It’s a truism, but it’s true nonetheless: Every brand has a core product, and this is doubly true for automakers. The core product for BMW is the 3/4/whatever-Series of once-compact cars. If you buy a 3 Series BMW, it requires no explanation. Audi’s core product is currently in the process of Schrodinger-vibrating between A3 and A4; those are the cars that make the most sense in Ingolstadt’s lineup.
The core product at Mercedes-Benz, at least for those of us who don’t own G-wagens, is the S-Class sedan (in America) and the E-Class sedan (in Europe). They are the descendants of the almighty Seventies-era 240D and 450SEL that built the Benz brand around the globe. The values associated with that brand don’t translate very well to smaller cars. The 190E did a pretty good job in my opinion, but both it and its successors have long been the victims of color-magazine after-the-fact snark the minute the next model showed up.
The 2017 C300 that I rented in Las Vegas for a quick trip to Ventura, CA and back is, theoretically, the modern equivalent of the 190E 2.3, right down to the miserly specification and the characterless inline-four moaning under the hood. After several hundred miles behind its Benz-generic wheel, however, I’m thinking that Mercedes-Benz has finally succeeded in connecting its smallest Systeme Panhard sedan to a greater and more resonant tradition.
It starts with the styling. I liked the W201 190E, which was a clean and rational design. The models that came afterwards went from bad (W202) to horrifying (W203) to perfectly pleasant (W204), but they always lacked that last bit of proportion. As with the 1984 Cadillac Sedan deVille, you never got the sense that the C-Class was meant to be whatever size it actually was.
This one’s different. It looks like the S-Class, and the proportions are spot-on. Put it next to its bigger brothers, and it looks perfectly at home. Has M-B ever had a three-sedan lineup this visually cohesive? No they have not. There’s nothing stunted or runtlike about this latest C-Class. In that respect, it is the polar opposite of the original SLK convertible, which was the ultimate example of styling-infantilization-as-punishment-for-subpar-economic-achievement.
That sense of proportion carries over into the cockpit, which is sized for grown-ups in a way that the W201 managed just fine but its successors occasionally seemed to forget. The M-B Tex seats adjust in all the critical ways and offer all-day support. If you can’t get comfortable behind the wheel of the C300, you are probably on the outer edges of human variability.
Controls for the infotainment system are the same as they are everywhere from the S63 to the AMG GTR, which is to say: outstanding for satellite radio, pretty good for Bluetooth sources, fair-to-middling everywhere else. The menu system can be surprisingly deep and certain functions are blocked unless the vehicle is stopped in Park. Sound quality is about on par with the non-branded systems in other entry-luxury sedans, but the noise-canceling functions and microphone quality of the hands-free phone system is probably best in class. In a basic-triple-black car like my rental tester, it’s easy to just look at the thing as a no-frills mobile office in which everything works but there’s nothing to impart a sense that you are one of the elect just because your name is on the lease contract. Audi does the tactile-desirability thing quite a bit better, while BMW is more forthcoming with manual transmissions and exhibitions of unapologetic sport style. The Benz is all business.
Shame, then, that it’s not quite up to par in the basic business of Benzes, which happens to be freeway composure. Blame it on the alignment, blame it on the enthusiastically-inflated tires, blame it on the boogie — but this particular C-Class required a firm and frequent hand on the wheel as I sped across the desert and back. My old 190E Cosworth was infinitely superior in that regard: at speed, the wheel acquired a certain dignified deadness and only the not-so-gentle sympathetic rocking of the whole body in time with the massive eccentric single wiper did anything to spoil the impression that one had lowered a magnetic pin into a conveniently machined groove on the tarmac.
Even with a little bit of wandering-nose syndrome, however, this C300 is still a very comfortable and low-stress way to cover big mileage in a hurry. Off the freeway, it’s surprisingly eager to corner, feeling lighter on its feet than the equivalent BMW and offering slightly more authenticity of steering feel than the Audis. The 241 horsepower blown 2.0-liter clatters and clanks but the transmission is both intelligent and decisive in its shifts. It gets out of its own way just fine and it can hustle down any road you like. If you want the luxury of too much power, Mercedes is happy to sell you either the C43, which is pretty good, or the C63, which is better than pretty good. The C300 is simply adequate for purpose.
What else is there to say? The fuel economy is outstanding: 34 mpg at 80-90 mph is nothing at which to sneeze. NVH is good by the standards of the class, with wind noise being particularly low. The rear seat is livable for long trips and pleasant for short ones. The rampant cost-cutting that plagued the DaimlerChrysler-era cars is gone; this is not a luxury car in the ES350 idiom, but rather a prestige car. And while you don’t get very many toys, there’s nothing about the exterior or interior to make you feel ashamed for buying the base model. I’m impressed by the company’s decision to fit 17-inch wheels as standard; it pays off in comfort and noise. If you need to show off a bit more than that, the eighteens are a $500 upgrade, with nineteens a part of the various AMG-style visual upgrade packages.
Lay off the options and this car is yours for $41k or a bit less. For that kind of money, you could get a V6 Toyota with your choice of badges and a considerably longer list of standard equipment. You could also have an Accord 2.0T Touring and a new Rolex Submariner. Those comparisons are fun to make and they are probably not entirely unrepresentative of the discussions that some couples have before their next automotive purchase, but I think they miss the point.
A better way to look at it: For the price of a fair-to-middling SUV you can have a sedan that clearly respects the old Mercedes-Benz values. It has a clattering engine and it’s a little light on toys, but it will probably last a long time and it rewards the driver with a level of comfort and serenity that isn’t easy to find elsewhere at this money. That, together with the fact that it happens to be almost exactly the same size as the W123 240D, makes me think that the C-Class has finally found its true calling as a spiritual replacement for that highly-regarded old Benz. No, it’s not gonna run a million miles on vegetable oil, but on the plus side it has power windows and the ability to climb a grade in less-than-geological time.
A 1983 240D was 25 grand before options. That’s equal to 64k today, which is the cost of a nicely-equipped E-Class. Don’t let that confuse the issue for you. Today’s E-Class is a pretty big car with a lot of stuff in and on it. If you liked the packaging of the old cars and their M-B-Tex-ish character, you’ll like the C300. I can’t promise you that the neighbors will be jealous, and I can’t promise you that you will never hear that snippy old phrase “Cheap-Class” as you drive down Main Street. All I can promise you is this: The C300 is a lot closer to a core product than it used to be.
Get one now, because they’re getting rid of the cruise control stalk next year. It matters more than you think.
[Images: Jack Baruth/TTAC