Like many a carmaker these days, Mercedes-Benz is largely pursuing a strategy of offering the same flavor of automobile in different sizes. The new all-electric EQE and EQS look almost identical, and you can bet their future SUV siblings will as well; the GT and GT 4-Door could be confused for one another from the front if you didn't have them side-by-side for reference. It's even present in their naming strategy; there's a reason Mercedes rebranded the GLK-, ML- and GL-Class SUVs as GLC, GLE and GLS, and it ain't because their badge supplier was offering a deal on the letters G and L.
But there's precedent for this move at Mercedes — and it's the C-Class. Even more than the E-Class, which often has a bit of its own distinct design flavor (remember the quad-headlight era of the 1990s?), the compact C has long been a shrunken-down version of the range-topping S-Class in looks and vibe.
So, with an all-new C-Class hitting the streets this spring for the 2023 model year, we took it for a spin in upstate New York to see if it still manages to serve up S-Class vibes at a Ford Mustang GT price.
Well, all the things that generally make a Mercedes-Benz special: elegant design, a supple ride, solid construction, loads of technology, etc. The C-Class is certainly built to a price point in a way the more expensive E and S aren't; the doors feels a bit less substantial, the trim a bit cheaper in places. Still, it exudes the sort of Germanic stolidity and substance that has long characterized the brand's cars.
For another, it's likely going to be one of the last all-new Mercedes products to launch with gasoline power under the hood. Starting in 2025, every all-new car with a three-pointed star will be electric, according to the brand's current plan; given the brand's usual refresh cadence, that means that, after this new C-Class, we'll likely see one more new E-Class, a new batch of GLC / GLE / GLS SUVs, and then...nothing but EVs from here until the sun goes dark.
Luxurious and comfortable more than sporty — at least, in the form of the C300 that I test-drove and that will make up the entry point for the C-Class line in America. Don't be fooled by the first word in the AMG Line package; the suspension is no more sporty, just 15 mm lower, the turbocharged inline-four makes the same raspy note under hard acceleration as in other new C-Classes, and the brake pedal feels soft as whipped cream for the first half of its travel.
That said, the C300 surprisingly enjoyable to hustle down a back road. The suspension may be soft, but the body roll makes it feel quicker than it is (and thus more fun); more importantly, the steering is accurate and direct, the body feels solid and and the car's reactions predictable right up to the moment when understeer starts to rear its head. The C300 helps bolster the case for the axiom that it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slow.
It bodes well for the forthcoming C43 and C63 AMG models, both of which, like the C300, will use turbo-four power, but with outputs ranging from the remarkable (402 hp in the C43) to the ridiculous (somewhere between 500–600 horses from a hybridized, amped-up four-pot in the C63).
But like most non-AMG Mercs, the C300 is most at home on the wide-open highway, leveraging its torque and power to zip up to autobahn-worthy cruising speeds and then hanging out there in stability and tranquility. Even at 80 miles per hour, it feels as composed as it does sitting at a traffic light.
As with the exterior, it's very much like the S-Class. The details may differ, but the key points of the inside you observe at first glance and spend the most time interacting with — the gorgeous reconfigurable all-digital instrument panel, the giant 11.9-inch tablet-style infotainment touchscreen, the occasionally-frustrating-but-generally-handy touchpads on the steering wheel — are all ported over from the bigger Benz.
Work your way up the simplified options list — instead of picking everything á la carte, buyers now choose from Premium, Exclusive or Pinnacle trims, then from a smattering of other picks — and even more high-end features filter in. Once you reach Exclusive, you score the same sort of elegant multi-tone LED mood lighting found in fancier Benzes; opt for the top Pinnacle trim, for example, and there's a widescreen full-color head-up display that packs nearly as much information as Iron Man's HUD.
Once you adjust the driver's seat through its myriad moves to find the ideal arrangement, it's a delightful place to knock off a few hours of driving. The seats are well-bolstered to hold you in place in turns, but don't overdo their swaddling the way some super-sporty thrones do. (Note to automakers: just because a car is meant to be driven fast doesn't mean people want race car seats.)
The biggest difference versus the S-Class is the back seat, however. That's no surprise — the S is 21.2 inches longer and has a 13.4-inch-longer wheelbase — but the C's second row winds up being tight enough as to be almost unusable for grown humans. With the driver's seat pushed back to a comfortable, but not extreme, position for my six-foot-four frame, there wasn't even enough room behind me to slip my midsize backpack between the back of my seat and the back bench cushion; legs would be pretty much impossible.
Granted, this won't be a problem for everyone; if you're not of great stature, or if you use your back seat primarily for carrying groceries, luggage and / or pets, the C-Class will work quite well for you. But if your driving plans involve conveying three or more people of above-average height, you'll probably want to seek another mode of transport.
The compact luxury sedan category may not be the hotbed of excitement it once was — as with many things, you can blame the rise of SUVs for that — but there are still plenty of comparable options for this size and price. The BMW 3 Series, of course, is first and foremost; Audi would love to show potential C-Class buyers something in an A4; Cadillac offers both the CT4 and CT5, depending on whether you value space or price more; Volvo has the S60, Genesis has the G70, Infiniti has the Q50, Acura has the TLX, Lexus has the ES and the IS. And of course, there's the Tesla Model 3, which offers an electric take on the same basic idea of a not-too-large luxury sedan.
Still, while each of those offers benefits distinct unto themselves, none of them has a three-pointed star on the nose. That would likely be enough to move plenty of units no matter how good the new C-Class is; luckily for buyers, though, Mercedes made sure the new version remains very much worthy of that badge.
The 2022 Mercedes-Benz C300
Base Price: $44,600
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four; nine-speed automatic; rear- or all-wheel-drive
Torque: 295 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: Not yet rated
The S-Class of electric cars proves every bit worthy of sitting atop the Mercedes lineup.