REVIEW DATE: 25 Feb 2008
The diesel sector is currently hotly contested and possibly a little congested. Mercedes' entry level C-Class will do well to match its competitors in this category. Jon Elliott examines the C200 CDI
Looks aren't everything we're told, but in the case of the Mercedes C-Class, you can choose the looks you prefer. But is this C200 CDI version any good to drive? We look underneath the skin to see what it's like, and how it measures up to the other diesel powered saloons which Mercedes, and more importantly, BMW have to offer.
The diesel sector is now hotly contested within the industry. All the major manufacturers are striving for a slice of the cake; so much so, that Mercedes will offer three different diesel engines initially in this third generation C-Class. Mercedes expect these diesel engine variants to sell like hot cakes to company car owners racking up telephone number mileages, while they hope to stay on the right side of the green issues and the associated tax issues.
Mercedes reckon that they have a trump card with the C-Class, something that the likes of the Audi A4 and BMW 3 series cannot match; a choice of finishes - to appeal to either end of the spectrum of Mercedes buyers. By offering a Sport or the more familiar Elegance pack, the three pointed star can now offer something to both father and son alike. On the face of it, the C-Class has just stepped into the diesel premier league.
The C200 CDI features the least powerful engine available in the C-Class. Just 138bhp is available here, and it's evident immediately as you give the accelerator a firm prod towards the carpet. Pulling away is as smooth as silk, but the engine is a bit too noisy, even by modern diesel standards, and there is simply no surge of power or toque. 0-60 figures in such cars matter little, but to put it into perspective, this car is over 2 seconds slower to the benchmark than the equivalent BMW. However, what the C-Class lacks in pace it gains elsewhere; the ride is truly excellent, especially in Elegance form where its suspension is fabulously forgiving, offering an impressive level of comfort as it takes the bumps in its stride.
As you might expect, in the Sport variant, the ride suffers a little, though the car still glides effortlessly across the majority of road surfaces and if you're not bothered by the lack of pace, the C200 CDI offers effortless cruising and is a pleasure to drive. Sat in the driver's seat, you instantly feel at home in the C-Class. The interior is genuinely a nice place to be, the seats immeasurably comfortable, and the cabin feels roomy; as if chiselled from a single lump of granite. The C-Class offers a superb level of refinement no matter which guise you choose it in. Add to this the countless driver settings available and you begin to appreciate the thoughtfulness behind Mercedes' attempts to produce something that allows the owner to tailor elements of the drive to their own tastes and preferences.
"Truly an impressive car, whatever outfit you choose to dress it in."
The C-Class offers the driver a pleasing alternative to its competitors. Recent attempts have fallen short of their rivals but here you can see the rewards of Mercedes' persistent endeavours to produce something more acceptable to would-be buyers. Leg room is good in the front and rear, comfort excellent and the looks of the car now set it apart from its rivals; this a great looking car, certainly more aesthetically pleasing than it's main rival, the 3 series BMW. Add to this the C-Class trump card of two totally differing styling packs and they're probably onto a winner with this car.
The cabin is thoughtfully put together and the driving position excellent, although some may argue for a little more room in the driver's foot-well. The foot operated hand-brake lives on here, not helping the lack of width below the wheel. Build quality is what you would expect from the C-Class. Doors close with a reassuring thud and solidity of the finishes is vastly improved from the previous model and certainly on a par with its current rivals. The feel of quality continues throughout, to the quality of the seats, the fascia finishes, onto the storage spaces and the all important cup holders. It's a struggle to find fault. There's nothing intrusive, just good simple design allied to consideration for driver needs and comfort.
The fact the C-Class can be ordered in such differing body styles is a huge trump card over its main rival the 3 series BMW. Let's be honest, the 3 series looks are at the very least challenging. In Sport guise, the C-Class looks muscle-bound; the AGM body kit and 17 inch alloys combine to set the car off beautifully. It harbours back to the Mercedes Coupes of the early 80's whose road presence commanded respect all on its own. The Sport has a similar effect, even in a 4-door form. In Elegance spec, the car takes on a different persona, with its wooden door inserts and subtle black dials; this allows it to take plaudits from those customers who hanker for something with a little less show and a little more panache.
One area where Mercedes hasn't managed to break with tradition is the level of standard kit included. On a car costing more than £25,000, you would expect such things as Sat Nav and parking sensors to be getting towards standard spec on a small executive car: Sadly not in this case, although interestingly, Mercedes' policy mirrors that of BMW. There is though, a Bluetooth pack fitted as standard to the car, a useful tool for the business user, though not the sort of thing to pull a patriotic BMW owner from a 3 series.
The C200 CDI will appeal squarely at the company car purchaser with its combined mpg figure 43.5 and CO2 emissions measured at just 149g/km. This isn't class leading though, and it's here that the BMW 318d and 320d make a case for themselves with considerably better figures. The Mercedes though offers a lot of car for the money. Prices start at around £24,000 for the saloon with a premium of around £1,600 if you want an Estate. Trim-wise, there's a choice of SE, Elegance or Sport grades.
Mercedes are known to hold their value well so depreciation shouldn't be a worry. Having driven both the C200CDI and C220CDI, I would think the private buyer, unconcerned about the difference in emissions, is much more likely to purchase the C220CDI variant for its improved power and the dynamic differences this provides. The usual foolproof warranty is in place.
The Mercedes C200 CDI is truly an impressive car, whatever outfit you choose to dress it in. The engine may be a little underpowered, meaning this variant may be overlooked by those unwilling to entertain its lack of pace, but for many this car will be perfect. It soaks up the bumps and effortlessly consumes mile after mile of road with consummate ease. In comparison to its nearest rival, the BMW 320d, the C-Class offers a compelling alternative. It's certainly far better looking and the difference in the overall drive is near to negligible.
If you're looking for relaxed driving in fabulous surroundings this could well be the car for you: it's certainly worth an audition. The C200 CDI manages to serve up something missing elsewhere in the small executive category as Mercedes brings together quality, refinement and looks in the kind of package that other manufacturers still strive for.
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