What It Is: The 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class gives entry-level luxury buyers a gateway to the German company's vehicles. For 2012, it boasts an extensive redo, including the addition of a coupe model for the first time.
Best Thing: The coupe looks terrific, and the new four-cylinder offers plenty of punch with 31 mpg highway.
Worst Thing: Road noise remains, and the rear seat is ornamental at best.
Snap Judgment: Mercedes-Benz fixed most of what needed fixing with the 2012 C-Class, left the rest alone, and introduced a downright sexy two-door that will surely give the BMW 3 Series coupes a run for their money.
You might have noticed that 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedans look a little different than the 2011 models. For example, the headlights are reshaped, and the taillights look a little different.
Oh, and some of them are missing their rear doors.
For 2012, the C-Class gets a coupe for the first time, going head-to-head with German archrival BMW's 3 Series. But the story behind the 2012 Mercedes-Benz is less about what it's lost in doors than what it's gained in engines, technology, and refinement. That's why we happily accepted Mercedes' invitation to fly to Kennebunkport, Maine, to sample the refreshed car.
Well, that and the lobster.
Old and new money live side by side in Kennebunkport, making it an ideal spot for Mercedes to introduce the upgraded 2012 C-Class. After all, the C-Class is the gateway car into the Mercedes-Benz family, allowing the aspiring nouveau riche a toehold thanks to lease prices equivalent to a Toyota Camry's monthly payment. But to get those lower prices, Mercedes-Benz had to cut corners, often giving earlier versions of the "Baby Benz" a low-rent feel out of sync with its high-end nameplate.
For the 2012 model year, Mercedes re-emphasized the small sedan's luxury and technology. In addition to the sexy new coupe, there's an all-new, more luxurious interior; a newly refined, more-powerful 3.5-liter engine; and an all-new turbocharged 1.8-liter that replaces last year's entry-level 3.0-liter V-6 (C-Class sedans with 4Matic all-wheel drive still get the old V-6). Both engines are connected to a revised seven-speed automatic transmission that comes with steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters on Sport models.
Prices don't change much, averaging roughly $800 more than last year's equivalent. When you include the $875 destination charge, the base model C250 Sport sedan goes for $35,675, while Luxury models cost $36,095. The new C250 Coupe costs $38,095, while the C350 Coupe starts at $43,245.
All C-Class cars, regardless of engine or doors, get a ton of standard equipment. There are 11 standard airbags, Attention Assist to warn you if you're getting drowsy, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and a USB input. Coupe models add a standard all-glass roof, standard rear side-impact airbags, and reduce the seating to only four. Options include a multimedia package that adds navigation and a rear-view camera for $2,790; a Lane Keeping Package that bundles blind-spot and lane-keep assist for $850; and a Premium Package that adds an upgraded audio system, better seats, and more for $2,500. Strangely, leather seats are actually a $1,750 option, and not standard as on many of the C-Class's competitors; skip it and you get "M-B Tex," which is German for "very nice vinyl."
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The C-Class sedan comes in two different models: Luxury and Sport. Luxury models get a traditional Mercedes grille, with a three-point star hood ornament perched above. Opt for the Sport model -- as 90 percent of C-Class buyers do -- and you get a more aggressive look with a two-bar grille with an oversized Mercedes star dead center, and no hood ornament. Complementing both models are revised headlights and taillights. The C300 4Matic is the only all-wheel-drive model currently offered, although a C350 4Matic will be available next March.
The Coupe is far and away the most striking of the two body styles, and all coupes get the Sport package standard. The sleek lines lend themselves well to the absence of the two rear doors, and Mercedes stylists have done an excellent job flowing the shortened roof into the trunk and tail. Even though its overall length is virtually identical to the sedan, it is slightly wider, and its roof is 2 inches closer to the ground. Combined with the Sport package's more aggressive grille treatment, the overall impression is that this car means business.
The new interior goes a long way in taking the "entry level" out of this entry-level luxury car. Wood-grain or aluminum inserts complement the new soft-touch dash. The navigation screen is now fixed in place, rather than rising from the instrument panel, and it's augmented by a new full-color, multi-function display in the middle of the speedometer that shows everything from navigation directions to your current radio station.
It's still tight inside, though. The C-Class is classified as a compact, and mainstream cars like the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra offer more passenger space. The front seats are very comfortable, thanks to their good basic shape and multiple adjustments. The same can't be said for the rear. The sedan's small rear doors open onto quarters so cramped that even small children might be uncomfortable. As for the coupe, climbing into the rear seats isn't even worth the trouble. The smallish trunk can be expanded by folding down the rear seatbacks, but it's obvious the C-Class doesn't put a high priority on utility.
It does emphasize safety. An airbag hides behind virtually every interior panel, including the one in front of the driver's knees. Add in standard stability control, anti-lock brakes, and first-rate crash test ratings and you already have a safe car. However, Mercedes-Benz adds a few new arrows to its safety quiver for 2012. Standard on all 2012 C-Class models is Attention Assist, which monitors the driver's eyes and sounds an alert when it senses the driver getting drowsy. The brakes also have a hold feature that prevents the car from rolling when stopped. On the options list are Blind Spot Assist, which senses vehicles that can't be seen in the C-Class's mirrors; Lane Keeping Assist, which gently nudges the steering wheel if it sees the vehicle wandering out of its lane; and Parktronic, which now helps find the right-sized parking spot.
We were most interested in two things: the new four-cylinder engine -- the first in a U.S. Mercedes-Benz model in nearly a decade -- and the new coupe body. So we settled behind the wheel of a dark blue C250 coupe, looked up our destination on the navigation system, and slid the new seven-speed automatic transmission in gear.
The new four-cylinder leaves a strong initial impression. It offers a more satisfying low-end response than the old 3.0-liter V-6, and gives up little even to the revised 3.5-liter V-6. Mercedes says the C250 is a second slower from a standstill to 60 mph than the C350, but unless you're a speed freak, it's not a difference you'll notice during your daily commute. The four-cylinder delivers good power at virtually any speed, and if you're trying to save fuel using the car's standard Economy mode, the small engine feels fine even when it doesn't downshift. If you drive the C350 back-to-back with the C250 you'll notice the difference, but the $5000 premium for the bigger engine, plus the fuel economy hit you'll take, are compelling arguments for C250.
All C-Class coupes come standard with the Sport package, and Mercedes-Benz says 90 percent of sedans will come with it, too. The popular package gives the C-Class a surprisingly firm ride that dispels the notion that all Mercedes-Benz cars float over road imperfections. In the C-Class you feel those bumps, and it's not always a pleasant sensation. Luxury model sedans are a bit softer, but if you lust for the coupe, you're stuck with a lumpy ride.
When you press the "Sport" button on the dash, you'll notice an immediate change in the car's temperament. The transmission downshifts much more willingly, and the suspension gets even tighter. Honestly, it's too much of a good thing. Not only does the already-firm ride get downright harsh, the engine and transmission overreact to the gas pedal, dropping into a lower gear and making the engine scream at the slightest touch. On the other hand, in Economy mode the car sometimes required a too-deliberate prod of the accelerator to convince the transmission to pick a lower gear and get the car moving. An in-between setting would be helpful.
As the miles added up on our way through Maine and New Hampshire on our way to Mt. Washington, the car continued to grow on us. The interior was still tight, but once you find your seat's sweet spot, it's not so bad. It's also far more comfortable and luxurious than before, and the smaller, sportier steering wheel felt natural in our hands. Mercedes-Benz has its own ideas about where to put things like cruise and wiper controls, but you get used to them quickly enough, and the navigation system was easier to use thanks to a few interface changes for 2012. While tire and wind noise are still problematic -- there was a persistent ruffle of wind near the top of the door in coupes -- the immersive audio system easily overpowers any outside distractions. If you're planning a long road trip with one passenger, you could definitely do worse.
And the C63 AMG Coupe? Yes, we drove it. Put simply, with a 451-hp V-8, tightly tuned sport suspension, and aggressive looks, the C63 AMG does everything the standard-issue C-Class does, just much, much faster, for a $61,430 price tag.
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We came away from the new C-Class impressed. Its new engine, body style, and especially its new interior got our attention in almost the same way an all-new vehicle would.
Of course, that was in Maine, which is literally about as far from our familiar roads as you can get while staying in the same country, and as we flew away from Portland's quaintly small airport, questions buzzed in our heads. How will the 2012 C-Class fare on our local roads in Los Angeles, a city that's already thick with C-Class Benzes? Will the stiff suspension be too much to bear? Will the coupe's sharp looks draw as many eyes in car-conscious L.A. as it did in the back roads of Maine? Will the four-cylinder's promise of better fuel economy hold out in a daily commute? We're eager to find out, and look forward to driving the C-Class again as soon as we can.
2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 Sedan: $35,675 (Sport), $36,096 (Luxury); 201-hp 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder; 21 mpg city/31 mpg hwy
2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 Coupe: $38,095; 201-hp 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder; 21 mpg city/31 mpg hwy
2012 Mercedes-Benz C300 4Matic Sedan: $38,895 (Sport), $39,305 (Luxury); 228-hp 3.0-liter V-6; 18 mpg city/25 mpg hwy
2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sedan: $41,450, 302-hp 3.5-liter V-6; 20 mpg city/29 mpg hwy
2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Coupe: $43,245; 302-hp 3.5-liter V-6; 19 mpg city/28 mpg hwy
2012 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Coupe: $62,305; 451-hp 6.2-liter V-8; 13 mpg city/19 mpg hwy
2012 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Sedan: $59,805; 451-hp 6.2-liter V-8; 13 mpg city/19 mpg hwy