When the Mercedes-Benz 190E was launched back in 1982, many pundits described the car as a ‘Golf-fighter’, pitching it as Stuttgart’s first foray into the affordable small car mainstream. In truth, the 190E was never really that small, or that inexpensive.
And over the past four decades successive generations of the so-called baby Benz, rebadged the C-Class with the launch of the W202 in 1993, have become bigger and pricier.
At first glance, the 2021 C-Class emphatically proves the point. Codenamed W206, this new C-Class is longer and wider, with a longer wheelbase than the iconic W124 E-Class launched in 1984.
And don’t expect much change from $70,000 for the entry-level C200 sedan when the car arrives in Australia. That’s around four grand more than a W124 300E cost when it went on sale here in 1985.
But those numbers don’t quite tell the full story. Back in the day you had to work 174 weeks to earn enough to get behind the wheel of a 300E. On today’s average weekly wage, you’ll probably have the readies for a new C200 in about a quarter the time.
And for a car that in terms of its features and technology looks to be more like a baby S-Class than an expensive alternative to a Volkswagen, the new C-Class appears a compelling proposition.
Every exterior panel is new, but the design is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, with forms, surfaces and graphics echoing those found in the all-new S-Class and the facelifted E-Class.
For example, the crisp line that starts on the front quarter panel and extends rearwards just under the side windows is similar to that on the S-Class, while the frowning grille graphic and twin power bugles on the bonnet are shared with the E-Class.
At the rear are tail-lights whose design combines elements of both E-Class and S-Class. And peeking out from under the bumper are the rectangular exhaust outlets that you find on pretty much every non-AMG Mercedes these days. Wheels range in size from 17-inch to 19-inch.
It’s inside where the new C-Class most obviously lays claim to being a baby S-Class. As in the S-Class, the screen is celebrated, and not amid the drab austerity you find in a Tesla.
A simple, rectangular digital instrument panel measuring 26cm across the diagonal stands proud of a dash that rolls forward to a padded section under the windshield and enhances the sense of spaciousness for the front seat passengers.
The portrait format 24.1cm central touchscreen flies over the dash, the silver edging on the curved panel integrating it with the centre console to make it look as if it has taken off from somewhere near your elbow.
Both screens are available in larger sizes – 31.2cm and 30.2cm respectively – as an option.
In the S-Class the console under the central touchscreen simply headbutts the lower dash; in the C-Class the console blends into the lower dash in a single seamless arc, its outer edges then curving left and right and running in an unbroken line to each corner of the cabin.
The whole lot is crowned with an array of glittery, ambiently lit 'squircular' vents nestled in to the padded upper of the dash. It’s a tour de force, giving the C-Class cabin an elegantly sumptuous ambience rivalling that of the S-Class.
The new C-Class rolls on a wheelbase 25mm longer than that of the W205, and much of that has gone into improving the rear seat legroom. The rear passenger H-point has also been dropped 10mm, improving headroom.
Like the new S-Class, the W206 C-Class is equipped with the second generation of the MBUX user interface. Both the instrument panel and touchscreen can be configured to display a variety of information in a variety of ways.
A fingerprint scanner at the lower edge of the central screen enables users to log in to MBUX, recalling personal settings in the system and protecting data such as favourites, most recent destinations, behaviour-based predictions, business calendar entries and emails. The system also allows for over-the-air updates.
The C-Class doesn’t get the trick 3D instrument panel nor the augmented reality head-up display that are available as options on the S-Class. But the optional head-up display in the C-Class projects a 23cm by 8cm virtual image the driver perceives as floating 4.5 metres ahead in space.
And the optional augmented video nav system overlays virtual objects like traffic signs, directional arrows, lane change recommendations and house numbers on a camera’s-eye view of the road ahead displayed in the central screen.
The new C-Class rides on MRA2, an evolution of the Mercedes Rear-Wheel Drive Architecture that debuted with the W205 model in 2014, which has been heavily reworked to package a larger battery for the plug-in hybrid models.
In addition to the 25mm increase in wheelbase, at 4751mm the sedan and wagon (below) models are 65mm and 49mm longer overall respectively than their predecessors, and width has increased 10mm. One dimension has shrunk, though.
The new sedan’s roofline is 9mm lower than that of the current car and the wagon is 7mm lower.
Up front is a revised multi-link front suspension that follows the design of the set-up on the new S-Class and which C-Class chief engineer Christian Früh says improves steering response and on-centre feel.
And, as in the new S-Class, the C-Class will be available with optional four-wheel steering. But while the S-Class system will steer the rear wheels up to 10 degrees or 4.5 degrees, depending on wheel and tyre size, the rear wheels on the C-Class only pivot to a maximum of 2.5 degrees.
At speeds above 60km/h the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the fronts to enhance stability; below 60km/h the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to improve agility.
Why just 2.5 degrees? The rear-steer system in the S-Class is all about making the big sedan more manoeuvrable, but in the smaller C-Class it’s all about handling.
“For driving dynamics, 2.5 degrees of rear steering is really enough,” says Früh, who headed Mercedes-Benz’s chassis systems and driver assistance systems departments before being made C-Class chief engineer in 2009.
With same-phase steering above 60km/h ensuring a more stable rear end, Früh’s engineers were able to tighten the W206’s steering ratio to improve the car’s responsiveness at speed. The quicker steering also makes it more agile around town.
“The car feels completely different to the W205,” says Früh. “I was surprised how different it feels.”
Though diesel is in the doghouse in the aftermath of the various emissions scandals – for example, from an almost 50 percent share of the UK market in 2016, oilburners slumped to less than 20 percent share last year – the new C-Class is offered with two versions of the OM264 M 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel.
In C220d spec the engine makes 147kW at 4200rpm and 440Nm at 1800-2800rpm, while in C300d trim those outputs are bumped to 195kW at 4200rpm and 550Nm at 1800-2200rpm.
The big news is the OM264 M has a 48V integrated starter generator that can add an extra 15kW via the EQ Boost system, and the engine will shut down to allow the car to coast, further improving fuel efficiency.
The new C300 and C300 4Matic will be powered by the M254 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo that made its debut last year in the facelifted E-Class. With the same bore diameter and bore centres, the M254 is basically the 3.0-litre M256 inline six with two cylinders cut off.
It also gets the 48V integrated starter generator set-up, with its 15kW EQ Boost and coasting functions. The engine makes 190kW at 5800rpm and 400Nm at 2000-3200rpm, enough to deliver a claimed 0-100km/h acceleration time of 6.0 seconds.
Though the name suggests otherwise, the new C200 and C200 4Matic models are powered by the 1.5-litre M264 engine that was fitted to some European-spec versions of the W205 C200 in 2018.
This engine also has a 48V integrated starter generator system, offering EQ Boost of 15kW and the coasting function.
It pumps out 150kW at 5800-6100rpm and 300Nm at 1800-4000rpm. The 0-100km/h takes 7.3sec, or 7.1sec with the benefit of 4Matic all-wheel drive. The M264 is also used in a C180 version of the W206, its outputs knocked back to 125kW and 250Nm.
Most interesting of the new C-Class powertrains, though, is the plug-in hybrid. The internal combustion part of the powertrain will initially be the M254 2.0-litre petrol engine, with the OM264 M diesel being made available later.
The electric part comprises a 95kW/440Nm e-motor that is sandwiched between the engine and the nine-speed automatic transmission and is powered by a 25.4kWh battery mounted at the rear of the car. Designed and developed in-house, the 96-cell battery delivers a range of 100km on pure electric power, and it can be topped up in just 30 minutes when plugged into a 55kW charger.
A 100km EV range – more than enough to allow most urban commutes to be accomplished without burning a drop of dinosaur juice – has long been regarded as the optimum metric for a plug-in hybrid, and packaging a battery that would deliver that range drove the design of the whole car.
The new battery is narrower and thinner than the 13.5kWh unit in the W205 plug-in hybrid, but is twice the length, which is why the new C-Class is 30mm longer aft of the rear axle, with a completely different internal structure.
The carefully integrated slimline battery means there is no intrusion in the boot of the sedan hybrid, and the load area of the wagon version is 63mm longer. The battery weighs 218kg, 90kg more than the W205 hybrid’s battery, and all of it is over the rear axle.
Both sedan and wagon hybrids therefore get standard air suspension at the rear to better control camber change when loaded.
Despite the extra weight, the hybrid C-Class models should be pretty perky to drive, the e-motor’s 95kW augmenting the 190kW of the petrol model and the 147kW of the diesel, and its 440Nm of torque available instantly.
One other bit of good news: The location of the battery means the hybrids have perfect 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, Früh says.
Although everyone seems to want an SUV these days, the C-Class has been a best-seller for the past decade. More than 2.5 million of the W205 model alone have been sold since the car’s launch in 2014, with China being its single largest market since 2016.
The W206 – larger, with a more luxurious interior, a more dynamic chassis and offering a plug-in hybrid powertrain that’s the perfect halfway house for those not quite ready to make the leap to a pure EV – looks set to follow in its wheel tracks.
Stand by for the All-Terrain C-Class Wagon
In Europe and the US, the Mercedes E-Class All-Terrain is the thinking person’s alternative to an SUV, offering the dynamics and comfort of an all-wheel-drive E-Class wagon with height adjustable suspension that gives up to 156mm of ground clearance at speeds up to 32km/h.
No, you wouldn’t want to take it bush, but then you wouldn’t want to take most modern SUVs bush, either. The C-Class All-Terrain offers about the same capability, with better handling and fuel efficiency.
Chief engineer Christian Früh is a former member of the German national ski team, and is on record as saying his favourite variant of the new C-Class is the 4Matic wagon because it’s handy in the snow.
Was he not tempted to build a C-Class All Terrain?
“I’ve been thinking about one for three generations,” he admits.
“But you have to convince sales people and finance people.”
He pauses, then laughs: “This time I was successful. Hopefully you’ll drive it at the end of this year.”
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Mercedes-Benz C200 specifications
Engine 1496cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max Power 150kW @ 5800-6100rpm (plus 15kW electric boost)
Max Torque 300Nm @ 1800-4000rpm (plus 200Nm electric boost)
Transmission 9-speed automatic
0-100km/h 7.3sec (estimated)
Economy 6.6L/100km (claimed)
Price $70,000 (estimated)
On sale Q4 2021