If you're having your first taste of an all-new car - and an important one at that, like an all-new Mercedes C-Class - it's best to assess it in 'as near' to purest form as possible. And purest for PH usually means a powerful petrol, which sadly wasn't an option today. There are no full-blown AMG models just yet, and the next rung down the ladder - the C300 petrol - wasn't available as quickly as this C300d. However, the C300d is the most powerful ICE model at present, so it's quicker than the petrol and comes with the traditional German-executive theme of rear-wheel drive. If life is all about compromise, it doesn't seem like too much of one, then, especially as the weight penalty for the 300d over the petrol is a relatively modest 100kg. That's far more sensible than the C300e; the PHEV is the most powerful C-Class when you factor in its electric component (313hp combined) but the burden of its sizeable battery tips it over two tonnes (2,080kg). That kind of penalty is only going to muddy the waters when you're trying to get to grips with the dynamic package in the W206 age.
It's not like the C300d is a lightweight, either, but that's par for the course these days. At 1,775kg there are only a few kilos between it and the equivalent BMW 330d - although the BMW has a bit more power and the benefit of six cylinders. The C300d continues with the OM654 I4 motor, and with EQ mild hybrid power it has 265hp and a very healthy 406lb ft of torque, available between 1800-2200rpm. It carries on with essentially the same MRA platform that's been around since 2014 and underpinned the previous W205 C-Class, but it has evolved. As with the current S-Class, which sits on the same architecture - as will the forthcoming SL - the changes earn it the designation of MRA II.
And this C-Class clearly is playing the Mini-Me card next to the flagship Benz. The styling is, basically, S-Class after a 20 per cent reduction in the photocopier. Broadly speaking it works, although, when viewed side on, I can't help thinking that the front and rear valences are unnecessarily low, giving this AMG-Line-spec W206 a slightly heavy, sunken look. It's a clean design otherwise, which the drag coefficient of 0.24 pays homage to. Yes, that is the same as the previous model, but don't forget its replacement is longer (+107mm), wider (+13mm) and slightly taller (+4mm). Importantly, when it comes to passenger accommodation, which in the rear the W205 was short on, the wheelbase has grown, too (+25mm).
And speaking of the inside, this is also very S-Class-esque. While I cannot speak for everyone, I am pretty sure it's going to win many hearts in the fight for showroom appeal. Visually, it would seem to have the razmataz to knock the Audi A4 and even the latest 3 Series into a cocked hat, with ambient lighting that's an arrant spectacle at night plus the wow factor of its prominent, portrait-orientated 11.9-inch infotainment screen, running the latest MBUX software. On the other hand, more objectively, I can tell you there are issues.
For a start, the infotainment system is quite complex. Yes, it has natural voice to operate some functions but, in my time with the car, that managed to butt in uninvited when I was talking to my passenger. And when I did shout "Hey Mercedes" to try it out, the response I got was that of a politely inhibited teenager: "I'm afraid I cannot help you with that." As always, this is not the future, yet. And nor is the lack of buttons. I am sorry to sound like the proverbial broken record, but this form of 'progression' still confounds me. The sheer number of functions, and the time it takes to navigate them is almost a recipe for a driving without due care and attention charge. On the plus side, I will concede that the MBUX software is pretty slick so it's relatively straightforward to operate. The screen is also positioned thoughtfully to hand and the imagery is very high quality.
Sadly, the interior isn't. It feels like Mercedes is deliberately trying to push and push to see what it can get away with. The critique that Merc interiors are more style than substance is very much in evidence here because the seat-adjustment panel on the door flexes, along with the central heater vents. Also, some of the plastics are very chocolate-box for a £52k car. I speak of the lower parts, like the door bins, but also bits higher up that you're likely to touch often, such as the door card material behind the door handle. I still find this such a shame for a brand that used to be held in such high regard for quality.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. The seat has lots of adjustment and it's well cushioned, and the cabin seems a lot less claustrophobic than the W205's. So it feels a pleasant and airy place to be and it's roomy, too. I am six-foot-three and had no struggles in the front, and when I moved to the back seats, I could fit behind my seating position. That's pretty good and marks a definite improvement over its predecessor, and the A4 for that matter. I'd be surprised if it's much smaller in the rear than the 3 Series, although the C-Class's boot is 35-litres shy of its München nemesis. That doesn't stop it being a useful size and shape, though, and it comes with 40:20:40 seats as standard.
Right, on to the driving. The obvious starting point being the C300d's performance, which is all you will reasonably need. There's plenty of power at the 3,000-4,000rpm mark, but from anywhere much above idle all you're aware of is a surfeit of heavy-oil torque that carries you along with ease. This is matched well to the nine-speed gearbox that slips its way through ratios largely undetectably. The manual override isn't sports-car sharp, but it's responsive enough for an exec. Being a four cylinder it does grumble and lacks the sweetness of the 330d's six, but its noise sits in the background and isn't a major blight. My test drive was on a very wet day, and the spray whipping up within the C300d's wheel arches made gaining an understanding of the typical NVH at cruising speeds tricky. I can tell you it's not a raucous car at 70mph, but also feel confident that an A4 on sensible rubber will be quieter. And it'll ride better.
This AMG-Line Premium Plus comes with a 15mm drop in ride height although the standard selectable dampers help take the edge off things in Comfort. It's a soft and supple car over gentler undulations but the problem is this leads to some slack on uneven motorways that sways you about. Then, every time you hit something sharp, there's a thump through the body - yours and the cars. Still, as we said earlier, it's an MRA platform: that's what they all do, sir.
The handling, on the other hand, is tidy. It's no 3 Series, yet clearly displays more alacrity than an A4. I like the way its steers with a light touch that belies the C-Class's heft, while building enough resistance through a turn to give you a sense of the suspension and tyres loading up. It makes the C300d feel predictable, something that's boosted by sensible gearing off the straight-ahead. If you find the 3 Series' quick rack too hyper, this should be more to your liking. It helps the C300d flow and, in the wet, there's enough sensation through the wheel to describe its transition into understeer. As you'd expect from an exec, this is the predominant dynamic but the engine's torque is more than capable of switching that to oversteer in a gradual, sensible, but enjoyable manner. And it doesn't suffer from excessive lean, so I never felt the need to switch to the Sport setting when pressing on. For my money that setting makes the ride too firm, but it's possible that on a dry day with a lot more grip I could change my mind about that. The same could not be said of the brake pedal. This produces plenty of retardation, but gets pretty close to a third of the way to the floor before you feel that come in.
Ultimately, the latest C-Class is a good step forward from the W205, that's for sure. Neverthless, for a car that's so key to Daimler AG's bottom line and its standing with buyers, it still feels a little half-hearted and superficial in places. Especially because those places are, by and large, the same places that let the W205 down - notably interior quality and ride comfort. Dynamically, though, my experience on this wet December day does give me an inkling that it's a car with the power to entertain. And if that's the case with a C300d, think where we'll be with an AMG?
SPECFICIATION | MERCEDES-BENZ C300D AMG LINE PREMIUM PLUS
Engine: 1,993cc, four-cyl diesel, mild hybrid
Transmission: 9-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 265@4,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 406@1,800-2,200rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,775kg (DIN)
Price: £52,125 (£54,505 as tested)
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