2013 Mercedes C250- The Diet Coke Of Luxury Cars

CAM00498 Once upon a time, the cheapest and easiest ticket into the prestige of owning a Mercedes-Benz was by purchasing a C-Class.  Mercedes had always anticipated swaying young professionals into the Benz family with its “entry-level” sedans, coupes, and wagons that were introduced in 1994 as the replacements of the tired, old 190 Series.  As those youthful buyers became more successful, they would remain loyal to the brand and move upwards to an E-Class and eventually, an S-Class.  Or so Mercedes had always hoped.  Times are much different now post-recession, and with the release of the European B-Class based $29,990 2014 Mercedes CLA, the regular C-Class is no longer the most frugal Mercedes one can buy in the U.S.  However, many will argue that unlike the CLA, the C-Class remains a true Mercedes inside and out.  Plus with its longtime countryman rival, the BMW 3-Series, being recently redesigned, it was time to see if the C-Class was still worthy of displaying the German marque’s three-pointed star.

CAM00482When this generation C-Class debuted for 2008, it was one of the most thoroughly tested vehicles ever.  As an industry first, the development process involved the use of a “digital prototype”, which put a 2.1 terabyte digital replica of the car through a 15 million mile road course.  That allowed for intense durability and crash testing before the first physical prototype was ever built.  With intense competition, Mercedes did not want to leave anything to chance or overlook design flaws.  The manufacturer was determined to make the most of its resources and unlike the prior W203 generation, a wagon variant of the C-Class was not offered due to poor sales.

CAM00494Now six model years old, this iteration is soon being replaced by an all-new redesigned 2015 C-Class that debuted at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show.   However, a 2011 restyle of the C-Class has left the outgoing version still looking fresh and modern, and it has always been more appealing than the rounded W203, which came out during an era when Mercedes was still toying with its “spooked” headlight treatment.  This version has a CAM00500chiseled and athletic stance that tastefully incorporates a luxury presence.  The substantial front logo protruding from the immense two-bar grille proudly announces to all that this is indeed a Mercedes.  The headlights, redone in 2011 with an angular pinch toward the bold grille, are aggressive and add more character than the prior squarish, soulless contours of the outgoing look.  The CAM00503LED daytime running lamps incorporated in the bumper were also a recent addition and, not only make the car more visible, but also add an upscale flair that matches Audi’s love of jewelry.  Finally, the bottom grille mimics sports-inspired mesh, but is a convincing (from a distance at least) black, honeycomb plastic.  The flanks of the car gradually haunch upwards toward the back giving the entire vehicle a ready to pounce stance and beefy wheelwells that are filled with 17 CAM00497inch rubber make it appear well grounded.  The back of the car is tastefully simple, if not a little, discreet.  One reviewer stated that the swooped taillights have been echoed by the latest Hyundai Accent sedan; not something Mercedes would be proud to hear.  Overall, it’s a handsome car and your choice of color can quickly change its persona.  Our Magnetite Black version looked stately, serious, and forgettable, but the Mars Red really makes this car’s sporting intentions more obvious and help it stand out from a sea of drab grey and white luxury offerings.  All-in-all, I like the look better than the bizarre design language of the latest 3-Series , and it’s much more cohesive than some of the latest Elephant-man stylistic touches on the E-Class.  It could, subjectively, be Mercedes’ most graceful design and results in a ultra-slippery 0.27cd of aerodynamic drag.  Just ignore the “Just Married” messages on the windows.  Those do not come with every C-Class and were a customized job by my best friend and his sister on my most special of days.  Thank you David and Rachel!

CAM00536Step inside and you’ll find an interior that is consistent with the German marque’s longtime approach to ergonomics.  Anyone who has driven a Mercedes in the past 15 years will feel right at home in this C-Class.  However, anyone who has driven mainly American or Asian offerings (such as myself) will find themselves completely baffled initially.  With so many buttons displaying foreign and almost alien-like graphics, my first few drives involved a lot of CAM00560guesswork and (gasp!) referring to the owner’s manual for help on several occasions.  The overhead console, where I’m used to just a light switch residing, has no fewer than nine buttons, and the center stack, incorporating the radio and ventilation, has no less than 36 buttons!  Ergonomic overload!!!  The left side of the steering wheel is crammed with three CAM00539stalks, whereas most cars have one; one is for the wipers/blinkers, another controls the electronic tilt/telescoping wheel, and lastly, one is dedicated to the cruise control.  All of this seems overwhelming to the uninitiated.

But a funny thing happens over the course of driving the car, and it’s almost as though the Mercedes engineers anticipated it.  After some time behind the wheel, that mind-boggling array of buttons and knobs suddenly makes sense.  All of it becomes logical, and almost every surface seems like the details were sweated over it.  The overall look of the interior is very Germanic; serious, and all-business.  Aside from the tasteful brushed metal touches here and there, the dash is very mature in its drab, industrial gray and doesn’t show much personality.  But there’s nothing silly or gimmickyCAM00543 about the presentation either.  The centerpiece to the dash is the 5.8 inch high resolution digital display mounted above the air vents that is controlled by the Mercedes’ COMAND (cockpit management and data system) circular knob placed on the center console, much like BMW’s iDrive.  Initially using COMAND requires a steep learning curve, and like getting acquainted with Windows 8, involves throwing out everything you’ve ever known CAM00538about adjusting a stereo and starting from scratch.  It goes against man’s natural instinct not to touch the radio to change a station and use a dial mounted by your armrest instead.  At first, it took more concentration than it should’ve, but after a few hundred miles, I was a pro and had mastered complex setting adjustments without ever having to glance down.  Luckily for the technologically challenged of us outCAM00559 there, the “BACK” button is a life saver if we got ourselves trapped in an isolated corner of the COMAND’s crazy world of menus.  Sure, regular buttons are easier, but it does add a touch of exciting Star-Trek like gadgetry to have one sole knob to control everything without every having to lift a wrist.  Keep in mind that, for the traditionalists among us, most basic radio adjustments can be done by the old-fashioned buttons on the stereo and override COMAND.  However, I like a challenge, and used COMAND as much as humanly possible.

The cruise control switch, borrowed from many Mercedes models over the years, is a work of art in similpicity.  At first it seemed silly to have it hiding behind the left side of the steering wheel, but like the COMAND system, it’s logically within a finger’s reach at all times.  Flick it up to set a speed, push it away to cancel, and pull it toward you to resume.  A small flick up or down will change the speed in 1mph increments, and a larger flick will move it 5mph; perfect for slight changes in speed limits and for cruise control CAM00557fanatics, such as myself.  A screen as well as a very clever electronic marker on the speedometer showed what speed the car’s trajectory was set.  Finally, since we’re on the subject, the cruise control itself was as strict as a German soldier and never let the 3,400 lb. car stray more than a few mph’s from the desired speed, even on steep downhill slopes.  Impressive!

CAM00569In an age of digital displays and showiness, the C-Class’ traditional analog gauges were a refreshing touch on a luxury car.  The “floating needle” in the speedometer that opens up space for the information screen is a neat touch.  All of the needed info was easy to read at a glance and there was almost nothing distracting about it.  “Almost” applies in this case as Mercedes added their CAM00568Attention Assist system to the C-Class, along with most of its models, in 2012.  The system gauges how long the current trip has been, the driving conditions, and how involved the driver is (flat, straight roads vs. a twisty road for example).  If it senses that the driver could be getting tired or in need of a break, a loud audible buzzer and graphic of a coffee cup (German Kronung coffee perhaps?) will appear and remain on until acknowledged.  Any safety reminder is good, but this one does get a little annoying as it will occasionally chime every 30 minutes or so afterward.  In all fairness, it can be turned off if you don’t need to be reminded that you’re hungry, tired, or just plain grouchy.  The sea of menus and settings that can be done on the instrument panel through the buttons placed on the steering wheel are seemingly endless and there’s a lot of personalization someone can do to match their driving style or preferences.  Another neat touch are two trip computers for separate trips.

CAM00535The three-spoke steering wheel is nearly perfect in its execution and look.  Not only is it attractive, but the race-inspired flat-bottom adds a touch of sportiness and frees up some space for anyone long-legged.  The meaty grips are perfectly positioned at 10 and 2, the leather stitching is exquisitely executed, and the rim frames the gauges perfectly.  Thanks to the electronic tilt and telescope, finding a comfortable position is easy.   Due to large windows, a low beltline, and CAM00562thin roof pillars, visibility out of the C-Class is excellent.  The expansive view out from all directions harkens back to a time before rear cameras were necessary and there was minimal guesswork when parking.  The side mirrors are slightly on the small side, but one beloved longtime Mercedes trick is that the passenger side view mirror automatically points downward when the car is shifted to reverse.  It makes parallel parking curbside so much easier and also ensures that the car is parked between the lines if backing into a stall.

CAM00540It’s not all good news though.  The ventilation controls are headed by two large rotary knobs for the dual climate settings, but they, along with minuscule buttons, are mounted low in the center stack and require too much driver attention.  The small red markers on the knobs for the temperature setting are also difficult to see with just a glance.  For such a well thought out car, these seem like such minute, but CAM00534aggravating, oversights.  Storage space is also at a premium inside the C-Class; there’s a shallow, covered ashtray at the base of the center stack, a narrow storage area below the center armrest (also housing the USB and AUX), and some tiny door bins.  The rear door bins themselves are so small that they are rendered useless, and unlike the rest of the interior, the rear door panel itself is cloaked in a cheap plastic that wouldn’t be out of place in a Kia Rio.  One other penny-pinching touch is that the driver side sunvisor extends out to block the sun’s rays, yet asymmetrically,  the passenger side visor does not.

Noise within the cabin is mostly subdued.  There’s a hint of the engine’s note from faraway and it’s roar is hushed by an extensive use of sound deadening material.  Wind noise is only noticeable around the side mirrors, but road noise is apparent at high speeds.  It’s not overbearing, but it’s there.

CAM00537Overall comfort inside is dependent on how many passengers are onboard.  With solely two passengers, the C-Class feels fine and, as they say in real estate, a little cozy.  There’s enough headroom under the sunroof and legroom is acceptable in the front seats.  The console intrudes slightly into driver kneeroom, but not nearly to the extent of some of the latest Fords.  Initially, the driver seat felt supportive, but after a number of two hour driving sCAM00533tints, felt as comfortable as a park bench with flat seat cushions and minimal thigh support.  The back seat is not a hospitable place to be for larger folks on longer trips.  Although the plastic backing of the front seat is cutout for knees, leg room is still very cramped, and head room is lacking terribly for taller folks.  The seats themselves feel comfortable and rear passengers are treated to their own air vents and center armrest.  Front passengers will need to scoot forward for most corn-fed American-sized rear occupants, making the front seem even more claustrophobic.  My husband had a running joke that the “C” in C-Class stood for “cramped”.

CAM00531Trunk space is also up for debate.  With 12.4 cubic feet of usable space , the C-Class’ cargo volume is miniscule and out of proportion to the car’s dimensions.  Even the much smaller Chevrolet Sonic or Nissan Versa sedans easily trump the Mercedes’ carrying abilities, as does a similarly-sized 2014 Toyota Corolla (when did a compact car get so big?!  Let’s leave the debate for another blog…).  But to be fair, it must CAM00532be a German thing; as the competing Audi A4 matches the C-Class’ trunk size exactly, and the 3-Series is just slightly larger.  The cargo area is not very wide, wedged between the large wheelwells and above the rear-wheel drive mechanicals, and the shallow opening makes loading any large boxes awkward.  On a good note, the trunk lining is nicely finished as one would expect from a Mercedes, and the seats do fold down 60/40 (once a rarity among luxury brands) to reveal a flat floor deep into the cabin.  The height of the pass-through is skimpy, but long, thin items such as skis or a snowboard would fit nicely.  Under the cargo floor is a spare tire, complete with white gloves to prevent getting your hands dirty on the way to the symphony.  The little, thoughtful details do add up to a sense of exclusivity.

CAM00542One not-so-little detail is the 1.8 liter dual-overhead cam 4-cylinder engine housed under the elongated hood.  That may not sound impressive, but this standard engine comes with a turbocharger producing a healthy 201 horsepower and 229lb ft. of torque.  However, this engine doesn’t let you forget that it is turbo-charged, as “turbo-lag”, or the delayed reaction of the turbo boost kicking in, is prevalent.  From a standing stop, punch the accelerator and there’s a hesitation for about two seconds, almost as though the engine is still asleep and hit the “snooze” button.  Same goes for passing situations; from a steady speed, plant your foot to the throttle and there’s a postponed response for an intense second or two as the engine lugs.  However, once the turbo does kick in, things do heat up quickly and acceleration is sprightly.  In fact, it is downright fast.  We clocked the car at about 7 seconds to do a 0-60mph sprint, and it doesn’t take long, or much space, for the Mercedes to make it all the way to 90mph.  I figure that most drivers won’t notice the turbo-lag, as under normal driving conditions and with a lighter foot, it wasn’t as obvious and the car felt energetic in everyday driving.  The trick is to relax and feather the gas pedal.  Freeway onramps aren’t at all a problem with merging, and the Mercedes didn’t seem to notice the steep grades that we crossed in the Sierra Nevadas that would leave lesser cars howling in agony.  It should be noted that our C250 came with the base 1.8 liter, while the C300 and C350 come with more powerful variants of Mercedes’ non-turbo 3.5 liter v6 engines.  If the turbo lag does bother you, it may be wise to try one of them for size.

CAM00529Also standard with the C250 is a slick seven-speed automatic with a manumatic mode.  Shifts were extremely well-timed, smooth, and essentially undetectable.  There was no need to switch to the manual mode as the transmission was perfect in its execution. The transmission has an easy job, as the engine is so powerful that downshifts weren’t even needed on steep uphill sections.  A manual transmission is not offered on any trim, and to be honest, isn’t needed and would be out of place with the car’s nature.

CAM00526The four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson front struts and a multilink rear was truly Germanic in its behavior.  Although a little stiff on rougher roads, it managed to have a perfect blend of driving comfort and composure.  On most roads the C250 remained compliant, easily soaking up random ruts and potholes while feeling firm when cornering and exhibiting zero body lean.  Even though rough roads did jar the cabin, the car would remain stable and refused to stray off course.  At high speeds, the car remained well-planted to the road; homage to its Autobahn roots.

CAM00528Handling was where the magic continued.  The sole complaint was that the steering felt Toyota Camry-light on center and there was no feedback on straight roads.  But once the C250 veered around corners, the feedback from the front wheels was linear, consistent, and predictable; adding to driver confidence.  The small Mercedes enjoyed carving up mountain roads and continually felt sure-footed and calm while negotiating hairpin curves.  There was no tire squeal, no signs of oversteer, and the car remained calm while being hustled through the twisties.  Where other cars would be begging for mercy, the C250 seemed to beg to be pushed harder.  While not quite to BMW standards, it remains a fun handling car that belies its serious outward attitude.

Our C250 had 15k miles of rental duty on the clock and felt as solidly constructed as Mercedes’ sterling reputation would have us believe.  Slam the door and there’s a reassuring thunk that mimics a vault at Fort Knox.  All of the interior panels, aside from the rear door panels, feel opulent and lovingly constructed.  Everything worked like it should and nothing had fallen off or separated from the car in that time.  The sole quality issue was an occasional and annoying rattle coming from the plastic panels around the ventilation controls on the dashboard.

CAM00570The EPA rates the C250 at 22mpg city and 31mpg highway.  We blew those numbers out of the water, achieving an amazing 36mpg on a flat 200 mile freeway run.  During the 1000 miles that we had the Mercedes through a mix of city traffic, mountain passes, running local errands, and even some track testing, we attained an equally astonishing 30mpg average.  These are economy car numbers, and very impressive for a car with the C250’s balance of driving dynamics, heft, and opulence.  Keep in mind, however, that like many foreign luxury cars, Mercedes does recommend Premium 91Octane unleaded to gain the best performance from the powerplant.  With a 17.4 gallon tank, it is possible to get a bladder-busting range of 600 miles between fill-ups.  Although not the car’s fault, we were slammed by an expensive fuel bill at one fill-up at a remote gas station in Yosemite while following the manufacturer’s recommendation of premium.  Ouch!

CAM00496Prices start at $35,350 for a C250 in Sport trim and comes standard with 17-inch wheels, automatic headlights, LED running lights, automatic wipers, a sunroof, cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, eight-way power front seats (with adjustable lumbar), MB-Tex vinyl upholstery, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and auto-dimming mirrors. Electronic features include a 5.8-inch central display, the COMAND interface, mbrace2 CAM00493telematics/smartphone integration, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a sound system with a CD player, auxiliary audio jack, a USB audio jack and HD radio.  Our particular C280 came with the $2500 Premium Package that adds 4 way power lumbar support, iPod/MP3 media interface, driver’s seat memory and power steering column, split folding rear seats, SiriusXM satellite radio with 6 month service and heated front seats.  The Sapphire Grey exterior paint was an additional $720 (the only free colors are white, black, and red).  Once destination was added, our C250 rang in at a total of $39,475.  Whether that is good value is up to you.  A larger and better equipped Sonata, Accord, or Camry will come in at about $6,000 less, but won’t have the image that a Mercedes carries.  Perhaps the C280’s arch nemesis, the BMW 3-Series, poses a bigger threat.  Similarly equipped as our car, and also available with a manual transmission at no extra charge, a 320i with premium package comes in a few thousand dollars less, but also with less power.  So it’s a personal matter of brand vs. image vs. value to determine if the C250 is a good deal.

CAM00501There lies the conundrum with the C250, or any C-Class.  By itself, it comes across as an exquisitely made, fun to drive, and elegant machine.  However, it is outclassed for space and utility by cheaper, non-luxury alternatives.  The base comparable 3-Series is less money.  Heck, the C-Class even faces stiff competition from within its own showroom in the form of the new-for-2014 CLA sedan; which offers a larger car with a more powerful, potent standard engine for much less dough.  The purpose of the C250 almost seems redundant, and perhaps Mercedes has plans for the redesigned 2015 model to have a more logical place within the brand’s lineup.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the c250 and would be proud to own one despite some of its compromises.  However, if it were my money, I’d be sure to cross-shop as this is no longer the best deal in town, let alone at Mercedes-Benz.  A moderate 2.5/5.0 boomerangs.



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