REVIEW DATE: 25 Feb 2008
One car in two different variations, the Mercedes C220 CDI is a stunning return to form from Mercedes-Benz. Andy Enright reports
Going back to basics may have gotten John Major laughed out of office but it seems to be paying dividends for Mercedes-Benz. Ditching anything overcomplicated while concentrating on simple build quality and solid engineering, the latest C-Class is a class act. The mid range C220 CDI model represents a savvy compromise pick.
If you've seen the film 'Snatch', you're probably aware of the definition of a nemesis. Originally the goddess of divine retribution, the word entered the common vernacular as an entity that could not be bested or overcome, embodied in the case of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class by BMW's all-conquering 3 Series. As hard as Mercedes tried, BMW always seemed to pip it. The 3 Series was Ali to the C-Class' Smokin' Joe.
Mercedes has made a few mistakes in recent years but one massively admirable part of the corporate makeup is that it never stops trying. Some ideas are blind alleys, others progress the marque. Once in a while, there's a genuinely big step forward and the latest C-Class has moved the game on quite significantly. Enough to meet and beat the 3 Series? That's why we have a C220 CDI to find out.
As with most of the C-Class models, the badge on the back only gives a vague clue as to engine size. In this case the C220 CDI is a 2.1-litre turbodiesel that punches out a hearty 168bhp. To frame this figure in reference to its immediate rivals, Audi's A4 2.0-litre TDI manages a similar 168bhp, BMW's 320d a hefty 179bhp and Lexus' IS220d a hefty 175bhp. Where the BMW's was once the billboard engine in this sector, that mantle has been passed to Mercedes, the C220 CDI's powerplant being at once responsive, refined and serving up the most torque - the ingredient that makes these turbodiesel units feel so addictively muscular. It'll get to 60mph in 8.4 seconds and run onto 143mph, so it's agreeably brisk.
Mercedes makes great play of the C-Class' Agility Control package, a system that features smart dampers which adjust their characteristics depending on what sort of driving is going on. When cruising, these dampers reduce their damping force for a comfortable ride but when the car is driven dynamically, maximum damping force is instantly set, firming up ride and improving body control. There's no doubt that the motorway ride of the C-Class is superb, refinement is excellent and steering response is also very good. Drive the car harder and it steps up to the plate to an acceptable level although the chassis is still a few degrees off the class best, the weight in the nose starting to become apparent with gentle understeer. The Mercedes brakes are beyond reproach.
"If you're looking for a combination between economy, performance and relative affordability, the C220 CDI could be the model to have in this line-up."
There had been a trend in recent Mercedes models to festoon the fascias with more buttons than a John Lewis haberdashery department but the C220 CDI shows a very different design philosophy. There are still plenty of things to press but the controls are laid out in a far more logical manner rather than a massive bank of tiny buttons. The result is a very clean, driver-oriented look. Materials quality has improved massively over the previous generation model but perhaps the most interesting aspect about the design of the C-Class is that it does, in effect, offer two very distinct versions.
Go for the Elegance model and there's a very conservative look, with a traditional Mercedes grille and three-pointed star standing atop the bonnet. Specify the car in Sport trim and the car's front end looks very different with an aggressive underbumper assembly and the Mercedes badge incorporated into the grille in the style of the old SEC coupe. The C-Class is notably bigger than its predecessor, 55mm longer and 45mm wider, but in a welcome buck against current trends, the car has become lighter. Mercedes has also moved the engine down and back, improving the car's weight balance.
You don't have to travel into prehistory to find a time when Mercedes saloons were so sparsely equipped that mats and flaps were considered generous. Many didn't even have a radio. There still lingers a remnant of this paucity of gear. It's rather galling to buy a top of the line C220 CDI and then be expected to fork out extra for items such as parking sensors and satellite navigation which are fitted as standard to shopping hatches a third of its price. Of course, Mercedes will argue that this policy allows owners to specify the car exactly to their own individual tastes and that the money has been spent on the things that matter but it's worth remembering this when comparing the Mercedes sticker price to rivals.
Most customers will opt to pay more for the luxury-oriented Elegance model. This features black dials and eucalyptus wood inserts as standard. Top of the range buyers will land themselves a Sport variant which features aluminium trim elements that rather cheapen the look of the otherwise excellent fascia. A multifunction steering wheel, ESP stability control and a multitude of airbags are standard on all models.
The C-Class is a car that isn't as expensive to run as its rather dizzy list price would suggest. The key to keeping residual values in check is to not go berserk with the options but with so many almost must-have features reserved for the options list, this is tricky, and published three-year residual figures for the C220 CDI must, therefore, be taken with a rather large pinch of salt.
Fuel economy is one area where the C220 CDI excels and a combined figure of 58.9mpg is outstanding. Carbon dioxide emissions are also very low, the 127g/km figure being quite some achievement for a car with the level of performance.
Mercedes has worked hard to reduce minor crash costs, with four independently acting impact levels. The company even offers a service where your C-Class can be returned to Mercedes at the end of its life for environmentally-friendly disposal. I can't see that telephone number attracting too many calls though.
The Mercedes C220 CDI isn't one of the headliner cars in the C-Class range. In all likelihood, it'll be overlooked by many. Don't let that deflect you from the fact that if you're looking for a combination between economy, performance and relative affordability, it's the best of the bunch. Is it better than its nemesis, the BMW 320d though? That really depends on your agenda, so it's not a knockout victory. If you love the feel of arcing through a corner at the limit, the steering relaying every grain of the tarmac back and the throttle allowing for minute trims in line, buy the BMW. Otherwise buy the Mercedes C220 CDI. Most of the time it's the better car.
Above all, the C220 CDI is a mature car that never feels fogeyish. It's a car that credits its owner with some nous and knows how to have a bit of fun without imposing tiresome penalties for that capability. Job done.
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