C-Class is here. Finally. On first acquaintance in Europe, we praised everything from its quality to a starting price of $60, 900 and rating it an early contender for Car of the Year. After our first local drive, it's a shortening favourite.
After 250km of very mixed motoring, from inner-city Melbourne tram tracks to a stretch of muddy forest road, there is barely anything to fault. It's a five-star car for me, a very rare honour.
The new C-Class gets better fuel economy than a Toyota Camry, costs the same as a fully loaded Chrysler 300, is about to outsell the Mazda6, has more standard safety than cars that cost more than $150, 000, and is available as a miserly hybrid.
A reversing camera is standard, it will brake automatically in an emergency — earning a 15 per cent discount from some insurers — and it has wipe-down vinyl seats that are family-friendly.
Yes, it's a Mercedes-Benz, and that must go against it. We mark hard because we expect the world's oldest car maker to do good work and because we know there is a bias against the brand.
But the world has turned from the time when only super-rich people could afford to park a three-pointed star in the driveway. These days, thanks to starting prices as low as $35, 600 — the same as a Holden Commodore — there are more Mercedes in Middle Australia than ever before and people are shopping the star against a VW Golf or top-end Ford Falcon.
It still busts most budgets despite that relatively affordable bottom line, and it's easy to romp past $80, 000 for a C250 with extras, but it's a lot of car for the cash. It drives like a much costlier car and you could happily live with the no frills C200. For a very long time.
The C-Class starting price is up by $1000, a rare rise in a time of red-pen pricing A basic petrol C200 starts at $60, 900, with the flagship C300 BlueTEC Hybrid at $74, 900 for deliveries next year. In the middle ground, the petrol C250 starts at $68, 900 and the cheapest diesel, the C200 BluteTEC, from $62, 400.
What's significant is that all five of the C-Class sedans are priced below the luxury car tax threshold — although the belter V8-powered C63 AMG will bust that barrier next year — and Mercedes-Benz Australia claims a $9000 improvement in standard equipment.
The list now runs to power seats, LED lights, 18-inch alloys, auto braking and satnav. To give some pricing perspective, a basic BMW 320 costs $60, 500 and a Chrysler 300C Luxury starts at $51, 000.
Most of the good stuff in the compact C-Class comes from the S-Class flagship, from the automatic safety braking to electric window switches that don't feel remotely cheap. It's a car that's loaded with safety stuff but also benefits from a new generation of engines with stop-start and turbocharging.
In the C200, performance is almost a match for the outgoing C250 yet its claimed fuel economy is 6.0L/100km (I saw 5.7L on my preview drive). It uses old-school rear-wheel drive for refinement and driving enjoyment, with a seven-speed automatic gearbox.
The new body is bigger but nearly half of the panels are made from aluminium, which cuts weight by up to 40kg. The hybrid in the C-Class is a diesel job, claiming 4.0L.
The body follows Benz's latest styling direction, which is more aggressive than the outgoing car, but the interior has been modernised without losing its effectiveness. There's a large touch screen — 7 inches to start, 8.4 with an infotainment upgrade — and old-school dials with an optional head-up display. Paddle-shifters are standard.