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2022 Mercedes-Benz C-Class First Drive Review: A Cut Above

The fifth-generation C300 not only makes its competitors feel outdated, it makes the larger E-Class feel a bit irrelevant.

2022 Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic Sedan
The new Mercedes C-Class looks evolutionary, but it's a major improvement.
Daniel Golson/CNET

When the fourth-generation Mercedes-Benz C-Class debuted in 2013 it was dubbed a baby S-Class thanks to its class-above interior design and refinement. And while it's remained the aesthete's choice in the subsequent years, newer competitors offer better overall packages. Now there's a totally new C-Class yet again, and it's even more worthy of the baby S-Class descriptor.

The 2022 C-Class' exterior design is evolutionary and slots in well with the rest of the Mercedes lineup, though while it's handsome, I wish it were less boring. The biggest changes are the wider grille and horizontal taillights, and creases and prominent surfacing elements have been kept to a minimum. There are some super cool details like the repeating star pattern in the grille and the LED taillights' graphics. Compared to the outgoing C-Class the new model has a 1-inch longer wheelbase and is 2.5 inches longer overall.

Open the doors and you're yet again met with the best interior in the segment, one that punches above its class. Every new C-Class has a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and an 11.9-inch central touchscreen, the latter of which is nicely angled toward the driver. A sweeping trim panel shaped like an airplane wing can be had in a number of different finishes, with my favorite being the matte wood with inset aluminum lines. Certain trims like this car's metal weave replace the center console's standard piano black finish with a matching panel, which is a lot more interesting. My favorite design elements are the new squircle air vents, which have a really nice tactile feel.

Both screens are standard equipment.

Daniel Golson/CNET

Some of the C-Class' lower panels are covered in cheaper plastics than before, like the bottom of the door cards and the base of the center console, but I don't mind -- those are parts that are frequently getting scratched and dirty anyway. This test car has a $1,620 leather seat upgrade, and even fancier quilted Nappa leather is available. The front seats are plenty supportive and comfortable, though I wish they offered a massage function. The rear seats are also roomier than before.

The 2022 C300 uses a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 like the outgoing model, but it's a totally new engine. The motor now has a 48-volt mild-hybrid system and puts out 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, an improvement of 22 lb-ft. It's definitely smoother in operation than the old motor, especially in terms of the start/stop system, and the new engine has better midrange response. There are plenty of cool turbo noises at low speeds, but otherwise the C300's engine sounds a little noisy and rough like most other 2.0Ts on the market. The nine-speed automatic transmission is also an improvement, though it still searches through gears a little too much.

That's a lot of stars.

Daniel Golson/CNET

The biggest issue with how the old C-Class drove was the ride quality and the new car fixes that. Even with the AMG Line's stiffer suspension tune and 19-inch wheels wrapped in Goodyear Eagle F1 tires, the 2022 C-Class has a smooth ride that soaks up road imperfections way better than before, without any of the old crashiness and shuddering. An air suspension is no longer an option and adaptive dampers aren't on the menu either, but I don't find myself missing these features. The 2022 C-Class' chassis is not just better than the outgoing car's, it's a cut above pretty much every competitor in terms of ride quality.

My test car has the optional $2,000 all-wheel-drive system and there's virtually no understeer even when I push the C300 hard. The steering is sharper than before and though it has a bit of an on-center dead zone, it provides a nice amount of feedback. The Alfa Romeo Giulia and Genesis G70 are still the driver's choices in this segment, but even this lowly C300 is a lot of fun on the tight mountain roads north of Ojai, California. Sadly, the C300 isn't available in the US with its new rear-axle-steering system that can turn the back wheels up to 2.5 degrees, but that'll be standard on the AMG C43, which should be an absolute hoot with 402 hp.

There's not much to say about the C-Class' MBUX operating system that hasn't already been covered. The center screen is slightly smaller than what you get on the S-Class, but its functionality is exactly the same and it features the same great zero-layer display option. Every C-Class comes standard with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a fingerprint sensor for controlling driver profiles and the "Hey, Mercedes" voice assistant. Mercedes' augmented-reality navigation is available, but while a head-up display is also optional, the C-Class sadly does without the huge AR HUD offered in the S-Class.

The new C-Class has a longer wheelbase.

Daniel Golson/CNET

The fancy features don't stop there. Optional goodies include a panoramic sunroof, a surround-view camera system, active park assist, a wireless charger, additional USB-C ports, an integrated dashcam, a wireless phone charger, NFC device pairing and a built-in toll reader. The C-Class is also available with basically every safety feature from the S-Class like automated emergency braking, lane-change assist, front and rear cross-traffic alert, active blind-spot assist, lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control with route-based speed and stop-and-go capabilities up to 35 mph. But far and away my favorite available feature is the Burmester 3D surround sound system, which has highly configurable personalization settings and sounds much better than any sound system offered by the C-Class' competitors.

The 2022 C-Class is already reaching dealer lots and its starting price of $44,600 includes features like keyless entry, push-button start, a single-pane sunroof, heated front seats, ambient interior lighting, a power trunklid, LED lights and some of the aforementioned safety systems. Fully loaded my test car is $62,070, which is a whole lot of scratch for a compact luxury sedan. But the new C-Class only feels like a compact in terms of size. It offers major value, and it's good enough to make the larger E-Class feel a bit irrelevant.