Building a prestige car is a bit like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
As soon as the job is finished, it’s time to start again.
But unlike the bridge, the process for keeping a brand at or near the top of the automotive tree requires much more than a fresh coat of paint.
For car makers, it’s one thing to attain greatness, but to maintain it is another thing altogether.
The exception might be Mercedes-Benz – the company that likes to boast it invented the automobile, and has kept reinventing it.
That might sound a bit pompous, but it’s also true.
For the first time in almost a decade, there’s an all-new Mercedes-Benz C-Class compact sedan – the volume-selling model for that famous three-point star. And yes, Benz has done it again.
With fond memories of the previous C-Class – perhaps one of the most impressive cars to wear that badge – there’s an even more beautiful, even more perfect, all-new C-Class slowly filtering its way into Australian showrooms.
Amid a global pandemic, with the growing distraction of an accelerating electric-vehicle revolution, not to mention supply chain woes and a lack of microprocessors, the C-Class is breathtaking.
The C-Class, the first Mercedes to carry the “baby Benz” nickname, was introduced to the market in 1993 and has reached its fifth generation, codenamed W206.
The compact Benz spent its first couple of decades dominated by the sportier, more athletic BMW 3-Series, before the C-Class sharpened its act in the early 2000s and the two German compacts have traded blows ever since.
This new C-Class almost seems to have skipped a generation, so impressive is its technology and its presentation.
At first glance, this C-Class doesn’t look much different to the slinky, ethereal vehicle it replaces. The Benz designers took an already desirable shape and honed the edges here and there.
But slither into that wrap-around cockpit and the new model is light years ahead.
With big single-panel display screens de rigueur for upmarket vehicles, Mercedes has made it a virtue. Instead of using an infotainment screen the size of an iPad, that feature has been upgraded to MacBook Pro-sized with its display module. And it’s not just the size, but the way it has been integrated into the centre dash with a sweep of brushed alloy.
The C-Class DNA is easily recognisable, yet a clear evolution, from the outgoing model – the turret-style air vents, the chunky steering wheel, the electric seat adjustments accessed on the door panel.
The steering wheel, adorned with about a dozen different buttons and finger-touch controls, boasts six spokes instead of the previous three. Be warned, it will take a few days to fully master.
By contrast the massive centre screen is intuitive, with big, clear graphics and a logical system of menus and functions.
That functionality extends to Benz’s familiar new MBUX multimedia system, which also brings voice activation along for the ride with a “hey Mercedes” command, although it can be a bit unnerving when the car interrupts a conversation that strays into Benz-speak.
Latest MBUX features include the ability to send messages (to seek traffic directions or to adjust the air-con) and there’s fingerprint recognition to improve security. The C-Class gets the same sized screen, with most of the same features, as the most expensive car in the Benz fleet, the $600,000 Mercedes-Maybach S680 limousine.
The entry-level C200 arrives on the market at a significant price increase (list price is $78,900 versus about $66k for the previous model). But Benz quite rightly argues that equipment levels have jumped significantly.
Much of its standard kit can also be found on bigger E-Class and even S-Class models.
Ride and handling have been features of the C-Class makeup for almost two decades, ever since the model started fighting the 3-Series on its own turf.
It’s gloriously poised, with razor-sharp steering, impressive ability to soak up road imperfections and superb noise and vibration suppression.
The C-Class employs what might seem like a rather a puny 1.5-litre, turbocharged engine delivering 150kW and 300Nm.
That might sound barely adequate but in truth it is plenty quick enough for most drivers (keep in mind there are far more powerful options further up the model tree).
Its modest capacity is masked by the “EQ” mild hybrid system that harvests modest sums of electric power and redirects it through a small electric motor to assist, particularly during takeoff and heavy acceleration. Like conventional hybrids, it also has a limited electric-only range.
That said, it’s a surprisingly engaging vehicle to drive, although its consumption of 6.9L/100km suggests the little engine is working hard at times.
Just like those harbour bridge painters, there’s no time to rest.
* HOW BIG? Marginally longer and wider than the model it replaces, but still comfortably compact. It brings big-car ride and handling to the entry-level model.
* HOW FAST? The 1.5-litre, mild-hybrid, turbocharged four-cylinder is the smallest engine ever offered in this model, but it’s still a solid performer. Think roughly seven seconds to the 100km/h mark.
* HOW THIRSTY? Official thirst is 6.9L/100km.
* HOW MUCH? C-Class prices have jumped more than 10 grand over the previous model, albeit with more equipment. The C200 starts at $78,900 plus on-road costs.