Mercedes C-Class (2017) review: A compact saloon that punches well above its weight

£54065
Price when reviewed

For the past year or so, Mercedes has been injecting high-end technology into its two flagship saloons: the E-Class and the all-conquering S-Class. With vast swathes of screen, ambient lightning and autonomous technology front and centre, both the E- and the S-Class show just how cutting-edge a Mercedes can be. And then there’s the smaller C-Class.

Although it doesn’t have the same headline features of its larger siblings, the Mercedes C-Class is cheaper, more compact  and, if you dip into the options list, a technology powerhouse that’s a match for higher-end models.

To find out just how good the Mercedes C-Class is, and how it compares to the E-Class and S-Class, I drove it for a week on UK roads.

Mercedes C-Class review: Design

The Mercedes C-Class might not have the most ostentatious road presence, but there’s no denying it’s a good-looking car. With its incisive lights, imposing grille (especially on the C43 variant I drove) and a neat and tidy rear end, it’s clear the new C-Class is a handsome-looking thing. Is it better looking than an Audi A5 or BMW 5 Series? That I’m less sure about, but when it’s finished off with 19in alloy wheels, it’s a classy vehicle nonetheless.

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I do have one issue with the C-Class’ looks, though, and that’s how similar it looks to the new E-Class. The car I drove was finished in deep Hyacinth red just like the new E-Class I tested earlier in the year, and from the front you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the same car. It’s smaller, yes, but aside from that, the two are very similar, save the slightly altered rear lights.

Car brands always want to make their cars look part of the same “family” and that’s perfectly understandable, but in this case I think Mercedes has gone too far.

Mercedes C-Class review: Interior

The similarity outside is even stranger once you get inside, because here the C-Class is very different to both the S- and E-Class. Calling it basic would be an injustice (it isn’t), but it’s clear the moment you step into the C-Class that it’s a cheaper car than its siblings. The fixtures and fittings are solid and well designed, but they don’t have that luxury feel you get in the larger Mercedes models; they’re more A-Class than S-Class.

As with most interiors, the first thing you look at in the C-Class is the infotainment screen, and that pretty much sets the tone. The model I drove was specified with the £2,995 premium package, which brings with it a larger 8.4in display (the normal size is 7in). That’s nice, but it’s still nowhere near as imposing or futuristic as the floating screen in the more expensive Mercedes models.

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Alongside a conventional infotainment screen, the C-Class also has conventional mechanical dials, and the only digital display you’ll find in front of the driver is a small one nestled between the dials. Showing everything from handling modes to which audio source you’re listening to, it proved useful, but it’s a long way from being as good as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit.

There is one similarity to the other Mercedes models and, sadly, it’s not a good one. Just like every Benz I’ve driven recently, the C-Class has been lumbered with Mercedes’ click wheel and trackpad hybrid control system. It’s by far my least favourite control method: it combines two relatively good methods of input and turns them into one slightly awkward one.  

Mercedes C-Class: Performance

Dig deeper, however, and you’ll find the C-Class doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of other cars, but does have all the functionality you’ll need in 2017.

Features such as vehicle performance settings and autonomous driving – which I’ll get to later – are controlled via physical switches, and the C-Class uses real, tactile buttons on the steering wheel, too. In contrast, the E-Class employs capacitive ones and, while they’re supposed to be better, I found using the traditional buttons on the C-Class to be far more reliable.

The infotainment screen may not have the same presence as the one in the E-Class, but it’s still sharp and bright enough to read whatever the weather conditions. And while the menus don’t look pretty, in practice they’re easy to find your way around. The only things missing? There’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatibility.

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Pairing your phone with the Mercedes is easy, though, and it’s also possible to play your music via one of two USB ports. Those who love their music will be glad to know the C-Class is also available with a 590W, 13-speaker Burmester sound system.

Simply put, it’s one of the best setups you can get, delivering a balanced and rich soundscape at any volume. Frequency response is relatively flat across the board, and that means cymbals and vocals aren’t drowned in bass. And the best part? The Burmester system can keep that balance at very high volumes, so you don’t have to trade quality for loudness. Available as part of the £2,995 Premium Plus package, it’s a box you have to tick on the options list.

Mercedes C-Class: Satnav

As you’d expect from Mercedes, the satnav on the Mercedes C-Class is a solid performer.  After entering your destination via the slightly annoying input system, the C-Class can really quickly calculate a route for you, and it gives you route choices too. On the motorway it delivers instructions – complete with lane info – in good time, and directions on roundabouts are presented clearly, too. If you do go wrong, routes are adapted within a few seconds.

Navigating unfamiliar roads with the C-Class was made even easier thanks to the C-Class’ heads-up display (HUD). Floating above the road, this provides essential route instructions along with speed limits and the status of the cruise control. It will cost you £825 but it makes driving the Mercedes a joy, and measuring 21 x 7cm, it’s one of the largest HUDs I’ve come across. If you’ve opted for the C43 – which has 357bhp of power for you to contend with – it’s useful for keeping a constant eye on your speed.

Mercedes C-Class review: Drive

On the outside, the C-Class looks like any other executive saloon nowadays, but its simple, chrome C43 badge is a warning that it’s anything but. And maybe the bi-turbo badge on the side of the car is a giveaway.

The C43 is the second-fastest C-Class you can buy, and that’s because Mercedes has decided to shoehorn in a ridiculous three-litre V6 bi-turbo powerplant under the bonnet. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds and even revving the beast within the C43 makes the car move –it’s that crazy. But slip the C43 into the Comfort or Eco driving modes, and you’d never know.

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When you’re not pushing, the C-Class feels like any other saloon, but crank it up to Sport mode and you’ll start to feel some of that 357bhp of power under your right foot. It’s stiffer and more stable in fast corners, and if you want the sound to go with the visuals, you can flick the exhaust button for an even better soundtrack. Featuring a complex system of flaps and chambers, it basically turns the engine sound up to 11.

Sport+ takes things even further and it’s dangerously addictive. With the raciest mode engaged, the C-Class loses all decorum, growling as you pick up speed and barking and crackling as you change down its nine-speed gearbox. On the roads to Goodwood, with Sport+ engaged, driving the C-Class was effortless when needed but also engaging and exciting when I wanted it to be.

Mercedes C-Class review: Autonomous driving

While the C-Class might not come with the same fanfare as other models in the Mercedes range, its driverless features are still excellent. To activate it, just pull the option stalk toward you and the car is driving itself. After that, you can adjust things such as speed (a hard nudge changes it by 5mph, while a gentle one changes it by 1mph) and you can also specify the distance you want to be from the car in front.

As with many driverless systems, the Mercedes only asks that you place your hands on the wheel when the car’s driverless mode is engaged, and it warns you with a loud beep when you aren’t following the rules. The only issue is that whenever traffic grinds to a halt – as happened several times on the M25 – I had to apply the the throttle to get it moving again. It would’ve been nice to see automatic stop-and-start on the C-Class, because it does everything else so well.

In addition to driverless tech, the C-Class also has parking assistance and a rear-facing camera and proximity sensors to make parking easier. As with most cars nowadays,the  C-Class will beep in increasing frequencies depending on how close you are to the car behind.

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Mercedes C-Class review: Verdict

I expected the Mercedes C-Class to be a less-equipped version of the E-Class and, while that’s true in many ways, it doesn’t mean you should discount it entirely. Yes, it doesn’t have the futuristic interior of the more expensive models, but it still manages to cram in all the technology you’d need – minus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, that is.

Add in a stylish compact design, a great HUD and autonomous technology that makes motorway journeys effortless, and the C-Class is worth checking out. The car I drove cost £54,065, but get rid of the AMG badge and some other niceties, and a C-Class with much of the same content could cost you between £30,000 and £40,000.

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