Mercedes may have finally learned to love the C-Class.

Mercedes’ junior sedan has been with us for a long time, showing up in 1993 to replace the 190 as a low-cost route to Mercedes ownership. That first C-Class was a genuine Mercedes, sure enough, but to American consumers who knew Mercedes as a purveyor of luxury cars, the C-Class was surprisingly agricultural; well-built but visibly cheap compared to the rest of the lineup. That impression has remained a fairly constant one until recent years, giving the impression that perhaps Mercedes just wasn’t trying all that hard with the C-Class because it wasn’t interested.

That’s all changed, though. Now in its fifth generation, the C-Class has become what it was intended to be all along—a proper Mercedes product in a more efficient package. No more cheap plastic and coarse powertrains; this car is a true luxury car, the S-Class reproduced in a smaller package. I spent a week with the 2015 C400 W4 to get a sense of just how seriously Mercedes is taking the “near-luxury” market. The answer? Very seriously indeed.

Continue reading for the full story.

  • 2015 Mercedes C400 - Driven
  • Year:
    2015
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • 0-60 time:
    6 sec.
  • Top Speed:
    155 mph
  • Price:
    38400
  • car segment:
  • body style:

Exterior

2015 Mercedes C400 - Driven Exterior Test drive
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2015 Mercedes C400 - Driven Exterior Test drive
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2015 Mercedes C400 - Driven Exterior Test drive
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This is a good-looking car, with bold Mercedes heritage. The family look is strong with this one; the C400 looks just like a seven-eighths scale S-Class.

The family look is strong with this one; the C400 looks just like a seven-eighths scale S-Class.

The big car’s look is translated well to the smaller one, with curvy character lines taking the boxiness out of what is at heart a traditional three-box sedan, and a long hood with a big family grille up front.

As with the previous C-Class, there’s a choice of grille treatments; the sporty, body-colored version and a more upright chrome grille complete with hood ornament. The headlamps are accented by LED eyebrows, like the larger Mercedes sedans.

The C400 presents a handsome contrast to many of its competitors, who are rocking the wheels-at-the-corners look popularized by Audi and BMW, with more symmetrical hood and trunk lines. The pushed-back greenhouse gives the C400 a more rakish look and emphasizes the car’s “face.” A panoramic glass sunroof is also available.

Interior

2015 Mercedes C400 - Driven Interior Test drive
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2015 Mercedes C400 - Driven Interior Test drive
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2015 Mercedes C400 - Driven Interior Test drive
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Traditionally a C-Class weak point, Mercedes has upgraded the C400’s interior environment in a big way. It’s much prettier than any of its peers. There’s influence from the S-Class again, but also a heaping helping of sport-retro.

Multiple metal-ringed round air vents and the twin-gauge instrument panel are reminiscent of classic Mercedes cars, while the free-standing infotainment information screen looks like an iPad and is available in 7- and 8.5-inch sizes. The center panel is available with aluminum, open-pore black ash or linden wood trim, and designed to look like a single piece, creating a flowing, high-quality look. The C400 is both classy and sporty; my tester featured a flat-bottomed sport steering wheel and two-tone Sport Package interior with red seats and black ash wood.

On the other hand, what is it with Mercedes and confusing stalks on the steering column?

The dash is angled away from the front-seat passenger to create a comfortable amount of air space up front, and a head-up display projects driving info on the windshield. Rear-seat passengers benefit from a 3-inch stretch to the wheelbase that adds legroom.

This fashion maven works pretty well, too. Down on the console, the rotary controller for Mercedes’ ubiquitous Comand infotainment system now has a touchpad on top, enabling smartphone-style pinch and swipe inputs. It will even recognize numbers and letters drawn on it. It works well, and the controller has a swoopy ornamental look to it.

On the other hand, what is it with Mercedes and confusing stalks on the steering column? Back in the day it was the cruise control lever, located oddly at eight o’clock, just where it could be accidentally tapped when signaling a left turn, with occasionally hilarious results (at least for me). Now it’s the shifter itself, which hangs out on the right side of the steering wheel where it can be mistaken for a windshield wiper control. Accidentally shifting into neutral when the rain starts to fall may only be a concern for Honda owners and careless journalists who are constantly switching cars, but it’s still a little annoying. That is about the only complaint that I had about the C400’s ergonomics, though.

Mercedes hasn’t cut corners with the amenities. Distronic Plus intelligent cruise control is available, as well as the drowsy driver-detecting Attention Assist system borrowed from the E-Class and S-Class. This latest version of Distronic Plus is able to follow the car ahead at low speeds, and has start-stop capability.

There’s autonomous braking that mitigates crash severity (active up to 124 miles per hour) that includes a pedestrian-detection sensor at low speeds for urban safety. The lane-keeping assist introduced on the S-Class is also available on the C400, and it’s less obtrusive than other similar systems from Audi and others. The automated parking assist is practically expected at this point. Technology abounds; the ventilation system borrows the subtle perfuming system from the S-Class, and works with the navigation to detect tunnels and automatically kick over to recirc when the car is underground. Yeah, seriously. You want a high-end, concert-grade Burmester sound system? That’s available too.

Drivetrain

The C400’s twin-turbo 3.0 liter V-6 produces 329 horsepower for a healthy bump in displacement and power over the standard 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder in the C300. It moves with authority, and my weekly commute was transformed into something a bit grander and more purposeful. Need to take a trip to the grocery store? This car will get the heck out of those groceries. The C400 doesn’t just cruise down the highway, it goes somewhere. The seven-speed automatic transmission is seamless, and this car almost always feels relaxed, yet purposeful. Decent gearing means that the C400 can max out at 29 mpg on the highway as well.

The C400 doesn’t just cruise down the highway, it goes somewhere.

This car’s been designed to simultaneously offer a rewarding drive and to mask the machine beneath the surface. Never mind what that long hood covers, just focus on the effortless way that the C400 moves through the world, taking you with it. The suspension’s pretty complicated, with a four-link setup in the front designed for lateral stability at high speeds. At the rear the C400 uses a five-link design, so that wheel positioning can be fine-tuned. The fuel-saving stop-start system is nice; it works quickly and unobtrusively. Perhaps as a result, fuel economy was better than I expected.

It’ll corner faster than you think, too.

Curb weight has been reduced by about two hundred pounds compared to the previous generation, so the C400 is responsive and gives decent feedback. Mercedes also offers two suspension upgrades: the Sport Package, which lowers the suspension by just over half an inch for a sharper edge to the handling, and the AIRMATIC front-and-rear air suspension with continuous damping.

The AIRMATIC system is self-leveling, and it reads the road to adjust to changing conditions. It’s not a magic-carpet ride, but the C400 so equipped is responsive and comfortable. The biggest complaint enthusiasts have traditionally had about the C-Class is that it’s harsher and less nimble than other sports sedans, and with the Sport Package and AIRMATIC suspension that’s somewhat addressed.

Driving Impressions

2015 Mercedes C400 - Driven Exterior Test drive
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The C400 aspires to be a great all-around sedan, and succeeds. This car feels kind of like it could do anything within reason (the Rubicon Trail might be a little bit beyond it), inspiring confidence of the "Yes, let’s get that business loan and make something happen!" variety. My tester featured the AIRMATIC suspension, and the active damping proved to be excellently unobtrusive, keeping the car on an even keel without letting me know it was interfering. Mercedes’ V6 has a low-stress feel, like it’s more than capable of dealing with whatever the road dishes out, and acceleration is neither sluggish nor neck-snapping, but just right. The C400 behaves like the E-Class of years past—except that it just might be more refined.

Prices

Things are reasonably simple in terms of pricing with the C-Class these days. It’s a two-model range, with the four-cylinder C300 starting at $38,400 and the all-wheel drive, V6-powered C400 4MATIC retailing for $48,590. The Sport Package adds about $2,000 to the bottom line of the C300. The C400 I drove was pretty loaded, with the panoramic sunroof, parking assist, sport interior package, DISTRONIC PLUS and a multimedia package, among other goodies, and stickered for $65,000 even. For true sports-sedan fanatics, AMG has the 2015 Mercedes-AMG C63 and AMG C63 S, with 469 and 503 horsepower, respectively. But that’s a joyride for another day.

Competition

2016 BMW 3-Series

2016 BMW 3 Series High Resolution Exterior
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The 3-Series remains the go-to for buyers looking for a sedan that’s serious about performance. The 300-horsepower turbocharged six-cylinder is a legend of effortless power. The car feels like it’s been designed for the express purpose of getting on a track every weekend, and pricing isn’t too ridiculous considering the car’s pedigree, either.

Read our full review here.

2015 Cadillac ATS

2015 Cadillac ATS Sedan High Resolution Exterior
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The ATS is a compact luxury sedan with a healthy amount of sport included, making it a good fit as a 3 Series rival. Still, the modern definition of “Cadillac Style” includes hand-stitched interior trim, a powerful yet frugal V-6 engine as well as a turbocharged four-cylinder, and handling that’s responsive without being uncomfortable.

Read our full review here.

2015 Acura TLX

2015 - 2016 Acura TLX High Resolution Exterior
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Large and all about that tech, Acura’s TLX features a smooth, 290-horse V-6 that returns surprising fuel economy, corner-hugging all-wheel drive and a snug, sporty interior. The TLX has a very different feel from many of its competitors, with an airy, techno-organic look.

Read our full review here.

Conclusion

2015 Mercedes C400 - Driven Exterior Test drive
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It’s fantastic to see Mercedes putting the same panache into its junior sedans as it does the flagships. The C-Class has made considerable jumps in quality and visibility as a result, and it’s probably the classiest four-door in its set. The twin-turbo V-6 puts out enough power to ensure that the C400 doesn’t embarrass itself, and yeah, it’s a little bit expensive but Mercedes has always (and continues) to do a great job of making this car feel worth it. That’s going to be an important point, with MSRPs knocking on full-size sedan territory.

  • Leave it
    • * Awkward "stalk" shifter
    • * More luxury than sport without Sport Package
    • * As with all Mercedes, pricing ratchets up fast
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