Mercedes C-Class

With BMW upsetting the traditionalists with its outrageous approach to styling, it looks as though rivals are treading a softer design path, hoping to pick up those disillusioned buyers.

The C-Class has always been near the top of a very competitive class. With a more agile chassis, improved box and lower prices, that looks set to continue. This facelift has given the C a new lease of life, and Mercedes' base saloon is now ready to face stiff competition from the next-generation 3-Series.

With BMW upsetting the traditionalists with its outrageous approach to styling, it looks as though rivals are treading a softer design path, hoping to pick up those disillusioned buyers.

This is certainly the case with Mercedes' facelifted C-Class, as there are only minor exterior changes but some more interesting developments under the skin. We were the first magazine to get behind the wheel to see if the minimalist attitude is enough.

Continuing the firm's 'one design, several sizes' approach, the C-Class is instantly recognisable. Stylists have grafted on a new front bumper, while the headlights have also been revised. To rival BMW's similar system, Mercedes has also engineered lights which change direction with the steering, allowing the driver constant vision of the road ahead.

Inside, the dashboard has been given a lift with redesigned switchgear and metallic inserts, and the overall finish is less sombre. All facelifted models will have automatic climate control, while self-shifters will be available with optional steering wheel-mounted buttons for manual gearchanges.

Our test car - confusingly badged C230 K - had a supercharged 1.8-litre engine. This was previously reserved for the Sports Coup�, but will now be available across the range. Despite its small capacity, it produces an impressive 192bhp, making 0-62mph possible in 8.1 seconds, with a top speed of 149mph. It puts more costly rivals to shame, and the car feels every bit as quick as the figures suggest on the road. Drive more carefully, though, and 31.7mpg should be possible.

However, the facelifted C-Class's biggest improvement is not the new engine, it's the transmission. A six-speed manual developed for the SLK does away with the old rule of thumb that every Merc should be an auto. With more substantial rods replacing the cable linkages of the current model's unpopular manual box, it has a much more solid feel, and makes shifting a real pleasure.

Not content with sorting the motors and transmission, engineers have also worked on the chassis, altering the set- up front and rear, and widening the track by 12mm. There is also a more direct steering ratio and wider tyres. The changes may not sound significant, but the improvement in on-road characteristics is staggering. The suspension is still quite soft to maintain the smooth ride, but the steering makes the saloon feel much more agile. For the first time, the C-Class has the better of the 3-Series in terms of driving pleasure, while still retaining a silky-smooth ride.

Prices have yet to be officially announced, but given the extra standard equipment and a promised drop in costs, the model looks certain to become better value for money.

Entry-level saloons are expected to be around £19,000 - a £1,000 saving over the current version. We look forward to seeing what BMW has done with the next 3-Series, but Mercedes' subtle approach seems to have worked... for now.

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