Jude Morte / Jude Morte | June 23, 2008 00:00
Looming threat to the 3(Series)The Mercedes Benz C-Class has always been a great premium sport compact sedan, but when pitted against its arch-rival -the BMW 3-Series - it became more of an option than a top-of-mind selection. But with the current 3-Series having yet to display major changes of late, can the new C-Class exploit its rival's lack of presence?
Outside, the unit sent for testing (a C180 Kompressor Elegance) is a far cry from its predecessor (the W203 or 2000-2007 C-Class) in terms of design aesthetics, carrying more of the muscular profile of its bigger siblings. Sharp creases in the hood and quarter panels make the W204 (chassis code for the 2007-present C-Class) look chiseled instead of sculpted, while a wider track both front and rear plus a stretched wheelbase make the overall stance far more assertive. The peanut-shaped headlights are gone; in place are rectangular ones that give it a slight scowl. The rear, on the other hand, looks like it paid too much homage to the W203 SportCoupe rear end design and the designers didn't go for something original. Also, the steel rims (with design trim) that came with the demo unit make the car look terribly cheap; they don't give the marque, the C-Class branding and the price (P 2.58 million) any justice. Nevertheless the overall look is more muscular than streamlined, more Lebron James than Kobe Bryant.
The interior layout is clean, but sports much attention to ergonomics. The dashboard gauge cluster has aluminum outer arcs for a sporty look (with large fonts for easy reading), and there's one touch up/down power assist for all windows. The airconditioning is surprisingly weak, requiring the blower setting on three-fourths strength constantly to dissipate heat. The Bluetooth-ready Harman Kardon Logic 7 in-car entertainment (ICE) has a hidden screen above the middle aircon vents, a simple layout for the steering wheel ICE controls, and clarity that can rival the Bose ICE on the Chrysler 300C 3.5L V6. On the other hand it can be hard to operate (frequency tracking mode in particular) using the COMAND (COckpit MAnagement and Navigational Device) system knob but can be done away with familiarization. Whether it's easier to use than BMW's iDrive should be left to personal preference, but this writer feels that the controls of Audi's Multi Media Interface System (MMIS) is much easier to understand and move at first usage than Stuttgart's COMAND or Munich's iDrive.
Despite a claimed wheelbase, length and width increase the cabin still felt cramped for the duration of the test drive. Put two six footers in the front and there's comfortable room for just one in the rear. Storage for small items can be a love-hate matter, as the cupholders can only hold a C2 250 ml bottle, yet the glovebox can swallow two Bibles and two 250 ml C2 bottles. Fortunately storage for bigger items is a plus, as the rear backrest can fold flat to swallow two golf bags.
The C180 is surprisingly fast, despite the displacement and the powerband's narrow low end. The middle and top end of the power curve opens up in a wide way, helped immensely by the supercharger that wakes up at 3250-3500 rpm and comes alive by 5500 rpm. The five-speed slushbox is willing to downshift at one-half pedal effort, but pedal resistance (be it gas or brake pedal) is strong and there's delay in gear movement when using the Touchshift mode. You need to give a lot of foot effort into the gas to get decent acceleration from rest, even when using the tranny's 'Sport' mode. The 231 kph top speed is surprising, and so is the 7.08 km/l consumption on four days mixed driving.
The C180 is unbelievably nimble notwithstanding a 16-inch wheel and Continental PremiumContact 2 195/60R16 89V tire combo, thanks to self adjusting dampers that Mercedes Benz calls Agility Control. The trademark Mercedes Benz ride comfort is very much present, as people riding in the car were able to sleep soundly despite EDSA's increasingly bad tarmac. Traction breaks at 90-100 kph with the electronic stability off, and when the bends are longer and faster, you just lean on the stiff chassis and wait for mild understeer to appear. Steering wheel is light, but feedback rivals that of its 3-Series archrival. When you move the steering wheel off center, you get a direct yet progressive level of resistance that gives the car a precise feel at high speeds.
Safety was also generally positive. Engine braking and brakes are strong; even at one half pedal effort, the ABS wakes up easily and in one big push. Footbrake grip was strong after a day of testing. Two to three days after, the footbrake required that the footbrake pedal be moved three to four inches from the floor to get decent grip on 30-degree inclines. There are turn signals incorporated into the side mirror housings, but views from the side mirrors are a tad narrow, extending to just one lane of latitude sight on both flanks. It's great that the W204 has a plethora of parking sensors, but they are sensitive from one foot onwards, irksome when trying to get the car into local city hall parking or Makati parking slots.
The BMW 3-Series has long been the superstar in the premium sport compact sedan arena, but the new C-Class is fast catching up to being a star in the sales status. A muscular exterior, clean interior layout and ergonomics and surprising grunt (while retaining its hallmark ride comfort) make sure of that.