First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-class

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.

What's changed
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.

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