Long viewed as the definitive luxury brand — wearing one of the most recognizable logos the world over — Mercedes-Benz has toiled overtime to keep the shine on its reputation.
However, one glaring sore point has been its inability to produce a small car that could give the archrival BMW 3-series sedan some competition.
Until 2008. That’s when Mercedes reworked its best-selling C-Class model to give it a sporting chance.
The new C-Class arrived as a four-door sedan; the five-door wagon was dropped, due to poor North American sales.
Seventy per cent of the unibody shell incorporated high-strength steels, which allowed engineers to mitigate weight gain.
The rear-drive chassis benefited from a 2-cm longer wheelbase and a broader track for improved high-speed stability. Weight distribution improved to 52 per cent at the front tires and 48 at the rear, by mounting the engine lower and farther back.
The suspension was carried over — control arms at the front and a multilink arrangement at the rear — but with revised geometry, subframes and bushings. Combined with a new steering rack that transmitted more road information, the C felt more athletic with excellent body control.
Sport models — identified by a giant three-pointed star affixed to the grille — rode lower by 15 mm and featured stiffer springs and shocks.
Inside, the longer wheelbase yielded more rear-seat room, while the front pair of thrones earned raves. Mercedes updated its COMAND control interface, which remained easier to use than BMW’s dreaded iDrive. The navigation/infotainment screen collapsed neatly into the dash top when switched off.
Most models featured the automaker’s MB-Tex synthetic leather upholstery, which won some fans, but detractors, too.
“Front seat covering is starting to peel,” observed one owner online. Generally, MB-Tex is lauded for its superior wear characteristics compared to genuine leather.
Buyers could choose between two V6s: a DOHC 3.0 L, good for 228 hp, and a DOHC 3.5 L, making 268 hp. Underpaid and overtaxed Canadians got an exclusive entry-level C230 model with a 201-hp DOHC 2.5 L V6.
A six-speed manual transmission was available on the C230 and C300, while every other model got MB’s excellent seven-speed autobox; 4Matic all-wheel drive was a popular option.
Midway through 2008, Mercedes released the long-awaited C63 AMG. The performance-oriented sedan came loaded with a 6.2-L V8 cranking out 451 hp to the rear tires.
Significant updates didn’t arrive until 2012, when the C350’s V6 got a big bump in horsepower (to 302), while a new turbocharged 1.8-L four-cylinder boosted the C250. All models received additional standard equipment, tweaked front-end styling and a revised interior. A two-door coupe returned to the lineup.
ON THE ROAD
Despite the best of intentions, the C350 proved to be a middling sports sedan. A 2008 C350 achieved 96 km/h in 6.0 seconds and ran the quarter mile in 14.6 seconds. Grip was underwhelming at 0.82 g, while braking from 112 km/h required 52 metres of asphalt — a decent performance.
However, the ride quality was above reproach and the handling was responsive and buttoned down, like a BMW. A few owners noted the automatic transmission didn’t always snap to attention, described as a perceptible driveline lag.
Speed demons had no quibbles with the C63, which could sprint to highway velocity in an improbable, but verifiable, 3.9 seconds. Consider the BMW M3’s clock cleaned.
WHAT OWNERS SAY
Seasoned Mercedes buyers applauded the redesigned C-Class for its bold styling, suave road manners, tomb-like quiet and big trunk. It might be Mercedes’ entry-level sedan, but it no longer required buyers to go wanting.
Along with the upscale image came an uptick in reliability. The previous C-Class had been bedeviled by electrical glitches, but the new generation is considerably improved. J.D. Power and Associates now ranks the nameplate among the top five brands in its annual dependability study.
Among the most common complaints by owners is a faulty wiring harness that shorts out the tail lamps (in small numbers), along with a troublesome moonroof mechanism, erratic-shifting automatics (addressed with a software update) and leaking 4Matic transfer cases. The blower motor is known to fail and the air conditioner can leak on occasion, requiring a recharge.
Regular maintenance is pricey and the cars demand premium fuel exclusively, but that’s the toll to drive an envy-inducing icon.
We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Lincoln MKS, Hyundai Santa Fe and Acura TSX. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
2008-’12 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
What’s Best: Wide range of engines, refinement galore, even myopic neighbours can see the M-B star.
What’s Worst: No clutch with best motors, limited paint palette, lesser models too slow.
Typical GTA prices: 2008: $22,000, 2012: $37,000
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