Finalist Mercedes C-Class

STILL BEST IN CLASS, JUST NOT IN THIS EXCEPTIONAL CLASS

BRUCE NEWTON

EXPECTATION is a heavy burden.

As it turns out, too heavy for the W205 Mercedes-Benz C-Class to carry to our Car of the Year title.

It was the pre-COTY favourite, having drawn lavish praise in overseas and local drives before defeating its rivals in Wheels' December 2014 compact luxury sedan comparo. But in a year that will come to be seen as a watershed, the C-Class was neither an inspiration like the BMW i3 and Tesla Model S, nor as impressively orthodox as the Mazda 2 and Peugeot 308.

There was little hint of the coming demise as it breezed through the initial cull at the You Yangs with barely a murmur of opposition. There were grudging concessions that the new petrol and revised diesel drivetrains weren’t quite as sweet as BMW’s equivalents (but were still excellent), and that the minime S-Class styling was compromised by a droopy bottom. But most of the conversations centred around the positives this car delivered.

Those positives were: its lighter, stronger and brand new ‘MRA’ core architecture; progress through the aerodynamic body with its mostly aluminium panels; a swag of class-leading safety equipment; a more spacious and vastly higher-quality interior that bins the foot-operated park brake and moves the gearshifter for the seven-speed auto to the steering column; and a refined driving experience that strikes a fine balance between handling involvement and ride isolation. It seemed a logical and clear progression from its W204 predecessor, a car that won this award in 2007.

Variants of all four sedan models currently sold in Australia went into round two – the C200 and C250 2.0-litre turbo-petrols, the C250 BlueTec 2.1-litre turbo-diesel and the C300 BlueTec hybrid, which combines the 2.1-litre diesel with

78 wheelsmag.com.au an electric motor. No wagons were tested because the boat didn’t dock in time.

Two days later, after the judges had completed their two-up drives on the challenging and thoroughly entertaining roads of western Gippsland, the attitude toward the C-Class changed, and not for the better. The general mood was that it didn’t feel as ‘premium’ as expected.

Why was this so? A perusal of the tyre specification provided a hint. Even the C200 wears 225/45R18s up front and 245/40R18s at the rear, while the 250s and the 300 roll on an aggressive 225/45R19 and 245/35R19 combination. And they are all various brands of run-flats. Yes, they look great, but they don’t work harmoniously with the W205’s suspension system, which also requires a bit of study.

The C-Class combines new four-link front suspension with an overhauled five-link set-up at the rear. Steel springs are standard, self-levelling air springs are an option. There’s also an AMG sports suspension that stiffens things up and lowers the ride height 15mm. If you option the air springs, they provide the ability to adjust the suspension through three modes via what’s called Agility Select.

The ride consequently varied from car to car, but it was still an issue that every judge noted. The C200 was judged to have ride quality not befitting a Benz as it transmitted every bump at low speed and rode too severely when speeds rose.

Intriguingly, the 250s were better, while the Hybrid had a notable tendency to jump about in the rear over lateral corrugations.

The ability to tune the 250 petrol’s air suspension from floaty Comfort to disciplined Sport was definitely an advantage, even with the optional AMG set-up. The sad thing is very few C-Class customers are expected to opt for the air springs, but they should. They should also think about less aggressive tyre and wheel combinations. You can get 16s and 17s in Europe and we’d love to know the difference they make – to the ride that is, not the looks.

There were other issues, but they were less significant. Fuel economy was good but nowhere near the claims, there were some knocks and rattles from a couple of the cars, and childish graphics in the standard Garmin sat-nav system cheapened an otherwise rich interior.

But so much else is to be admired about the W205. It really does steer and handle with a lithe, flowing solidity; it is quiet; its seats are terrific, especially in the front; and there is still an impressive level of standard equipment, while price increases are minimal and options are grouped into logical packs.

Across the COTY criteria, it ticked a lot of boxes. Maybe in a year when there weren’t two ground-breaking electric cars up for judgement, along with two really impressive small cars, the C-Class would have made it through to the final three and perhaps even claimed the gong. But they were, so it didn’t.

The expectation may have been higher, but instead of being Car of the Year, the C-Class will have to make do with simply being the best car in its class.

“ Astounding quality for this class and price point” SALLY DOMINGUEZ

“ Over-tyred in all forms” PETER ROBINSON

MERCEDES-BENZ C-CLASS

BODY Type 4-door sedan, 5 seats L/W/H 4686/1810/1442mm Wheelbase 2840mm Track (f/r) 1588/1570mm Boot capacity 435-480 litres Weight 1465-1715kg DRIVETRAIN Layout Front engine (north-south), RWD Engines 1991cc 4cyl turbo (135kW/300Nm); 1991cc 4cyl turbo (155kW/350Nm); 2143cc 4cyl turbo-diesel (150kW/500Nm); 2143cc 4cyl turbo-diesel + electric (150kW/500Nm + 20kW/260Nm) Transmission 7-speed automatic CHASSIS Brakes ventilated discs (f), solid discs (r) Tyres 225/45R18 – 245/35R19 Spare space-saver optional ADR81 fuel consumption 4.0-6.0L/100km Greenhouse emissions 105-138g/km Front airbags Side airbags Curtain airbags Knee airbags Collision mitigation Crash rating 5-star (Euro NCAP) Prices $60,900 – $74,900 3-year retained value 59-60% Service interval 12 months/25,000km P) %

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THERE are some important new safety features in the C-Class that are standard from the C250 upwards. Marketed as Driver Assistance Package PLUS, they include the ability to autonomously brake for traffic and pedestrians, follow vehicles at speeds up to 60km/h, and keep between lane markings. The C200 makes do with autonomous emergency braking.