Mercedes-Benz offers smaller cars in Europe and elsewhere—and probably will soon in North America as federal CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) mandates ramp up relentlessly down the road—but the compact C-Class remains its “entry-level” line here for now. “It’s the gateway to our brand,” says Bernie Glaser, product manager for Mercedes-Benz USA. “It attracts new customers, has the highest conquest rate and is our major volume driver.”
For starters, 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class gets extensive upgrades, a new interior and a choice of engines ranging from M-B’s first U.S.-market four-cylinder in nearly a decade to a muscular 457-hp 6.2-liter V-8 in high-performance C63 AMG models. The new C250 sedan’s 1.8-liter four is direct-injected and turbocharged to a healthy 201 horses, while the mid-range C350 sedan boasts a 302-hp direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6. The previously base 228-hp 3.0-liter V-6 is available only in a 300C 4MATIC all-wheel drive sedan.
But the biggest 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class news is the line’s new sport coupes—the first ever offered in North America. Even more than the sport-model sedans, which account for roughly 90 percent of U.S. C-Class sales, these are aggressively styled with bold AMG performance graphics, and they will make M-B’s C-Class line more competitive with rival BMW’s compact 3 Series (which offers sedan, coupe, convertible and even wagon body styles) and Audi’s A4 sedan and A5 coupe.
All have aluminum interior trim, sport front bucket seats and split folding rear buckets, and all but the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG (with its MCT transmission) drive their rear wheels through a new seven-speed automatic.
In addition to standard active head restraints and the Attention Assist anti-drowsiness feature, available Lane Keeping Assist gives a rumble-strip vibration in the steering wheel if the car wanders out of its lane without a turn signal (above 37 mph) and Blind Spot Assist gives both visual and audible warnings when a turn signal is activated with a vehicle in a blind spot either behind or alongside. Airbags number no fewer than nine in the sedans and 11 in the coupes.
We sampled all three flavors of 2012 C-Class coupes, mostly on twisty two-lanes, and came away grinning broadly. Even the C250’s 1.8-liter turbo four gave spirited response under most conditions, at least when lightly loaded, and the car’s handling, steering and braking were Teutonic tight. There was ample power for passing, though with some turbo lag, and the engine’s wide-open-throttle tone was a throaty growl.
The C350’s V-6 ups the power ante by about 50 percent, while the C63 AMG delivers truly exhilarating performance with a brawny V-8 engine sound. We did not get to try a 30-hp-stronger Development Package C63 AMG, but who really needs that when the regular 451-horse version rockets from rest to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds? Standard Agility Control automatically chooses between soft and stiff shock absorbers depending on conditions, the spatial relationship between the turn signal and cruise control stalks has been improved to prevent confusing one with the other (a long-running Mercedes gripe), and we loved the big, clear instruments and the just-right-size sport steering wheel. Among our few complaints: the rear seat is tight (so are the BMW’s and Audi’s), and M-B’s multi-function control still can require too many steps to move from one operation to another.