EVEN at the best of times, it’s hard to figure out which of the three German compact executive cars (Mercedes C-Class, BMW 3 Series or Audi A4) has the upper hand in a fierce rivalry that seems to have been going on… well, forever. But 2005 will see the battle heat up even more. A brand new 3 Series is on the way, but before that we’ll also get the dramatically revised A4.

These days, the Germans are also under attack from the Swedes, in the shape of Volvo’s excellent S40.

However, as a sort of pre-emptive strike, Mercedes last year revealed an improved C-Class.

At first glance, the revisions are not that obvious. Take a closer look, however, and the styling changes are very effective in giving the C-Class a more modern, and especially sportier, appearance. All models now have clear-lens headlamps, a new front bumper with a more pronounced lower air intake, and a revised grille, now with three slats. The more muscular rear bumper treatment of the previous Avantgarde trim line, along with side skirts, is standard on all models.

Adding to the sportier look are a wider track (from 1 493 to 1 505 mm), and the fitment of 16-inch wheels with wide 205/55 R16 tyres. Overall, these subtle changes work very well to keep the C-Class looking fresh.

While the exterior has benefited from the addition of sportier bits, the interior has undergone a serious lift in quality and switchgear design. There are new controls for the standard automatic climate control system, and the COMAND DVD navigation system (R21 000 option fitted to the test car) is lifted straight out of the E-Class. Four chromerimmed gauges with simple markings add to the classy appearance.

Our test unit featured Elegance trim, a R9 900 option (over Classic spec) that basically adds full leather upholstery, darker wood, courtesy lights in the front doors, different alloy wheels, and body-colour trim bits on the exterior. Is it worth the extra money? We don’t think so. In fact, choosing which options to fit to your C-Class may just be the most difficult decision of all…

The list of standard equipment is not a very long one. Sound is provided by a basic radio/CD player – you pay extra for even a six-disc CD changer. Our test unit was laden with optional extras, including a sunroof (R8 500). It must be said that if we were to compare our test unit with all its extras to the competition, it would seem ridiculously overpriced. So choose your options carefully. However, keep in mind that BMW, for example, is also quite stingy with standard features…

At least the C220 CDI’s list of safety equipment is comprehensive – dual front and side airbags, fullsize curtain airbags, ABS, ASR, BAS and ESP are all fitted. Comfort items include cruise control, and electric adjustment for the front seats, amongst others.

Whatever specification level you opt for, passenger comfort is highly unlikely to be a problem. The seats have been redesigned and now offer a bit more support without sacrificing comfort. And compared with its natural rivals, the C-Class offers more rear legroom, although a third rear passenger will find the transmission tunnel intrusive.

The C-Class has never been badly built, but has lagged behind the 3 Series and A4 in this department. However, these latest models are much improved, and there seems to have been a lift in quality of plastics throughout the interior. The new instrumentation, and the hangdown section’s revised controls, add to a cabin that has a real classy look and feel.

The small, but worthwhile improvements continue under the bonnet. Power comes from the 2,2-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel used before, but its output has been increased from 105 kW to 110 at 4 200 r/min. Torque – 340 N.m at 2 000 r/min – is higher than its Teutonic rivals. This four-valves-percylinder engine features secondgeneration high-pressure commonrail direct injection, and is equipped with balancer shafts to reduce vibrations. A revised six-speed manual gearbox transmits power to the rear wheels. Previously, the longitudinal and transverse movements of the shift lever were separately relayed to the transmission, but a single shift rod now transfers both movements at once. This eliminates the need for the previous complicated linkages, and the result are gearshifts that are both quicker and smoother.

Although the typical diesel clatter is audible at low revs, this is one of the most refined turbodiesels in its class. Power delivery is very smooth, and the gearing suits the engine. The result is a car that always seems to have power in reserve, and one that is delightfully quick to react to throttle inputs. In fact, it feels quite a bit faster than the 10,45 seconds 0-100 km/h acceleration time suggests. The 223 km/h top speed is, however, easily the best in its class. The strong performance doesn’t come at the expense of economy, and our 7,26 litres/100 km fuel index figure compares very favourably with the C220 CDI’s rivals. This equates to a range of 854 km per 62-litre tank.

Aware of the fact that an improvement in handling and steering response was needed to dynamically sharpen-up the CClass, Mercedes-Benz has made several important changes to the car’s underpinnings, and collectively called it “Direct Control.” To improve ride comfort, the three-link front axle has new radius rod bearings with a 22 per cent softer setting. And at the rear, the spring link bearings have been modified.

The basic suspension layout remains unchanged – MacPherson struts in front and a multilink set-up at the rear. The changes work and, as a result, the C-Class is now actually quite an engaging drive, with very good body control and much improved steering feel. And, thankfully, the C-Class’s highly acclaimed ride quality has not suffered as a result of the improvement in handling. We would rate the C-Class as being a close second to the 3 Series in terms of handling ability, and quite a bit better in terms of ride comfort. And as for offering a superb balance of the two, it now comes out on top.

With an average stopping time of 2,95 seconds in our emergency brake test routine (10 stops from 100 km/h), the C220 CDI’s brakes cannot be described as class-leading. However, they were very consistent and there was no fade.

Test summary

Looks can indeed be deceiving. This revised C-Class is a significant improvement over an already impressive predecessor. In fact, it has now become incredibly hard to fault, and is very well positioned to take on the newcomers from Audi and BMW. But you pay for this excellence. The C220 CDI may be quite attractively priced in its standard form, but once the options (some of which should really be standard) are added, the price goes through the roof.

Original article from Car