDI is an interesting story. Production of the next-generation, NAFTA-model C-Class moves to Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 2013. That’s when you’ll get your diesel. As MBNA public relations chief Geoff Day points out, when you can still get double-digit fuel economy improvement with internal combustion gas engines, diesel just isn’t as critical. That could very easily change by 2013. Any bets on the price of gasoline in two years?
The four-wheel independent suspension (three-link, strut-type in front, multi-link rear) with stabilizer bars front and rear, is carryover. Adding the Dynamic Handling Package allows you to choose between comfort and a sporty setting with the push of a dash button, and a dial next to the gear selector will change shift points from economy to sport mode. If you live on Tenerife, it makes a big different on the ravaged interior roads.
Five new driver assistance systems based on state-of-the-art camera, radar, and sensor technology, make it into the C-class. Attention Assist to detect driver drowsiness is included. Adaptive High Beam Assist, Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, and Parktronic are available as options.
Timing and pricing
Because of its late summer arrival in the U.S., the new C-class will be badged as a 2012 model. Base price, if it follows the typical M-B pattern of launching a refreshed model at the same price as the outgoing car or at an “equipment-based, better value price,” should be in the low $30,000 range.
No word on AMG pricing, but we are assured that the C-class AMG models — launched in Europe with the more prosaic C-class models — will make it to America in August. The C63 AMG coupe, revealed to the press under strict photo embargo, will show its striking face at the upcoming New York Auto Show. Check back with automobilemag.com for the details.