When Mercedes-Benz released its new S-class in 2013, it set a higher standard for technology in luxury cars. With the redesign of the C-class for the 2015 model year, the company shows that, rather than a trickle, technology floods down the lineup.
The 2015 Mercedes-Benz C400 impressed me with its smooth lines and LED headlights when it first showed up in the CNET garage. Soon I was to discover that not only are the LED headlights standard, so is a Burmester audio system. As for optional features, this C400 came with the full range of driver assistance systems I saw in the S-class, and which sets Mercedes-Benz on the path toward autonomous vehicles.
The C-class, Mercedes-Benz's luxury midsize sedan, comes as the C300 and C400 in the US, with turbocharged four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines, respectively. All-wheel-drive is available on the C300 and standard with the C400. Base price for the C400 comes in at $48,590, although my heavily optioned example hit $63,705. UK C-class buyers enjoy a choice of multiple gasoline and diesel engines, but nothing above four cylinders, with a base price of £26,855. Likewise, Mercedes-Benz keeps the C-class down to four cylinders in Australia and offers a base model for AU$66,626.
The C400 follows a general trend of downsizing engines to gain fuel economy, in this case using a 3-liter V-6. Direct injection and twin turbochargers, one for each bank of cylinders, drive output to 329 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. The C300 employs a turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder, making 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.
In another new twist for Mercedes-Benz, the C400 included five different drive modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport Plus and Individual. Each mode regulated settings including throttle sensitivity, steering response and suspension. I was able to select each mode using a toggle switch labeled "Agility," and I could save custom settings in the Individual mode.
The impressive power figures from the C400's engine were somewhat diminished by the seven-speed automatic transmission. In Eco or the default Comfort modes, the transmission was slow to downshift when I floored the gas pedal to pass other cars. Likewise, while barreling down a twisty road in Sport and Sport Plus, using the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, laggy gear changes kept me from really exploiting the power.
And generally on the road, I found the transmission's gear changes much more noticeable than they should be in a luxury car, suggesting a need for refining the shift programming.
Included on this car was the optional Airmatic suspension, a surprising addition for a midsize vehicle from any manufacturer. However, I didn't feel the C400 glide over the road as smoothly as the S-class. That's not to say it wasn't a very comfortable ride, just not quite as nice as in cars further up the line. The suspension proved itself very competent in Sport and Sport Plus modes, the more sensitive steering program giving me good response from the wheel on twisty roads at speed.
Even better, the C400's standard all-wheel-drive system proved itself on the wet roads I was driving. Taking it out on a rainy day, I could feel the torque shift when I kept the speed up in the turns. The rear wheels felt ready to let go, but the fronts clawed forward, working with the car's traction and stability systems to hold the road.
Helping the C400 earn its EPA fuel economy rating of 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway, an idle stop system shut the engine down when I stopped at traffic lights. I didn't find this system too intrusive, quickly starting up the engine when I left off the brake in plenty of time to let me roll forward with traffic. Those fuel economy numbers are good for a modern engine of this size, and should allow mid-20s average fuel economy. I pulled an average of 22.6 mpg for driving that included all modes, from Eco to Sport Plus.
Mercedes-Benz excels in driver assistance systems, and the C400 benefits from the full array. Setting my preferred speed for the adaptive cruise-control system, lane-keeping automatically engaged, using forward-looking cameras to monitor the lane lines and help steer the car. Having previously experienced this system on the S-class and E-class, I found that it works every bit as well on the C-class. Testing the C400 on the freeway, it lit up a warning screen when I took my hands off the wheel and let it steer. However, at speeds under 20 mph, such as very slow traffic, I could let the car handle the steering, as long as the green wheel icon was lit, showing the car could actually see the lane lines.
This C400 included a new feature, which I hadn't previously seen from Mercedes-Benz, a head-up display projecting onto the windshield. I liked the clear imagery from this optional system, but Mercedes-Benz doesn't make much use of it, only showing speed and turn-by-turn directions. I would have also liked information about the adaptive cruise control setting, showing me actual speed versus set speed. This head-up display was also a bit too intrusive, using a large image occupying too much of my view.
The C400 also exhibited some upgrades to Mercedes-Benz's venerable Comand infotainment system, but it still falls behind those of BMW and Audi. The system consists of a high-resolution 8.4-inch LCD and a dial on the console. In addition, Mercedes-Benz includes a row of buttons on the center stack giving quick access to navigation, stereo and phone controls, a useful update. There is also a touchpad extending over the console dial. However, this touchpad only let me swipe through some menus -- it did not offer character tracing, forcing me to use the dial to manually enter alphanumeric characters.