2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class: First Drive

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This week's 2011 Geneva motor show turned the Swiss town's Palexpo hall into a virtual exotic-car warehouse, stuffed with Aventadors and Ferrari FFs and the usual microbrew blend of Rinspeeds, Gumperts and Paganis.

At the Mercedes-Benz stand, rubbing elbows with its frenemies next door at BMW, things were only slightly more prosaic, with SLKs and SLS AMG E-cells, along with the latest iteration of the C-Class.

Practical, yes, but absolutely more vital in the grander scheme, since the C-Class is one of Mercedes' global sales pillars. This year's C-Class will eventually count C-Class Coupes and AMG editions in its wide, deep portfolio--not to mention wagons and diesel editions not in the master plan for the American market. But coming first, in August of this year, are the stock-and-trade sedans that make perfect sense out of the return of the four-cylinder engine to the C-Class lineup for the first time in nearly a decade.

After a generation of upsizing powerplants and downsizing fuel-economy numbers, even the German luxury brands are paying close attention to the fragile U.S. economy and the spiky threat of ballooning gas prices. The C-Class still spreads the wealth between bigger, more powerful V-6 and AMG V-8 versions--but it's the new turbo four that's the most intriguing, for timely, geopolitical reasons.

In a first drive that circled the Spanish island of Tenerife, in three different flavors of the revamped C-Class--including the base Euro diesel, the C220 CDI, and the torqueaholic C350 CDI--the new entry-level C250 declares a decisive win for logic. Like the optimized powertrains cropping up elsewhere in the auto world, the C250 just makes clear sense.

For the record, the higher-output versions of the revamped C-Class include a C300 4Matic sedan with the carryover 228-hp V-6, and a C350 with the uprated 3.5-liter V-6 found in the larger E-Class, with 302 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, an upgrade of 34 horsepower and 15 pound-feet over the previous V-6.

Off the spec sheet, the C250's 1.8-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged four has some of the same technical makeup as the engines in Ford's EcoBoost range, the VW/Audi 2.0-liter, or GM's DI turbo four. The Mercedes flavor of high-tech turbocharging nearly matches the power of the carryover base V-6, coupling its blower with direct injection to wind out 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque. That's only 27 fewer horsepower than the V-6 while it's eight pound-feet of torque more in the win column.

The net result: it's not meaningfully less powerful than 2011's base C-Class. The former C300 came in at a 0-60 mph time about about 7.1 seconds, and that's what's quoted for the new one, too. Based on a brief drive through crowded Canary Islands causeways, it seems highly unlikely that any intender will notice how the new turbo four changes the C-Class' straight-line performance.

The driving feel probably won't even register with the raft of first-time Benz drivers who find a great lease deal their most compelling  way into the brand. There's just a strong, smooth wave of torque being fed to the rear wheels across a big part of the tach's sweep. The key differences with the V-6s boil down to the usual noises and vibrations--the deeper, slightly more earthy four-cylinder engine noise, without the thrash of an oversized four but also, minus the kind of induction whistle that gives everything from XKRs to Evos their jankier soundtrack.

We do wish the paddle-shift controls would make their way into U.S. models; the Euro diesels have them, and the fallback side-to-side motion for shifting the C250's seven-speed automatic in sport mode means lifting a hand from the wheel, something we'd rather not do on a lane-and-a-half path with guardrails apparently made from twist ties. (Paddles seem to be reserved for the mighty C63 AMG, which arrives later this year.)

No official EPA numbers are out, but fully expect that turbocharging and direct injection will improve on the figures generated by last year's 2011 C-Class. The estimates are a 15-percent boost in mileage; with the base 2011 model checking in at 18/26 mpg, a new highway number of 28 mpg could be within easy reach.

Other driving characteristics hardly have been changed. The C-Class scores well for its sharper dynamics--particularly the sport models. All models once again have an Agility Control suspension, which uses mechanical switches to change suspension tautness and reduce body motion, while still giving the C-Class a well-controlled ride. The steering can feel a bit zestless, and yet it's a magnitude better than the previous generation, and much nearer to the benchmark BMW feel.

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