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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - C-Class - C200 CGI sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Extremely well rounded – with comfort, dynamics, refinement, performance and economy levels that are up there with the best in class styling, quality, resale value
Room for improvement
Awful foot-operated parking brake five-speed auto off the pace – on paper – compared to rivals’ six-speed auto efforts ugly steering wheel options can be costly MB-Tex vinyl not very posh dour and hard cabin surfaces

11 Nov 2010

THREE and a half years is a lifetime in the car industry.

In fact, think of what has changed in the world since mid-2007 (China, iPhone, GFC, Gillard, social networking – the list is endless), and one unassailable fact is driven home hard: evolution is gathering pace.

So it comes as quite the surprise to report that the more Mercedes-Benz changes its bread-and-butter C-class range – a model that debuted in Australia 3.5 years ago – the more it feels like a traditional Three Pointed Star product. De-evolution, but in a good way.

Let us explain.

At the W204’s 2007 launch, we championed a return to quality, solidity, comfort and refinement, and marvelled at the sedan’s handling and ride balance, but felt disappointed with the carryover engines – particularly the hoary E18ML 1.8-litre supercharged twin-cam 16-valve variable-valve four-cylinder petrol unit in the base C200K (Kompressor).

Merc four-pots were never close to being class-leading contenders, but – as any owner of an '80s 230E will tell you – at least they were smooth and quiet, and not raucous, rough and highly-strung like they had become.

Earlier this year, the long-awaited C-class heart transplant finally transpired (or more accurately open-heart surgery) with the advent of the DE18LA – an evolution of the existing M271 powerplant. Out went the belt-driven blower and in came a turbo with direct ‘gasoline’ (hence CGI) injection, topping off a myriad of welcome improvements.

Now, in the base C200 CGI tested here, and mated to the unchanged five-speed automatic gearbox, the base C-Class’ mechanical character has evolved… back. And we’re happy with the outcome.

Turn the bulky key just once and the CGI fires into life instantly, without the accompanying idling vibrations of the old C200K.

Step off the mark, and instead of the sore-throat baritone sound assaulting your ears as power comes on quite lumpily and out of rhythm with the revs, the turbo kicks in and, after a momentarily period of lag, the pace picks up rapidly.

Keep the pedal pressed and the speed continues to pile on quickly, leaving you to marvel in the modest (1796cc) capacity up front. Acceleration comes on strongly and without hesitation at around 110km/h, and that’s always good when overtaking, with a sporty response that makes the CGI unit a far more enjoyable engine than any previous Merc four-cylinder we have driven.

We won’t get carried away though. Past the 5000rpm mark there is quite a bit of mechanical noise intrusion, but it neither unpleasant nor too loud.

Driven mostly around town and surrounding suburbs, two-up (at least) and with the super-chilled air-con on constantly, the fuel consumption average hovered around the 10.7L/100km mark, which is about where we expected it to be.

Left in normal ‘E’ (for economy, presumably) mode, the five-speed auto is more than capable of smothering out the changes like a good Benz trannie should.

But we are unsure about the ‘S’ mode that hangs on to the ratios for longer. Yes, a greater sense of urgency is the upshot, but in town the resulting noise that comes through because of the limited number of forward gears quickly becomes tiresome. Remember that Audis, VWs, and Skodas all have seven-speed dual-clutch gearboxes to cycle through.

And for the same reason, the ‘Touchshift’ sequential mode really doesn’t add much interactivity to the driving experience, while the left-to-right movement now seems oddly anachronistic. Our advice is to leave the lever in ‘D’ and relax.

Relaxing, in fact, is what the new engine helps the base Benz sedan to do with aplomb, and that is really in keeping with traditional marque expectations.

Take the steering. The larger-than usual diameter is a plus point in our books (too bad it is so ugly though), with a low-geared action that seamlessly speeds (and weighs) up as inputs increase. It is light enough for parking speeds, yet meaty enough not to feel disconnected to the front wheels.

While our 70-year-old mum struggles in the heavy-steering BMW and is bored behind the tiller of an Audi, the C200 CGI gets the Kellogg’s award for being just right.

We’ve driven C-Class wagons at 240km/h-plus in Germany, and we can tell you that there is nothing slow or twitchy about the steering when the driver ups the ante.

Measured, reassuring balance sums up the Benz when stringing together a series of bends – the way trad Mercs would – with a towering feeling of security and control, underpinned by superbly judged brakes. The world’s oldest car company knows its stuff here.

Another MY2010 change to the C-class was an uprated tyre and wheel package – 17-inch alloys on 245/40 R17 tyres – that seems not to affect the ride quality one iota.

Again, as with old-school models, there is a springy cushiness that seems to spell quality and engineering here, despite the obvious low-profile wheel package. Lexus IS250 aside, the Merc feels miles ahead of its direct competition for ride comfort.

And that’s great news for those who want a cosseting, cocooning car.

Only occasional road-noise rumbling on certain surfaces upsets the peace inside, but we have yet to find a German car that has this characteristic licked.

Inside, the C200 CGI is beginning to look its age a little, however.

We have always liked the solidity of the W204’s rather blocky dashboard – another reminder of bygone Mercs – but the latest Audi A4 really shows up the rather drab presentation. The plastics are plain uninviting – they seem resilient but also look hard and unyielding (they’re actually not for the most part).

The same goes for the instrumentation – smart and functional but not very premium in appearance. A German friend instantly dismissed the C200 CGI’s cabin as Frankfurt taxi-esque, especially as our car came with the standard MB-Tex (or whatever Merc calls it) vinyl, which actually is no bad thing for longevity or comfort. The backs of the front seats are especially cab-like in their finish.

When assessing the design of the centre console we were reminded of the Holden AH Astra’s fascia, which continues the austerity theme, and then exacerbates it with a sprinkling of switch blanks – serving as a reminder that you’ve bought the bottom of the range model.

However, despite Mercedes’ persistence with a foot-operated park brake that adds a geriatric feel inside, it is the ongoing integrity of the C-class interior that still makes it an appealing place to be.

The firm yet amply sprung seats, hefty doors, solid build quality and weighty feel of the controls all spell expensive engineering. The driving position is excellent, with no glaring ergonomic issues save for the busy indicator/wiper stalk (just like in the old days).

Plus, spending hours in the driver’s seat is no pain either for your average sized male correspondent.

Four adults and a Halfling should have no worries when it comes to space, in fact, thanks to acres of front-seat adjustment and sufficient amounts of head, knee and legroom in the rear. The backrest is positioned at an agreeable angle too.

And if you take the time to really use the interior, there is plenty to discover, like the uber-clear trip computer screen set directly ahead of the driver (and containing a handy digital speedo) simple climate-control system that does just that in an instant perfectly placed armrests for all outboard occupants front-seat head restraints with a horizontal adjustment ample storage supply the easy Bluetooth interface the sturdy wiper sweep across the windscreen and precise movements of every button and lever.

Other MY10 updates includes more cupholders (the rear armrest sited one is laughably over-complicated), and a handy split-fold rear backrest that can be released via a lever in the commodious (475-litre) boot – which is easily accessed and features a full-sized spare wheel beneath the highish floor.

About the only obvious omission now is a remote power window facility.

After a week behind the wheel of the newly engined C-class, it is clear that Mercedes-Benz is well and truly back on track when it comes to recapturing the quality and feel of its more famous models of yesteryear.

And even though the W204 series is now heading towards its fourth birthday, in C200 CGI guise at least, it remains at the top of the game compared to the base A4, 320i and IS 250.

That’s no surprise either, because the evolution back to what Mercedes used to stand for means that there is a quaintly old-fashioned timelessness to the C-class – and that’s a breath of fresh air in this day and age.

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