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First drive: C-class becomes real (Estate) deal

Compact cargo: Newest C-class wagon arrives here in early 2008.

Sleek new S204 Estate is as polished as the W204 C-class sedan upon which it's based

17 Sep 2007

MERCEDES-BENZ has launched the wagon version of its fourth-generation C-class sedan in Europe, ahead of its Australian release in the first quarter of next year.

The S204 T-series Estate (to use Mercedes parlance) will initially be represented by two four-cylinder models – the supercharged petrol C200 Kompressor and the C220 CDI turbo-diesel.

Expect the C280 petrol and C320 turbo-diesel V6 versions to arrive some time during 2008, when the range-topping C63 AMG Estate will also appear here.

Like its sedan sibling, the German-built C-class Estate is larger, longer, wider and significantly more spacious than before, but no heavier.

It also brings a bigger load capacity – at 1500 litres – than both its predecessor and any rival. Payload is rated at 605kg.

To be available here only in rear-wheel drive guise (Mercedes has not engineered the 4-Matic all-wheel drive version for right-hand drive), the wagon is like the sedan in being a much sharper driving tool than any C-class before it.

In a nutshell, the newest C-class wagon sits on the latest sedan’s 2760mm wheelbase (making it 45mm longer than the outgoing version), but features completely different sheetmetal from the B-pillar back.

If you think you can see hints of the 1995—2001 S202 C-class in the new range, you might be on to something.

According to the senior manager for the development of the C-class range, Rainer Tiefenbacher, his team visited the company museum on many occasions “to discuss the philosophy behind previous models” so as to not lose sight of what made these cars special as a Mercedes.

To that end, he also owns a 1983 W201 190D, a vehicle the engineer regards as still extremely sophisticated in its suspension behaviour.

4 center imageFurthermore, Mercedes chose to move away from the swoopier “lifestyle” look of the current wagon for a more practical box shape. The hope is that buyers bored of SUVs will downsize with minimal loss of versatility and practicality.

“We believe people are now moving back to the more traditional Estate, and that people looking for a more lifestyle wagon are moving up to SUVs,” Mr Tiefenbacher said.

So the silhouette is squarer, and the tailgate aperture wide and high, with small vertical tail-lights that are similar but not the same to those on the W204 sedan.

The load area is as much as 146 litres larger than before, with load volume varying between 485 litres with the rear seats in place, to 1500 litres. This is a class-best result.

Mercedes says the largest possible cuboid that fits in the load compartment is 827 litres – 66 litres more than before and up to 100 litres better than the competition. At 2.82 metres, the interior length from front footwell to tailgate is 170mm longer than previously.

Much work went into improving the C-class wagon breed, from the implementation of a split-fold rear seat system that now does not require the flipping up of the cushion base first when the backrests are lowered (thus increasing front-seat sliding space and decreasing effort), to the fitment of puddle lights at the base of the open tailgate, to better illuminate the load area in dark places.

Other details include a coat hook incorporated into the tailgate’s grab handle, which can be used when the door is up.

Making its debut in a C-class wagon is an electric tailgate option called ‘Easy Pack’. There are also load-securing kits which partition the cargo area, luggage covers, storage compartments, bag hooks, anchoring loads and three power outlets throughout the car.

The ESP stability control system has been specially tuned for operate according to load variance. Towing capacity raises 100kg to 1800kg on all models except the C180K (which most likely won’t come to Australia), while a self-levelling suspension system is available.

Three model variants are available: base Classic, luxury Elegance and sports/luxury Avantgarde, with the latter boasting a large three-pointed star centrally placed in the grille.

This generation C-class is the first time Mercedes has delineating its sedan and wagon variants within a model range in this way.

On the suspension front, the wagon adopts the sedan’s new mechanical adaptive damper control set-up, as part of the three-link MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear axle design that is a thorough redevelopment of the original that the W201 190E pioneered in production cars in 1983.

Dubbed ‘Agility Control Suspension,’ it automatically softens or firms up the damper pressure according to how the vehicle is being driven – softer when the car is being driven sedately and firmer for when pressing on.

For the wagon, the suspension tune is set slightly firmer for its role as a load carrier.

Meanwhile, ‘Agility Control Steering’ sees the W204’s speed-sensitive powered rack-and-pinion steering ratio decrease to 14.5 – making it six per cent more direct than its W203 predecessor’s.

The S-class also lends its ‘Adaptive Brake’ technology to Mercedes’ smallest sedan and wagon for the first time, which brings benefits such as a hill-start function called ‘Start-Off Assist’ and a gentle wiping of the brake discs if damp conditions prevail to increase their effectiveness.

For now, only two engines are pencilled in for the wagon’s launch.

The smaller one is a variation of the supercharged 1.8-litre twin-cam four-cylinder unit found in the outgoing vehicle.

Again misleadingly named C200K (for Kompressor), its 1796cc engine produces 135kW of power at 5500rpm and 250Nm of torque from 2800rpm. This is 15kW and 10Nm more than before respectively.

For more performance, the C204 C220 CDI uses a 2148cc 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine to generate 125kW at 3800rpm and 400Nm from 2000rpm.

Both engines will only be offered with a five-speed automatic with a manual-shift function.

Meanwhile, the upcoming 250km/h C280 Estate employs a 2996cc 3.0-litre petrol V6 delivering 170kW at 6000rpm and 300Nm between 2500 and 5000rpm.

Like the yet-to-be-confirmed C320 CDI Estate, which uses a 2987cc 3.0-litre common-rail turbo-diesel V6 to develop 165kW at 3800rpm and 510Nm from 1600-2800rpm, the petrol V6 utilises Mercedes’ 7GTronic seven-speed automatic gearbox.

From 2009 Mercedes will launch its C250 Bluetec model, which has the potential to meet Euro6 emission standards while returning 4.9L/100km.

By 2011 there will also be the C300 Bluetec Hybrid, which drops that fuel consumption figure down to 4.6L/100km while also slashing carbon-dioxide emissions.

Mercedes says the C-class sedan and wagon successfully passed over 160 actual crash tests, some which exceed current legal requirements, as well as over 5000 virtual ones.

No less than 70 per cent of the body panels are made from high-strength steel, with 20 per cent being made from ultra high-strength steels. Special attention has also been paid to having a thicker firewall, a stronger floor structure, reinforced B-pillars and a more robust rear-end.

The upshot is an increase (of about 20 per cent) in torsional rigidity, while Mercedes reveals that, during a frontal, rear-end or lateral collision, or a rollover scenario, the passenger cell remains a “...practically undeformable structure” so as to provide an intact survival space, even at high impact speeds.

Also included is Pre-Safe – the company’s preventative occupant protection system that ‘recognises’ critical driving manoeuvres at an early stage by priming the vehicle's safety systems, such as the ESP stability control and Brake Assist function.

The volume-selling C200K Estate auto should cost about $60,000, with the diesel version nudging $65,000. In contrast, today’s S203 C200K automatic kicks off from $68,880.

As with previous editions, the sedan-wagon production split should remain 70-30.

Only the seventh production Mercedes wagon since the W123 T-series debuted in 1979, the S204 replaces the S203 model, which was first seen in 2001 and has found more than 270,000 homes.

Drive impressions:

SPEAKING of surprises in unexpected packages! Our half-day cross-country jaunt in the latest C-class wagon through central Germany not only introduced us to two new features (body style and V6 turbo-diesel).

It also brought on a realisation that combining diesel and wagon creates a third realm for the smallest rear-drive Mercedes model: a compelling alternative to luxury SUVs, including the company’s long-established ML-class.

On the one hand, we have a new C-class Estate – the third compact Mercedes wagon since 1996, and only the seventh to ever be officially produced in the firm’s 121-year history as a car-maker.

While its predecessor had a more coupe-like sloping rear-end that made it look stylish but limited its practicality as a carryall, this model sports a balance of function and elegance not seen on a cargo-carrying Benz since the demise of the W124-based E-class Estate in the mid-1990s.

This was a model that looked great, worked hard, felt special and seemed indestructible. You still see plenty of them on the roads today – even the earliest 230TE is one of the world’s great used vehicles.

And, now, there is something of the old W124’s charm in the new wagon, which is roughly about the same size. To some onlookers, it is better looking than the sedan that begat it.

Unfortunately we didn’t have a spare chest of drawers or a cello handy to demonstrate the latest Estate’s appetite for cargo consumption, but Mercedes says the new C is best-in-class for space.

That it now offers a one-touch rear-seat folding mechanism, a myriad of hooks, nets, barriers and slots, an excellent electric tailgate option with a height-adjustable setting, and a full-sized spare wheel if that’s what you want, means that function and form sit on an even keel, making for a very harmonious basis.

It gets better too.

The wagon is just as comfortable inside as the sedan, with exactly the same high-quality dashboard fittings and fixtures that contrast so vividly to the low-rent interior of the previous C-class generation.

Old-fashioned foot-operated parking brake aside, this Mercedes’ cabin is contemporary, easy to operate and a pleasure to be in.

Cliché alert! From behind the wheel, this wagon feels just like its sedan sibling to drive – but we must stress that the base C200 Kompressor model that will probably take the lion’s share of S204 sales in Australia was unavailable for us to sample.

So we were ‘stuck’ with the new C230 CDI – a $95,000-plus turbo-diesel rocket with luxury car refinement, medium-car fuel economy and truck-like pulling power.

Allied to Mercedes’ excellent 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic gearbox, the 165kW/510Nm 3.0-litre V6 diesel has the instantaneous lurch forward from launch and effortless overtaking oomph that its petrol-powered counterparts simply lack.

On speed-derestricted autobahns, we effortless cruised beyond 220km/h, grateful for steering that is light and eager at slower speeds, and relaxingly rock-solid feeling at higher ones.

Handling linearity and commendable body control – two hallmarks of the C-class sedan – are just as impressively present in the wagon too.

The more we drive the latest C-class range, the more we are convinced that Mercedes has struck a great balance between the sporting dynamics of a BMW and the lush luxury comforts of a larger Lexus, with a ride quality that reminds us of old-school Benzes – although Australian roads are an altogether tougher ask, so we’ll wait until we have driven ‘our’ cars over here before coming to a definitive conclusion.

We must also point out that the C200K Estate – with its 135kW/250Nm 1.8-litre supercharged four-cylinder engine – will probably underwhelm us in the performance department like its sedan sibling with the same powerplant has.

Instead, we recommend that you spend the extra $4000 or so required to get behind the wheel of the 125kW/400Nm 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel C220 CDI Estate.

The wagon seems in no way compromised by its load-lugging attributes. In fact, we would argue that the better rear-vision qualities of the Estate, gives it the advantage as a day-to-day driving device.

Which brings us nicely to the SUV-beating elements of the C320 CDI Estate.

Mercedes says it would love to offer the V6 diesel wagon in Australia, but is undecided whether Aussies are willing to fork out nearly $100,000 for a well-specified version.

Our case for the affirmative is that this car is lighter and leaner and therefore greener, as well as sportier to drive, than most SUVs, but with virtually all of their practicality and versatility.

In fact, the best affordable C-class, when value for money is added to the equation, will be the C220 CDI Estate. We’re expecting that one to start from about $65,000.

Regardless of model though, the compact luxury wagon has evolved with the impending arrival of the latest C-class Estate.

After the huge strides achieved by the recently released W204 sedan, we were bound to be impressed by the wagon version but we were not expecting it to be such a thoroughly complete package.

Read more:

First look: New C-class Estate to swallow rivals

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