Several miles up the Route de Crete, a thousand or so feet above the Baie de Cassis, hardly a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean coast of Southern France, my grip tightens. Pressing my right foot a bit harder, tapping into third, I tuck into a series of lazy chicanes along the famous route. Here, as the warm glow of the afternoon sun shimmers through the panorama roof and the breaking of distant waves blends with the exhaust burble, an epiphany happens: this is a C-Class ($38,000+), and I’m having fun.
If you’ll allow a few generalizations, ten years ago the average buyer of a Mercedes-Benz C-Class was someone finally able to afford a Mercedes-Benz. The C-Class being America’s lowest priced Benz, this is what he had to pick from. The E-Class (or a coupe) would have to wait for the Director of Something title. Elsewhere on the spectrum, Cs occupied the garages of blue hairs and housewives plus the masochist tuners graduating from their Acuras. But regardless of the buyer, the C-Class always felt like the bronze. Either you eeked into it or your bought it just because it had a star on the hood and was available in silver.
Mercedes wasn’t afraid to remind you of that. Modest materials, insulting driving dynamics (AMG models notwithstanding) and torpid design amounted to a subpar experience. I say this with experience too — my automotive history includes a four-year stint with one. This was the Mercedes you just knew fastidious German engineers worked on then ratcheted down from 100 to 75. Appropriately, a C.
Elsewhere on the motor mile there were upwardly mobile buyers driving into the BMW dealership to purchase a 3-Series. This was a car that drove like an accomplishment, unlike the C-Class (with a few bright exceptions, like the 2010 C63 AMG). For the most part, anyone seeking a driving experience was better served by other Germans. But then a few years ago, some important folks at Mercedes declared that the C-Class’s status quo of failure could go to hell.
The result is what I’m piling the miles on across French A-Roads. Turning off the charm and getting down to brass tacks (Sport+ mode, stereo off, and driving actively) I’m looking at my speed on the heads-up display (130 kph), slapping myself into fourth gear (of seven) and aggressively changing lanes to get a sense of just how well this full dynamic air-suspension — a segment first — is coping. This particular model has 329 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque churning out of a twin-turbo six-cylinder engine surrounded by a design and interior that says “you’ve arrived” instead of “okay, sure”.
The new C-Class is an arrival of the entry-level luxury sedan par excellence, always promised by Mercedes-Benz, but never before given.
In the model I drove, a beautiful pale blue with a two-tone cream and navy leather, wide swaths of zebrano wood and knurled aluminum accents, a sonically exquisite 13-speaker Burmester sound system, capacitive touch-pad and tactile controls, and active drive assist, I couldn’t help but feel that it all worked. There was “passion but also intelligence” in the experience being delivered.
None of this is serendipitous product making. As Gorden Wagener, head of Mercedes-Benz design and the man responsible for the relentless parade of excellent Benzes — you can blame him entirely for the smashing S-Class coupe — told me during a late evening chat, “My focus was to bring what we already did well, traditional luxury, and turn it into modern luxury. My predecessors tried to do that, and with this one, we finally have.”
The C-Class will arrive in America later this year in a C300 (two-stage turbo inline-four, 241 horsepower, 272 lb-ft torque) and a C400 variant (twin-turbo V6, 329 horsepower, 354 lb-ft torque), followed in 2015 by a C250 Bluetec Diesel. It’s squarely a mid-sized car that’s grown up enough to leave room for the equally exciting GLA, CLA (which we recently drove) and B-Class. For Mercedes-Benz, the new C-Class is an arrival of the entry-level luxury sedan par excellence, always promised, but never given.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the C-Class’s new competition is actually the current E-Series (MacBook Air or MacBook Pro?), so I posed the question to Wagener. “Sure, we can cannibalize ourselves”, he said, “but I don’t think that’s the case. With the new C-class, what you’re going to see is competition paralyzed by what we’ve done, and that’s who we’ll cannibalize.” The C-Class has finally arrived.