The New Shape of Compacts
By Steve Schaefer
One of the issues that the German luxury car companies deal with in America is maintaining their exclusivity while still increasing sales. The guy who buys a 7 Series BMW or a Mercedes-Benz S Class doesn't really want to share the brand with some dude with a four-cylinder hatchback that's wearing the same distinctive emblem on its nose. So, the companies have been reticent to send over their more modest offerings.
That's why the C Class is the smallest Mercedes we've had on these shores, and still is--for now. The C-Class has been sold only as a four-door sedan in the U.S. for many years, since the cute little hatchback three-door was marketed here. You still see the durable hatchbacks on the road. There was a nifty wagon version available for a while, too.
Now, to expand the range a bit, there's a new C-Class coupe, and it is one handsome piece of work. It wears the latest face of the brand and has a dramatic shape that is not so much "cute" as it is slick and compact. It is not tiny-you take it seriously, and it elicited some nice compliments from passers-by. One guy in front of my local Starbucks said to me, "Cool ride, dude!" I told him I was "just playing with it" and he found that very amusing.
I spent a too-short week with a Mars Red example and it possessed that quality that keeps buyers coming back for more at the home of the three-pointed star. The folks at Mercedes-Benz seem to have figured out that their cars have to have a solid and well wrought quality inside and out to distinguish themselves from the Toyotas and Hondas of the world. A competitor may copy some of the look, but they can't get that feel.
The body design of the new C coupe is unmistakably Mercedes, with its distinctive logo emblazoned up front. The interior, where drivers spend their time, is especially striking. The surfaces are padded--but not too softly. The seats are firm and gripping. The burl walnut trim is from a real tree--as it should be in a car like this.
The entertainment system delivers a fine, rich sound, but I was unable to figure out how to pair my phone with Bluetooth without consulting the instructions. It's easier in lesser cars-but nobody ever accused Mercedes vehicles of being too simple to operate.
My tester was a C350, meaning it had a 3.5-liter V6 putting out 302 horsepower under the shapely hood. All of those horses ran through a seven-speed automatic, which mean no effort to shift it, but no manual available either--like you can get at BMW and Audi dealers (in some models). This new automatic uses a more advanced torque converter lock-up clutch that's designed to give better fuel mileage, more responsive driving, quieter operation and increased durability. Its Touch Shift program lets you select gears with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, even though you don't have a clutch to play with.
I averaged 21 miles per gallon over my test week. The EPA says 19 City, 28 Highway, 22 Average, so I was right in there. Not a super economy car, but hardly a gas guzzler either. The EPA rates it at 6 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas--mid pack.
An interesting standard feature, which I did not experience firsthand, is the ATTENTION ASSIST system. It alerts the driver to the first signs of drowsiness, a factor that's blamed for more than 100,000 accidents a year in the U.S.
The software receives signals from the steering sensor and monitors 70 different parameters that have proven to be strong contributors to fatigue and drowsiness. Between 50 and 112 mph, the system identifies what it determines to be erratic steering corrections that drivers typically make as they begin to get drowsy and triggers an audible warning. In addition, a "Time for a Rest?" message with a coffee cup icon appears in the instrument cluster (which you'll see if you eyes are open). If only it could provide the coffee as well.
You can opt for the 201-horsepower turbo 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder engine in the C250 and have much of the goodness of the C350, but for a whole lot less cash. My tester came to $50,835 when all was said and done and all the packages were added ($42,370 suggested retail). The C250 starts at $37,995 with shipping, which is what cars like this cost these days.
The C-Class Coupe is rated as a subcompact, so it has rear seats but it's not spacious back there. It's cozy--and makes you feel good--but it'll cost you. Many people believe it's worth it.