2019 Mercedes-Benz C-Class first drive review: Luxury enhanced

It's been four years since this generation of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class was introduced, and the company is wasting no time updating the luxury car with all its latest know-how. From more powerful yet more efficient powertrains, to an even more impressive array of technologies, the 2019 C-Class continues to stake its place at the heart of the class.

Of course, you might not guess that it's new at first glance. "We didn't make any major changes because we got such good reviews that our customers liked it," Iris Schleicher, C-Class product management, says of the design. You'll spot restyled fascias, with newly standard LED head- and taillights for the US market. Other details include a total of 20 new wheel designs globally, more paint colors and the addition of open-pore wood interior trim.

Visual changes inside go along with new technologies. Like the larger E- and S-Class, the C-Class adopts a new steering wheel with touch controllers right where your thumbs rest; they manipulate the optional 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and the central COMAND infotainment system. While a 7-inch display for COMAND remains standard, the C-Class can now be optioned with a 10.25-inch widescreen display for improved legibility. The new steering wheel also puts its cruise-control switches on the wheel's left-hand spoke, rather than on the old control stalk that was by your left knee in the outgoing C-Class.

These technologies and buttons are all easy to use, and you can still use the console-mounted rotary knob and touchpad if you (or your passenger) prefer. Options include navigation, wireless phone charging, 64-color ambient interior lights and a head-up display, to name but a few.

The 2019 C300 features a new 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine with 255 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. That's an increase of 14 horsepower over the outgoing model. Key engine changes for efficiency include a switch to an electric water pump, saving energy, and a twin-scroll turbo that spools more readily for improved low-end torque delivery. There's also a two-step valve-lift system called Camtronic. At low engine loads, the engine switches to low valve openings so the throttle can open further, thus reducing parasitic pumping losses. All told, this new M264 engine should be 4 percent more fuel-efficient than the outgoing M274 model. For reference, today's C300 is rated for 24 miles per gallon city and 33 mpg highway, while the C300 4Matic all-wheel-drive model scores 23/32 mpg. We'll have to wait until closer to the new car's fall on-sale date for updated EPA figures.

A new 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine delivers 255 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.

Mercedes-Benz

The engine purrs and pulls smoothly, aided by supple shifts from its nine-speed automatic transmission. Although no acceleration estimates are available, it'll no doubt be quicker than last year's C300 thanks not only to the horsepower bump but also because there's a shorter final-drive ratio (3.27 instead of 3.07). The engine is virtually lag and hesitation-free, and though its note can be gruff when you wind it out (especially because the transmission will happily hold gears during enthusiastic driving), progress is at least very swift.

The suspension glides over the road and the cabin remains hushed, even when I get on the autobahn and stretch the car's legs a little bit in a limit-free section. The biggest compliment is that the C300 just makes driving incredibly easy: From the fantastic modulation of its brake pedal to the engine's linear delivery to the steering's just-right weighting, it's as much a delight in the city as on back roads.

The Mercedes-AMG C43, that mid-tier performance model between the C300 and the wild C63, also receives more power this year. Its 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 has a larger turbocharger with more boost to bump horsepower by 23 to 385, while torque is steady at 384 pound-feet -- though now from 2,500 to 5,000 rpm, versus 2,000 to 4,200 rpm previously. The extra grunt makes all C43 models quicker, with the sedan and coupe hitting 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds, 0.1 second less than before.

It should go without saying this version is even more fun, scurrying through its nine gears with fury. Push the sports exhaust button for a more raucous soundtrack, with snarls and growling that befit a car that drives with this much vigor. The Cabriolet especially is fun, given how much more audible that naughty exhaust is. The exhaust is so crackly and snarly, in fact, that locals in Gonnesweiler, the German town where Mercedes hosted journalists, apparently complained to the police about the number of AMGs driving through their quiet village.

The AMG C43 is tons of fun and sounds awesome, but is still sprung a little too stiffly for daily use.

Mercedes-Benz

Compared to last year, AMG has also stiffened the car's suspension and retuned its adaptive dampers, so the C43 scythes through bends and clings on when the road becomes all ribbon-like. It's accurate, playful and just the right amount of fast for whipping through the German countryside. All-wheel drive remains standard, with a 31/69 front-rear torque split, so the C43 is always stuck to the pavement yet has an inkling of playfulness to its handling character.

Unfortunately, the C43 always rode very stiffly, and this new model is no exception. It's especially noticeable in a C43 coupe, where the suspension never ceases to fidget in the city, even with the standard adaptive dampers set to Comfort mode. The ride does smooth out a good bit at speed, fortunately, but I suspect the car will be uncomfortable if driven away from Germany's ultra-smooth pavement. Similarly, it takes a few kilometers to acclimate to the C43's hyperactive steering. It has a good sense of straight-ahead -- ideal when bombing down the autobahn -- but is a little twitchy when you first dial in some lock. Once I adapt, though, I enjoy the quickness and precision of the steering.

Other changes to the C43 mostly mirror those applied to the C300. It wears new front and rear fascias, a new trunk spoiler, new circular exhaust and redesigned wheels, the latter of which even have a more aerodynamic design to help with fuel economy. Inside, look for details like a flat-bottom AMG steering wheel, red stitching galore and a special "Supersports" mode for the digital cluster that can show details like tire pressure, G forces and boost levels -- and will flash red as you approach redline and need to grab one of the small plastic shift paddles.

New open-pore wood is a nice addition to an already top-notch interior.

Jake Holmes/Roadshow

If the design isn't exactly revolutionary, all the parts beneath it sure are. Mercedes says that 50 percent of the 2019 C-Class' parts are new and that 80 percent of its electrical architecture is new. The latter statistic reflects how many more technologies were borrowed from the E- and S-Class. For instance, the active-safety features have more advanced cameras and radars now so that the C-Class can provide semi-autonomous driving assistance in more scenarios.

The Distronic adaptive cruise also adds two new features already found on the E-Class. If it's activated and you signal a lane-change on the highway, the car will handle steering into the next lane for you. It works just fine, but the Mercedes programming is so cautious and takes so long that I'd rather just change lanes myself. You can also choose route-adaptive cruise control which will automatically slow before curves or roundabouts if Distronic is enabled. It works fine, but again, it's so hesitant and slows down so much that I prefer driving manually or with the feature turned off.

Perhaps the most interesting new technology is designed to let you know if someone bumps into your car while it's parked. If sensors detect an impact while the anti-theft system is active, the C-Class will send an alert to the owner via the Mercedes Me telematics smartphone app and store a warning in the infotainment system. Mercedes Me will launch in the US in the fall, concurrent with the arrival of the updated C-Class.

An optional 10.25-inch center display is larger than before, but it still runs Mercedes' older COMAND infotainment system.

Jake Holmes/Roadshow

To demonstrate, Mercedes even let journalists drive a Smart Fortwo into a parked C-Class, which is probably the only time a PR rep will ask us to crash a car (for the record, the bumpers of both vehicles survived with nary a scratch). The system works as intended, with a notification on the Comand display as soon as the car is restarted. Sadly, the car won't record video evidence of the crime from its onboard cameras -- though that is technically possible, Mercedes says that the company hasn't yet figured out whether that's legal in every country where the C-Class will be sold.

Even without that technical gimmick, the refreshed C-Class is hugely impressive. Whether you get the luxurious C300 or the racy AMG C43, it delivers luxury, driving satisfaction and style in big doses. Though the car didn't feel at all dated, the 2019 Mercedes C-Class has been updated just enough to ensure that it stays fresh over the coming years. Buy it for the technology, buy it for the comfort, or buy it for the way it drives: Whatever your reason, you'll be satisfied.

The updates may not be substantial, but they're enough to ensure the C-Class remains competitive for years to come.

Mercedes-Benz

Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

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