2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Driving Impressions

The C-Class offers an interesting performance bang-for-the-buck scenario at each end of the model lineup. The entry-level C250 Sport is the lightest model and offers the best fuel economy. At the other end, the C63 AMG is competitively priced against other uber hot rods. In between, the C350 Sport offers a great balance of power and fuel economy. So enthusiast drivers can't make a wrong choice here. The Luxury models drive like smaller versions of the bigger Mercedes luxury models.

The C250's turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder puts out 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque, which is no embarrassment in this luxury car. It has as much power as most drivers will ever need. There is very little, if any, turbo lag, but power is most accessible over 3000 rpm. In other words, thrust does not come as quickly and easily when loafing around at low rpm as it does from a V6. The engine is refined as the turbocharger smoothens and muffles the coarseness inherent in a four-cylinder engine. Mercedes quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 7.1 seconds, which is impressively fast for such a small engine and as quick as the V6-powered C300 4MATIC. Fuel economy is considerably better, though, at an EPA-estimated 21 mpg City/31 mpg Highway.

The C300 4MATIC's 3.0-liter V6 makes 228 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. It is quite flexible, with maximum torque for 90 percent of your driving needs available from 2700 to 5000 rpm. It runs smoother than the four-cylinder in the C250, but is far less fuel efficient, earning an EPA-rated 18/25 mpg. The 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system is fully automatic. It's always on, the driver need do nothing to engage all-wheel drive. 4MATIC is a great feature for traction and directional control in inclement weather. An all-wheel-drive C300 4MATIC with snow tires works so well in the slippery stuff it will likely embarrass most of your neighbor's SUVs. The C300 4MATIC is the best choice in the C-Class for drivers who must contend with a lot of snow and ice.

The C350's 3.5-liter V6, all new for 2012, may be the same size as the 2011 C350 3.5-liter, but it's considerably more powerful, and far more fuel efficient. The 3.5-liter engine feels very strong in the C-Class and has a rumbling exhaust note to match. Mercedes quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 5.9 seconds, which is just two tenths of a second quicker than last year's 3.5. It feels stronger than that, though, and a few magazines have observed times as low as 5.4 seconds. In short, the 3.5 feels almost like a V8 while delivering fuel economy close to the four-cylinder at an EPA-rated 20/29 mpg.

The 7-speed automatic transmission that comes in all C250, C300 and C350 models shifts quickly and cleanly. We found it seamlessly transparent in Comfort mode, with intelligent feedback in Sport mode. Drivers can also shift it manually via the gearshift or, with the Dynamic Handling Package, via paddles on the steering wheel. Mercedes doesn't offer a manual gearbox for the C250 or C350, which is too bad because it would be fun.

Luxury and Sport versions both have great road feel and steering. We think BMW's perceived advantage is no longer as distinct, and a rear-wheel-drive C-Class competes with anything in the segment. Surprisingly, the coupe is 77 to 110 pounds heavier than the sedan (except the C63 AMG models, which have a spread of only 11 pounds). The feel of the coupe and sedan is very much the same, though, in both engine performance and handling. The real differences come with the Luxury or Sport choice.

Luxury models prioritize ride comfort, so the shocks are designed to allow free suspension movement over smoother surfaces while firming up on rougher roads so the car doesn't bounce and wallow. Mercedes-Benz cars have always been extremely competent, inspiring driver confidence, but now they inspire the driver as well without losing any of the confidence factor.

Sport models prioritize quicker reactions and higher cornering ability, without losing much of the compliance that maintains ride quality and automobile integrity. You can upgrade sporting ability with the 18-inch wheel package that adds a half-inch to front wheel width, a half-inch to rear tire width, and employs lower profile, stickier tires. However, the 17-inch tires with their taller sidewalls are better for rough roads, both in terms of ride quality and wheel damage.

We found that every C-Class responds to the steering wheel crisply, allows minimal body roll, and changes direction quickly.

Brakes are sized by model to get the job done. Initially, the pedal travel seems long, but this allows easy modulation for slowing the car at precisely the rate you want.

The C63 AMG is in another performance dimension. At 6.2 liters its engine makes it considerably more than just a very quick compact sedan. Mellowed somewhat to 451 horsepower, the C63 engine has 443 pound-feet of torque, with 90 percent of it available from 2000 rpm. Turn off the traction control and it can simply obliterate the rear tires. It's a torque-rich beast with great low-end thrust, unlike the BMW's M3's 4.0-liter V8, which revs higher and more freely and performs better at higher speeds.

The C63 can reach 100 mph in about the same amount of time the average car can reach 60. It can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds. If you chose the optional AMG Development Package, which uses lighter internal engine components to reduce mass and increase horsepower to 481, 0 to 60 falls to 4.3 seconds.

The Speedshift AMG dual-clutch automated manual transmission can be used like an automatic or shifted by the gearshift or steering wheel paddles. It snaps off shifts quicker than the regular automatic in other models, adding a sporty flair, but it feels quite smooth in everyday driving. Alas, at an EPA-estimated 13/19 mpg, there is no way to get good fuel mileage with well over 400 horsepower. This means getting slapped with a federal Gas Guzzler Tax when purchasing a new C63 AMG.

Unlike any previous AMG C-Class, the C63 AMG has a unique front-end, including fenders, air dam, chassis, suspension, brakes and wheels. Steering resistance adds up nicely the harder you push. The limits of grip are a long way off but three-stage electronic stability control makes them relatively easy to find when you have a racetrack for exploring. The big engine's compression braking lets you just lift the throttle to load up the front tires for crisper turn-in, with no braking needed to upset the balance.

The C63 is arguably the best-steering, best-handling, best driving car Mercedes builds in the sub-$125,000 range. BMW and Audi loyalists will stick to their marques as each has its advantages, but there is no denying that the C63 AMG does more than just go fast in a straight line. A C63 AMG can hold its own with an M3 or S4.

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