Playing ‘catch-up’ with Mercedes-Benz
For a long time regarded as ‘the best car brand in the world’, Merc has been through some almighty peaks and troughs in recent years, although Iain Robertson states that its latest product offerings show great signs of recovery.
Pressures of work allied to a seemingly endless run of new models peppering the market with abandon have led me to ignoring (not intentionally, I do assure you) some brands. Therefore, taking up the offer to join Mercedes-Benz on a marque awareness day, in North Yorkshire, seemed almost too beneficial to be true.
Most importantly, I was keen to sample the all-new C-Class (from £36,625), which, in C300 hybrid form, looked immensely tempting. Powered by a 2,145cc, four cylinder twin-turbo diesel, its specific power output is given as 204bhp. However, undoubtedly aided by twin blowers and the hybrid battery pack located beneath the boot floor, the 1.7-tonne saloon hikes up its skirts and blasts like a mistral from 0-60mph in a whisker over six seconds, continuing all the way to a top speed of around 152mph.
Sincerely, I hope it does not sound like overstatement to suggest that those figures are remarkably similar to the C-Class’s sporting progenitor, the illustrious 190E Cosworth, of 26 years ago. Although I seldom concentrate up-front on bland performance figures, preferring to mention them in passing, I feel that this standard of delivery is so enticingly good that no Merc C-Class customer need feel anything but thoroughly well-served by the company.
Factor in a 99g/km CO2 rating, which means (for the moment) a zero-VED charge, plus an Official Combined fuel return of 78.5mpg, which is far closer to reality than several other carmakers I could name, and the bounty just continues. The C-Class will operate in EV-mode for several miles, as long as you do not depress the throttle too much, and progress, through the seven-gear automated-manual transmission (twin-clutch device), is no less than astonishing.
The cabin interior is well-designed and practical, with useful door pockets and plenty of space in the centre console. The driving position is snug (for somebody of my generous proportions) but eminently adjustable through Merc’s customary wide range, via the much-patented door-mounted graphics. The steering column adjustability is also generous. As a result, a safe and commanding driving position can be attained for almost any stature of driver.
Although the design changes have been largely organic, one model after another, making it easy to recognise the lineage, the new C-Class has adopted the very graceful rear-end styling of the much larger S-Class. Although I worry slightly that the ‘AMG’ tagging of almost everything that moves, with a Merc ‘Three-Pointed-Star’ attached to it, is little short of ‘overkill’ and dismissive of the great tuning house that it used to be, there is no doubt that buyers (even if they fail to understand) love the addenda. In the case of the car photographed, that meant a one-inch increase in alloy wheel size, to 17-inches, clad in 225/50 section tyres, which provide unerringly strong grip, resisting any rear-wheel-drive efforts to indulge in oversteer.
I shall perform more intense justice to this extremely exciting and driver-focussed model in the not too distant future. In the meantime, I had missed the very laddish and ultra-sporting A45 AMG model (£45,745 as tested), following its introduction earlier in the year. However, the drive in which I indulged on some of North Yorkshire’s most challenging main roads and back doubles, thankfully free of tourists at this time of the year, was also one of my most memorable.
Once again, it is the performance figures that herald this car’s arrival, if onlookers have not been moved by the fluffing, farting, hissing and blarting, all racket emitted by the car’s remarkable turbocharged 2.0-litre four cylinder petrol engine that develops a gargantuan 355bhp and a similar torque figure. The result is a 0-60mph supercar-bashing blast in just 4.2 seconds, with a top speed (limited) of 168mph. It’s a flaming hatchback! To be frank, I think that the price tag is horrendous and the little gurney flaps on the front bumper edges, all the matt black trim sections and the whopping great tail-spoiler look mildly ridiculous (more so, if stationary in a corporate car park).
Seeking divine intervention, I decided to park the car, to take its snaps, in a country churchyard. It did not help. However, once returned to the driving, flicking the paddle-shifts on the steering wheel and dipping into the car’s immense array of tricks, I found that the only way to unsettle its 4WD stability, was to tackle a deserted and damp roundabout like a hooligan and (traction off) play with four-wheel drifts in complete abandon. The A45 is not about comfort, although it is comfortable. The A45 is not about subtlety. The A45 is rorty, sporty and showy, with chassis dynamics that are competent enough to turn its pilot into a genuine hero. It is not my kind of car, even at half the price, but, for a dose of serious fun, it kind of serves purpose.
The third car on my list was the awesomely intimidating S63 AMG Coupe (£155,735 as tested), with a stunning designer nappa hide interior and Swarovski crystal-enhanced LED headlamps among its long list of incorporated options and accessories (apparently, just the way the high-end Merc customer likes them!). It is hard to believe that one motorcar could include so many breathtaking features but the S-Class Coupe managed the task with some ease, especially as the test car also had over £30,000’s worth of them.
It is a remarkably handsome car and presents perhaps one of the most luxuriantly comfortable and cosseting interiors of any car that I have driven of the past twenty years at least. Yet, realistically, it can only offer space for two people, as the rear seats are all but useless for anyone over the age of five years. Boasting a substantial 585bhp and almost 600lbs ft of torque from its turbocharged V8 5.5-litre petrol engine, even the in-built electronics packages struggled to stop the rear wheels spinning on anything less than a bone-dry road surface. The car’s dynamics are not exactly helpful either, which means that even a competent driver can be caught out by a patch of moistness, made worse by disconcerting mid-corner bumps in the road. Otherwise, a ‘squeal-a-thon’ develops and the rear tyre treads disappear in a cloud of acrid blue smoke.
When the 0-60mph dash can be covered in around 3.6 seconds, before the car courses on to a top speed (electronically restricted) of 186mph (a convenient 300kph), it is of no surprise that the fuel economy can topple into the realms of 11mpg. To be fair, most owners will probably attain closer to 22mpg but you need a decent bank balance and, preferably, an oil well to keep the S63 in business. I shall not bother to highlight the enormous specification list for you but, rest assured, an S63 owner will want for very little.
Finally, I also managed to sample the GLA 45 AMG (from £44,595), which is far better behaved than its hot hatchback cousin. Once again, despite the increased ride height for what is, in essence, a soft-roader version of the hot hatch, the acceleration (0-60mph in 4.5 seconds) and top speed (155mph) are outstanding, however, the ride quality is less jarring and the steering responses are more in tune with the driver.
Were I in the market for a car of this type, I would not entertain the fun and frolics of the A45 but would opt for the GLA alternative instead. It is actually no more spacious inside but gains from what feels like a better driving position and somewhat greater conventionality. In fact, it is a very sweet car to drive, even though flexing the right foot can make the car scurry towards the horizon like no other soft-roader can. Whether, or not, it is worth the money is an issue between you and your purse. I am sure that Mercedes-Benz customers will love the distance shrinking qualities of any of these motorcars.
Conclusions: In terms of performance, each of the new Mercedes-Benz models exceeds expectations by a country-mile. Yet, the bigger and grander the model, the less entrancing is its driver’s appeal. However, the smaller A-Class models cannot quite match the overall competence of the important new C-Class, which is both satisfying in driving terms, as well as initial costs. Participating in the day-long opportunity, I not only enjoyed the thrill of driving the latest Merc models but also determining that the C-Class, notably in hybrid form, is a middleweight champion in its own right. Definitely my car of the day, it is far better to drive and live with than any BMW 3-Series and makes the equivalent Audi A4 look like an over-wrought dullard.