Mercedes C-Class

The Mercedes C220 offers a superbly comfortable experience with good interior space and a fine engine range

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

It's a tale of two models, but whatever C-Class you go for, you'll be buying an excellent car. Thanks to adaptive dampers, all versions deliver a superbly comfortable experience. Drivers wanting a harder-edged ride should look no further than the Sport trim. And although material quality can't match previous offerings, with good interior space, modern looks and a fine engine range, the new Mercedes is a very impressive package.

While the latest Mercedes may have two road-going personalities, it's got one specific aim in mind: to topple the BMW 3-Series from the number one spot in the sales charts.

For the first time, the C-Class will be offered in a choice of looks, providing buyers with completely individual driving experiences.

Broadening the model's appeal, the racier Sport will gun for younger buyers, while the comfort-oriented SE and Elegance versions aim to keep traditional customers happy. Along with the popular 3-Series, Mercedes is targeting the Audi A4, Lexus IS and Volvo S60, too. But is the company right to be so confident? We drove what is expected to be the range's top seller - the 170bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel C220 CDI - on British roads for the first time to find out.

Our Sport-spec model has a more aggressive front end than the Elegance, and gets a three-bar chrome grille with the famous three-pointed star in the centre, as well as a rather subtle AMG-styled bodykit. On top of the sharp evolution the C-Class has made from the previous model, these touches ensure it looks the part.

Inside, it's all functional and slick. The cabin is well laid out, with clear dials and a superb driving position. Cars with the optional sat-nav unit get a flip-out colour screen, which is controlled by a version of the COMAND system seen in the S-Class. This is operated by a simple rotary dial on the centre console.

Space is pretty good. Legroom in the front is more than ample and, as long as you don't go for the optional twin sunroof (as fitted to our car), there's lots of headroom, too. In the back, it's bigger than its predecessor, so transporting five adults isn't a problem - but as with all the C-Class's rivals, it will be a squeeze.

However, there are some niggles. The German brand persists with its foot-operated parking brake on the latest model which, combined with our car's six-speed manual gearbox, makes hill starts very awkward. And while we're on negatives, the A-Class-style hard plastics on the dashboard compromise the feeling of quality.

Under its stylish skin, the C-Class retains its traditional front-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout, and every variant now gets adaptive dampers all-round. Sport versions come with an Advanced Agility package which, at the touch of a button, sharpens the damping control and steering feel, as well as throttle response. The add-on includes lowered suspension.

The results are impressive. Overall, the C-Class feels secure through fast corners and offers loads of agility. In fact, only an over-light steering set-up really holds it back from bettering the 3-Series. However, the best news is that, while in normal mode, the new dampers provide a brilliant ride, which soaks up bumps and enables the car to float over them with ease.

Helping its cause is the 170bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel powerplant. It's smooth and punchy, and allows the C-Class to sprint from 0-62mph in 8.5 seconds, while returning an excellent 46.3mpg on the combined cycle.

Motorway cruising is serene, and there's plenty of urge for overtaking. It's just a shame that the 7G-Tronic automatic box isn't available as an option on this particular engine.

Standard equipment is good, with automatic climate control, Bluetooth compatibility and safety items such as the marque's active headrests and knee airbags. Upgrading to the top-spec Sport package will set you back a hefty £2,895, though, and with the standard car being so good anyway, buyers may be better off without it.

Indeed, the new C-Class promises to satisfy both existing Mercedes customers and, thanks to its dual personalities, bring in new ones, too. It's an excellent alternative to BMW's 3-Series, and deserves to succeed.

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