First Drive: 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class [Review]

More mature than its predecessor, the new C-Class embodies the best of Mercedes\' traditional luxury and tech leadership.

For years, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class has been known as the "baby Benz.” With the introduction of the 2015 model, we doubt many people will consider the C-Class anything but a legitimate Mercedes.

But while the "baby Benz” tag may no longer apply, the term "mini S-Class” certainly fits. In addition to adopting styling cues from Mercedes' flagship vehicle, the C-Class also borrows many of the S-Class' advanced technologies.

Curious to try out what essentially amounts to an S-Class in a more manageable size (and price), we hopped a plane to Seattle test drive Mercedes' latest 2015 C-Class line.

Moving on upSibling rivalry isn't always a good thing, but in the case of the C-Class, it's done wonders.

With the introduction of the sub-$30,000 CLA, the C-Class has been freed from the shackles of being Mercedes' entry-level model. To that end, the 2015 C-Class has grown by 3.7 inches in length and 1.5 inches in width. In fact, the C-Class is now roughly the size of an E-Class you would have purchased new just a few years ago.

Mercedes has grown the C-Class' footprint responsibly, though, with the 2015 model tipping the scales at 200 pounds less than the outgoing car.

But more than just a size increase, Mercedes has also improved the interior content of its new mid-level model. The C-Class' infotainment and touchpad interface are straight out of the larger S-Class. Ditto for its available AIRMATIC air suspension, adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist.

Powertrains have also been improved to set the C-Class apart from the entry-level CLA. The C-Class now ships with a standard 241 horsepower, 273 lb-ft of torque 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder, representing gains of 40 horsepower and 44 lb-ft of torque over the old turbo-four. A new 329 horsepower, 354 lb-ft of torque turbocharged 3.0L V6 replaces last year's naturally-aspirated 3.5L V6. Improvements aren't as dramatic in horsepower (+27) but torque is up a significant 81 lb-ft.

The four-cylinder C300 is available with rear- or all-wheel drive; the V6-powered C400 is available exclusively with Mercedes' 4MATIC all-wheel drive. Regardless of trim or spec, the C-Class comes hooked to a seven-speed automatic transmission.

Styling departmentShrinking a full-size design to a smaller scale isn't always an easy task, but Mercedes has managed to successfully translate the S-Class' sheet metal to the smaller frame of the 2015 C-Class.

That's probably down to the S-Class' classic proportions, which include a long hood, sweeping character lines and short deck. The S-Class has a more sloping roofline than the C-Class, but the C's up-right stance actually works well with its shorter wheelbase.

The C-Class' corporate face includes a large center grille flanked by LED-accented headlights. The lower bumper treatment varies by model and trim, but includes addition air inlets.

The rear of the C-Class is highlighted by a subtle ducktail spoiler, LED taillights and integrated dual-exhaust outlets.

Though similar to the S-Class on the outside, the C-Class sports an interior that is uniquely its own.

Upon entering the C-Class, the eye is instantly drawn to the large display screen sitting atop the car's center stack. Some people like the tacked-on iPod look, but it still looks unfinished to us. The screen is at least larger than the unit you'll find in the CLA. A set of heritage-style vents sit just below.

The 2015 C-Class ditches Mercedes' typical radio and HVAC interface and we couldn't be happier. In place of the phone dial pad that was long past its expatriation date stand toggle switches adapted from the S-Class. We loved them in the S-Class and we love them here, with the switches scoring high on both the aesthetics and ease-of-use scales.

Virtually all infotainment duties are handled by a console-mounted touchpad and wheel, so the C-Class has just a few simple buttons for navigation, radio and telephone on the lower portion of the center stack.

Several different accent option are available for the C-Class, but we suggest the matte wood treatment.

The aforementioned touchpad control is new for Mercedes this model year, having debuted recently on the 2015 S-Class. Operating much like a tablet, the user can use the touchpad to swipe, pinch and click through the C-Class' infotainment system.

The concept behind the touchpad is solid enough, but it still needs some polishing. The system doesn't always respond the way you want it to, which makes it more of a distraction than a convenience feature. The system includes some trick shortcuts - like swiping up on while on the main screen to bring up the radio tuner - but you'll need to study up before you're able to unlock all of its secrets.

Moreover, the touchpad itself is poorly positioned; it's located several inches behind where your hand naturally lands.

If the touchpad proves too difficult to use, Mercedes' control dial is still available.

All C-Class models use Mercedes' familiar twin-pod gauge cluster with an LCD screen located in the middle. We're fans of the digital readouts for fuel and temperature, but the overcrowded speedometer with hashes every 10mph rather than every 5mph is simply too difficult to read, especially at a glance. Thankfully, a heads-up display is available.

As you'd expect of a vehicle wearing the three-pointed star, materials in the C-Class are very good. The overall styling is also pleasing to the eye, offering modern cues that we don't expect to age prematurely.

C-minor or C-majorOur time with the C-Class started off with the C300 model, which promises to be the volume seller of the line.

The 2.0L in the C300 uses the same block as the four-cylinder found under the hood of the CLA, but components like injectors and turbos have been upgraded to deliver more power. That added grunt - combined with the C300's lighter weight - is instantly felt off the line, with the C300 delivering noticeably improved acceleration over its four-cylinder predecessor.

Equipped exclusively with a conventional coil-over suspension, the C300 strikes a nice balance between sport and comfort. The ride is smooth and stable on the highway, but the C300 flashes its athletic side when pointed down a winding road. The C300's electronic power steering feels a little too boosted in Comfort mode, but the system also offers a Sport setting that increases steering weight and quickens the overall ratio. In Sport mode the C300 offers sharp and predictable handling, but both steering settings are devoid of road feel.

The Driver also has the option of adjusting the vehicle's engine and transmission settings from Comfort to Sport.

As you'd expect, the V6-powered C400 is more lively than the C300, with its turbocharged 3.0L serving up mounds of power from anywhere in the rev range. Mercedes says all of the C400's 354 lb-ft of torque is on tap from just 1,600rpm.

Unlike the C300, the C400 can be outfitted with Mercedes' AIRMATIC adjustable suspension. The system offers Comfort, Sport and Sport+ settings, but the C400 is at its best with the switch in the middle. Comfort is far too floaty and Sport+ is overly stiff.

Despite being down on power, we actually prefer the C300 to the C400. With a little less weight on its nose, the C300 feels quicker to respond to steering inputs. The C300's suspension is also spot-on, so the C400's AIRMATIC system doesn't carry much allure, especially considering we'd only use one of its settings.

The seven-speed transmission is somewhat of a letdown in both models, however, with the system reluctant to hold gears or kick-down when needed. The paddle shifters aren't much help as they're slow to react and the gearbox tends to shift on its own.

Both models are truly whisper quiet, which is something luxury buyers will relish. However, the downside is you lose some of the driving connection as the engine note is extremely muted, even during full-throttle acceleration.

While we're on the subject of isolating the driver from the driving experience, the C-Class can be outfitted with the same adaptive cruise control and lane keep systems found in Mercedes' larger E- and S-Class vehicles. Using front-mounted sensors and cameras, the C-Class can essentially drive itself down the road and even come to a complete stop. Although a very capable system, the days of the fully autonomous vehicle aren't here quite yet, so be sure to keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

The C-Class' front buckets offer just the right amount of bolstering, but their long-haul comfort needs improvement. Padding on the seat bottoms is thin, leaving our backsides aching after just a few hours behind the wheel.

Back seat room is on the cramped side but acceptable for the segment. Those over six-feet tall will want to call dibs on the front passenger's seat.

Leftlane's bottom lineA "baby Benz” no more, the 2015 C-Class is the essence of Mercedes-Benz, offering a solid feel with loads of luxury features.

Although not the most dynamic in its class, the C-Class feels much more comfortable in its skin as a smaller S-Class rather than as a BMW 3-Series imitator. We have a feeling Mercedes is going to sell a ton of these, and rightfully so.

2015 Mercedes-Benz C300 4MATIC base price, $40,400.2015 Mercedes-Benz C400 4MATIC base price $48,590.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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