Aspirational brands such as the three major German premium manufacturers Audi, BMW and Mercedes trade heavily on creating desirability, and part of that allure is founded by hyperbolic luxury and high-performance models, far out of the reach of most customers.
But it’s at the more affordable end of the spectrum where most budgets fit.
In the case of Mercedes-Benz, its most popular model in 2017 – the C-Class – is on offer at the top of the pack with a convertible roof, powered by a powerful turbocharged V8 engine, wearing an AMG badge and a hefty $181,000 price tag.
Read next: 2018 Mercedes-Benz C200 review
But while many Merc fans drool over the flagship C63 S Cabriolet, it’s the $63,400 C200 sedan at the entry point of the C-Class range that is more realistically going to end up on the driveway.
So, is the most affordable way into the popular C-Class club a forgettable Spartan gesture to entice you into the showroom where you’ll more likely buy a mid-range variant, or a bargain option well worth considering?
Priced from $63,400 before on-road costs, the most affordable way into the C-Class is on the expensive side when compared to its arch rival equivalents. Audi’s A4 1.4 TFSI kicks off from $56,100, while BMW’s entry-level 318i costs $57,300.
It stands out less if the selection pool is broadened to include the $60,500 Jaguar XE 20t Prestige and if you want a feature-packed Euro sedan then you should certainly check out the fizzy Volkswagen Arteon which starts at $65,490.
Like its closest German rivals, the C-Class underwent an engine downsize for the latest generation entry variant, which has chopped fuel consumption and therefore running costs. Mercedes claims the C200 will use on average 6.4 litres of fuel per 100km, which until recently was the sort of frugality only achieved by diesel engines in the segment.
Read next: 2019 Mercedes-AMG C43 coupe review
On face value, the entry C200 looks like a pretty reasonable way into the broadly respected and acclaimed C-Class, but it’s definitely worth inspecting what isn’t included as much as what you do get as part of the deal.
Notable inclusions however, are the drivetrain which features a sophisticated nine-speed automatic transmission and 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine, which might be diminutive but behaves like a bigger engine thanks to a turbo and mild-hybrid electric motor.
There’s also a fully digital instrument cluster, beautiful ambient lighting throughout the synthetic leather upholstered cabin, which is hard to (if not impossible) to tell from real cow hide. A central 10.3-inch information and entertainment system screen for accessing the navigation (and paired smartphones) is also part of the deal.
However, our car had been liberally enhanced with more than $12,000 of options. The $1769 Comand package adds more technology in the form of top-spec Burmester sound system, more sophisticated navigation, high-resolution screen, internet connectivity and more driver assistance systems such as traffic sign recognition.
A Vision package is pricey at $4846 and brings an expansive panoramic glass sunroof, 360-degree camera for easier manoeuvring, while LED headlights and a head-up display are welcome inclusions for the cash.
For $2846, the AMG Line pack is well worth the cash and takes the very standard looking C200 up several notches in the premium stakes. 19-inch alloy wheels, cross-drilled front brake discs and AMG body styling transform the exterior, while a sporty steering wheel, sports seats, smart black wood trims and more imitation leather for the dash completes an otherwise fairly plain cabin. The kit also adds functional AMG touches including sports suspension and tyre pressure monitoring.
In addition to the AMG suspension, our car also had Dynamic Body Control for $1077, the Seat Comfort pack adds electric front seat adjustment and heating along with memory for the seats and door mirrors ($692).
A Selenite Grey Metallic paint caps off the extras, which is pleasant, but its $1154 asking price seems steep for a fairly standard-looking tone.
Bottom line: $75,784.
Officially, the C-Class is in the mid-sized sedan segment, which means it can happily accommodate four occupants such as a family or four adults as long as there isn’t a massive amount of luggage coming along for the ride too. Passengers in the back seats get 69cm of leg room and 94cm of headroom.
The boot can accommodate 455 litres of luggage but that can be expanded into the second row of seating with 60:40 split folding seats.
Overall dimensions measure 4.9 metres long, 1.8 metres wide and 1.4 metres tall.
It might lack some of the luxury features often associated with the Mercedes brand, but the C200 certainly doesn’t go light on safety features for which the German car maker is also well known.
Nine airbags are scattered about the cabin for looking after occupants if the worst happens, along with seatbelt tensioners and an active bonnet which can reduce the severity of a pedestrian collision.
For avoiding collisions and accidents though, the C200 is packed with safety gear including autonomous emergency braking with collision warning, blind spot warning, traffic sign recognition and driver fatigue monitoring technology.
The C200 really excels for comfort and, despite its smaller size, offers comfort levels of a vehicle several segments above it.
Admittedly the unenhanced version might not score so highly without the upgraded seats and suspension fitted to our car, but even so, the C200 is a car we always looked forward to spending time in, regardless of the journey type or duration.
The second row will accommodate adults, but using the third middle seat is perhaps asking a bit too much for longer trips, and the lack of rear-seat equipment like USB sockets might have the kids complaining when compared with a large SUV for example.
Cabin noise and vibration levels are excellent when cruising at freeway speeds and among the best in the class with just a whisper of wind and road roar to remind you of the speed. There’s also minimal jolts sent through to the cabin from imperfections in the surface.
Considering our car had the optional bigger wheels and skinny ‘run flat’ tyres, which can harm ride quality, the C200 performs admirably for cosseting occupants.
ON THE ROAD
The C200 is safe, comfortable and looks good, but the C-Class also pertains to be a driver’s car – even in this variant far beneath the undisputed AMG performance heroes.
With the handful of enhancements from the options list, our customised C200 is as rewarding to throw through a few corners as it is to pilot on freeways.
There’s a slight fussiness to the rear suspension however, and we found the traction control intervening over even small road imperfections and with only light acceleration. Perhaps the less sporty suspension offers a little more compliance and road contact. On smoother surfaces though, the traction is excellent.
Steering feels light and fast in the hands but without lacking too much feel, and the nose turns into corners with surprising obedience. Wide Continental tyres provide lots of confidence-inspiring grip and the chassis has an instantly noticeable rear-drive character without feeling intimidating.
Up front, the C200 may only have 1.5 litres to play with and its 135kW may sound lacklustre on paper, but Mercedes’ proprietary EQ electrification technology lends a helping hand when you need to get somewhere fast.
The result is an engine that feels no smaller than the 2.0-litre of the previous generation. Off the mark acceleration was a little more delayed than we were expecting given the instant nature of electric motors, but this was mostly attributable to transmission lag. Switching the driving mode into a sportier setting helps this.
Generally speaking, the nine-speed transmission is silky and fast acting. With very close gear ratios, the transmission allows the engine to be kept in the most efficient or powerful ranges depending on your driving style.
Instead of a separate starter motor, the electric drive also restarts the petrol engine and we particularly like the almost undetectable whirr as it fires up the power from a standstill in traffic.
Once up and running the turbo petrol is surprisingly capable and feels faster to 100km/h than the claimed 7.7 seconds.
All in all, the C200 doesn’t feel like a budget option to drive. It has an excellent seating position for the driver, is a hoot to chuck around when you want to have fun, but then whisks you where you really need to be effortlessly.
For the Mercedes loyalist on a budget, the C200 is certainly a viable option offering bags of badge cache and typical Mercedes quality, even if the out-of-the-box version lacks the luxury you might be expecting.
But our test car demonstrates that a bigger budget can quickly upgrade a pedestrian variant into something more satisfying and memorable. The question is, is it worth it?
If you consider the more generously equipped C300 starts at $71,400 – less than the as-tested price of our car – the bigger engine, more standard features and improved performance might make a lot more sense than going to town in the options catalogue.
The C200, however, is not simply a folly designed to lure customers into the showroom where they will decide a higher-spec car is more suitable.
Its diminutive but surprising engine is very efficient, but not at the cost of all usable performance, and it still feels like a Mercedes, from the styling through to the bonnet badge.
While our car had been treated to a bumper upgrade from the extras catalogue adding another 19 percent of the starting price, with a little spending restraint, the C200 can be desirable without busting the budget.
For our cash, the AMG Line kit is an absolute must, avoid the expensive paints and stick with the no-cost colours and you can put a handsome C-Class on your drive that you’ll always look forward to hopping in as much as you do staring at it.