By Andrew Ganz
Friday, Jan 27th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 
With their various crossovers and four-door "coupes," German automakers love finding and filling niches. But one segment of the market Mercedes-Benz has largely ignored is the compact coupe class.

Enter the 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe, which joined a refreshed sedan (and wagon for buyers elsewhere) late last year.

Sure, this is hardly the three-pointed star's first attempt at a smaller two-door, but this is the first time it is going head-to-head with segment stalwart BMW's 3-Series Coupe. Over the last 20 years, Mercedes-Benz has offered a quirky (and arguably brand-diluting) three-door hatchback, as well as the more upmarket CLK. That latter was based on the C-Class but priced like an E-Class, so its recipe was a bit unusual.

What is it?
Three flavors of C-Class Coupe are on offer: The turbo four-powered C250 seen here, a pricier, thirstier and faster C350 with a V6, and a much pricier, much thirstier and much, much faster C63 AMG with a V8.

Otherwise, C-Classes - both coupes and sedans - gain an all-new dashboard and a few underbody tweaks.

There's a price to pay for this C-Class, which lists for about $38,000 even before you start piling on the options. Our mostly loaded tester featured a $1,400 Advanced Agility package that added variable steering, AMG wheels and paddle shifters. That option is a custom-order only item that forces a $250 charge. And Mercedes' mbrace concierge and safety services were on board but leather seats are part of a not-installed $1,750 option.

All told, it's possible to load up a C250 Coupe to over $50,000. Any way you slice it, that's a lot of clams for a compact luxury car, but it's not out of line when compared to a BMW 328i or an Audi A5 2.0T.


What's it up against?
Although the C Coupe lacks a hood ornament to use as a crosshair sight, we know that the BMW 3-Series coupe is the C's chief rival, but we can't discount the Audi A5 2.0T. Mercedes-Benz is one step ahead of BMW's game since its 3-Series coupe won't see a four until the next generation, but Audi has been on the mark for a few years.

Cadillac and Infiniti also compete in this range, although their CTS Coupe and G37 Coupe models don't offer four-cylinders either.

How does it look?
Clearly a C-Class, the new Coupe is a bit more sculpted in its detailing than the 2011 sedan was. A big three-pointed star takes center stage on the grille, which is flanked by contoured headlamps (HIDs are an optional extra).

Head to the side of the C-Class and its coupe shape becomes more obvious. More upright than the A5, the C is nonetheless a pleasantly attractive design. Careful chrome strips add an upscale feel, although we snickered at the way the belt line curves upward toward the C-pillar. Hofmeiester kink anyone?

Out back, the coupe is a dead ringer for its sedan stablemates - so much so, in fact, that we encountered another one on the road and didn't realize we were driving twins until we got alongside. Too subtle? To us, the C looks a little less coupe than it does two-door sedan.

And on the inside?
The interior you see here is mostly shared with the four-door, and that's a good thing. A redesigned dashboard designed to recall the company's mid-1980s through 1990s 190E range is attractive and convenient, although the historical link seems to be a bit of a stretch since we don't recall a big high-resolution screen back then.

That screen sits under a big hood next to three clear gauge bezels. Centrally located inside the speedometer is a new LCD that displays brown-tinted trip computer information. A meaty three-spoke steering wheel affronts the driver, who sits in a supremely comfortable power seat. The passenger, meanwhile, must settle for a mix between power and manual adjustments unless the leather package is ordered. The center stack is vertical, but its buttons are generally arrayed in a logical fashion.

Most controls are accessed by a so-called COMAND knob between the front seats. The system is intuitive once mastered, although it makes some easy adjustments a bit of a burden. Still, we think Mercedes-Benz has come up with about the most elegant infotainment system in the industry. Especially pleasing is the beautiful navigation map display, although the sound quality from the optional harman/kardon audio system was a close second for us.

Materials are mostly top notch throughout, especially the glossy burled walnut wood added to our test car. We even grew to like the vinyl (Mercedes calls it MB Tex) trim on the seats, which more closely approximated cow hide than any other synthetic on the market.

Back seat passengers are treated to a small console, though they are clearly sitting in second class. Leg room is minimal and the sloping roofline cuts into head space for taller riders. That's an unfortunate discovery to make once you've contorted yourself through the small opening afforded by the folding front seats. To make matters worse, the rear side windows are fixed. Be prepared for doggy slobber marks on the windows from your passengers as they beg to get out. But you didn't buy a coupe for the spaciousness, did you?

At least the trunk is fairly large and easily accessed by a wide-opening lid.

But does it go?
We were most interested to see how Mercedes' new 1.8-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder would fare since this engine could become a high volume powertrain in North America.

On paper, its statistics are encouraging: 201 horsepower from such small displacement is impressive, while 229 lb-ft. of torque available from 2,200 rpm to 4,300 rpm seems like enough to motivate the 3,538 lbs. two-door. Helping put power exclusively to the rear wheels is the brand's seven-speed adaptive automatic, which can be manually shifted from the lever, or, in the case of our tester, a pair of steering wheel-mounted paddles.

At idle, the four emits a mild thrum accompanied by little vibration. Step on the gas pedal and power builds quickly, although not alarmingly. Once up to speed, highway passing is a cinch thanks to quick kick-down from the transmission and smooth boost from the turbo. With peak torque available from 2,200 rpm, it wasn't too hard to keep the four-cylinder in its power band except when trying to accelerate aggressively out of hard corners at traffic lights. Only then did the C250 feel a bit anemic until the tachometer needle climbed high enough.

Officially, the EPA says that the C250 should peg 21/31 mpg with a 25 mpg average. We saw figures just a little under that, but our driving tends to be con brio.

A little more power might be nice, but there's little to fault with the C250's stellar ride quality. Even the 18-inch wheels with their staggered tires (be careful doing tire rotations!) did little to disturb and impressively composed feel over any terrain. Quietness was another C250 virtue; only the lightest road noise made its way into the cabin.

With these luxurious accolades in mind, it might come as some surprise that the C250 felt right at home on curvy roads. Its steering is syrupy smooth and precise, if a little light on feel, while its stiff chassis was willing to have a little fun.

The C63 AMG's flavor hasn't been entirely watered down with the cylinder count reduction, but driving the C250 was like coaxing a smile out of a butler; try hard enough and you'll get a big grin that nonetheless feels a little out of place.


Why you would buy it:
A C-Class sedan is a little too "German taxi" for you.

Why you wouldn't:
You think a coupe should be lithe sexy.

Leftlane's bottom line
In its quest to become more evocative, Mercedes-Benz has created a premium compact luxury sedan with two fewer doors rather than a sultry coupe.

There's no doubt that the C250 Coupe is attractive, refined, luxurious and even reasonably entertaining to drive. But it remains somewhat emotionally detached and staid in the way Mercedes-Benzes have long been. That might suit most buyers just fine.

The Blackboard:
Aesthetics: B
Technology: A-
Green: B
Drive: B
Value: C-

Overall: B


2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 Coupe base price, $37,220. As tested, $44,115
Wood trim, $325; Rearview camera, $460; mbrace, $660; Advanced Agility Package, $1,400; COMAND infotainment, $930; Premium I Package, $1,995; Special order charge, $250; Destination, $995.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.