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Click to view road test review picture gallery“Don’t be fooled by
  the ‘C’ in the new
  C-Class. it’s a surefire
  ‘A’-lister, one that offers
  a roomy interior,
  excellent ride quality
  and agile and well
  balanced handling...”

IT CAN BE SOMEWHAT CONFUSING explaining where cars fall in size and brand image into a particular market sector. Take the new Mercedes C-Class. Using the letter 'C' could suggest it is a C-segment compact car. But it's not. Actually, it's a D-segment upper medium vehicle — and now probably the leader of the 'premium' brands in this sector.

Size, too, is always a contentious issue. For cars, it's relatively straightforward with City or Mini models in the A-segment followed, logically, by the Superminis that make up the B-sector. At the top
end of the market we have self-explanatory Executive and Luxury cars. And then, of course, we have MPV people carriers, SUVs and 4x4s — the latter two being essentially the same; depending on whether they are lifestyle or workhorses.

Where it does get confusing is in the two segments we left out of the preceding parade of market groupings: the C and D segments. These represent the lower medium and upper medium in size and are further differentiated by 'volume' or 'premium' branding. With the blurring of model sector sizing as smaller models get larger and owners of tax-hit company cars down-size from D-segment vehicles to larger C-segment models, no wonder everybody is confused.

C-segment cars are easily typified by the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra. D-segment cars are typified, at the volume end, by the new Ford Mondeo and the older Vauxhall Vectra; while the new Mercedes C-Class — most definitely not a C-segment car at all as its name might suggest — competing against the BMW 3-Series and the soon to-be-replaced Audi A4 at the premium end of the sector.

What is important is that the C and D segments between them account for nearly half of all new cars sold in the UK. Which shows just what
an important model the new C-Class is for Mercedes. Earlier gener-ations of the Mercedes C-Class four-door saloon used to be 'premium' medium-sized C-segment cars. Not any longer. The latest models, which went on sale recently, are much larger in size, technically more advanced, have engines that are more fuel-efficient and offer better performance and better specification at more or less the same prices.

With a body length of 4,581mm, the new C-Class Saloon is 55mm longer, 42mm wider and the wheelbase is 45mm longer than its pre-decessor. Now rear seat passengers, in particular,have much improved legroom. In fact, it is now a true five-seat premium brand executive saloon and looks in part like a scaled-down version of the excellent Mercedes S-class.

For estate car lovers — of whom many favour Mercedes products — the new generation C-Class Estate cars are due to go on sale in the UK early next year and will have their world premiere at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 2007.

For the C-Class Saloon range there is the choice for four- and six-cylinder engines with petrol and diesel options, and with prices starting at 22,937 and topping out at 35,577.

It is not just the 'usual' choice of engine sizes and petrol and diesel options, either. The new C-Class also offers customers the option of
a different style of front grille as a distinguishing feature. In the SE
and Elegance body styles the new grille shape, which I personally do not like, has a bonnet-mounted Mercedes star. The Sport models get instead a huge, centrally-mounted Mercedes star in the grille bars.
For me, the previous generation C-Class (circa 2000-2007), with its elegant low-line bonnet and four-eyed 'face' (referring to the head-lights either side of its elegant grille) was much prettier.

However, due to front-end crash safety and pedestrian impact safety requirements, a higher bonnet line is needed to accommodate energy-absorbing air-space in the engine compartment above the power
unit. So we now have a politically-correct bland front-end which is not unique to Mercedes — it could be applied to any other car made any-where from Korea to America.

Styling apart, the new C-Class is a huge improvement in all other areas. The driveability is the biggest improvement. No longer is it out-shone by the BMW 3-Series or Audi A4. It is rewarding for even the most sporting of drivers. New technology, handling, suspension, braking, safety and stability packages have done wonders for the car.

There are too many to mention in detail, but headline descriptions will suffice to paint the picture for you on just how advanced the new
C-Class models really are: Adaptive Braking, Intelligent Lighting, seven airbags, active head restraints and anticipatory occupant protection with Pre-Safe and Agility Control — all are included as standard or as an option. These are in addition to new suspension and steering sys-tems with cleaner and more powerful engines.

My test car was one of the projected best-selling models — the C 220 CDI Sport Saloon costing 28,002 on the road. Features such as auto-matic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, automatic lights, stability control and electrically-operated windows/door mirrors are included as standard. Add in some must-have options — as company and business car owners and user do — such as the uprated sound system, satellite navigation and the stunning panoramic sunroof, plus a few more bits and bobs, and the total quickly climbed to a rather hefty 34,982.

Sport specification versions have AMG wheels and body kit together with a firmer and lowered suspension. Surprisingly, the sports sus-pension didn't compromise the ride comfort — although the road noise intrusion was higher than expected from the wide, low-profile tyres. Sports models also have metallic facia inserts and silver dial surrounds, and these do brighten up a somewhat conservatively-styled interior. The cabin says 'executive' car but it really doesn't feel that special despite being beautifully put together.

On the plus side, there is really good headroom front and rear, lots of rear legroom and the largest boot in its class. A neat touch is the electrically-operated cover in the facia which slides back to reveal the information display. All the controls are logical, although the foot-operated parking brake is not to my taste.

The C 220 has a 2.1-litre turbocharged high-pressure common rail, four-cylinder diesel engine mated with a six-speed manual transmission. Power output is a healthy 168bhp but maximum torque is a very strong 295lb ft delivered from 2,000rpm. Whilst the top speed is an impressive 142mph and 0-62mph is covered in just 8.5 seconds, it is the low
CO2 figure of 160g/km and combined fuel economy of 47.9mpg that will impress hard-taxed company and business car users the most.

For the record: during a week of heavy motorway driving the C 220
CDI hovered between 50 and 55mpg, and this only dipped to an overall average of 49.7mpg after prolonged periods of stop-start in town traffic. Very impressive. The engine was also really responsive. Willing to work, it revved freely and quietly and the torque made it really easy to drive at lower speeds without the need for frequent gearchanging.

Against? A few points, already noted: the rather brash, non-descript front-end styling; the cabin quality does not feel premium class despite being very well-fitted; expensive when must-have options are fitted; and the foot-operated parking brake. However, not everyone will share my view abut the politically-correct look of the new car's nose and besides, there is much that is impressive and much to like — including the roomy interior, the excellent ride quality, the agile and well balanced handling, strong engine performance and commendably good fuel economy. Summing up? Other than the exterior front-end styling, the new C-Class is a legitimate 'A'-lister. — David Miles

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Mercedes-Benz C 220 CDI Sport | 28,002
Maximum speed: 142mph | 0-62mph: 8.5 seconds
Overall test MPG: 49.7mpg | Power: 168bhp | Torque: 295lb ft

CO2 160g/km | Insurance group 14E
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