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Mercedes-Benz may be known for big sedans and six-figure convertibles, but the German manufacturer's bread and butter is their C-Class lineup. No fewer than 8.5 million C-Class cars have been sold in the last quarter century, and despite missteps like the slow-selling C230 Coupe, the compact Benz has earned a solid reputation in a segment where value and functionality take precedence over luxury and performance.

The C-Class coupe we spied at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show is a sporty spinoff, but the 2012 C-Class sedan we drove after the show reveals just how far Mercedes-Benz has gone towards improving their entry-level four-door. In European form, the 2012 C-Class is 31 percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor (thanks to the stop/start technology offered there). US cars will get direct-injected powerplants and more sophisticated seven-speed automatic transmissions in every model, with efficiency aided by engine tweaks and weight-saving measures like a new aluminum hood. Engine output is also boosted, with the V6 offering a gain of 34 horsepower and 15 lb-ft of torque over the outgoing model.

Though you wouldn't know it at first glance, the 2012 C-Class is the most comprehensively face-lifted vehicle in Mercedes-Benz history, boasting more than 2,000 new components. A healthy dose of driver aids have been inherited from more expensive models, a trend Mercedes-Benz calls the "democratization of high-tech." Safety features include Adaptive Highbeam Assist, Attention Assist, Blind Spot Assist, and Lane Keeping Assist, which, in the European version, will actually steer the wandering car back into its lane. US-equipped cars merely warn the driver through vibrations in the steering wheel.

When it hits US showrooms in the fall of 2011, the C-Class sedan will be available in four configurations: C250 (turbocharged 4-cylinder, rear wheel-drive), C350 (6-cylinder, rear wheel-drive), C300 (6-cylinder, all wheel-drive), and C63 AMG (8-cylinder, rear wheel-drive.) Pricing hasn?t been announced, but expect the C350 to come in close to the current model?s $40,000 base price.

 

Luxury Trickles Down

Active safety features aren't the only things the C-Class sedan has adopted from higher-end Benzes; another benefit is a more sophisticated interior design. Thanks to a restyled dashboard with an integrated color display, the C-Class interior more closely resembles its stylish big sibling, the CLS. Upmarket touches like a nappa leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter now come standard, while the C350 adds a long list of additional standard items like a power sunroof, heated 14-way power front seats, and a 12-speaker Harman/Kardon Logic7 surround sound system.

Optional interior items include a multimedia package, which adds an 80-gigabyte hard drive navigation system, voice control for audio, telephone, navigation, an in-dash 6-disc DVD/CD changer and a rearview camera. Among the C350's standalone options is Mercedes-Benz's new Mbrace system, which offers automatic collision notification and roadside assistance using GPS technology, a la GM's OnStar. Mbrace also allows you to send routes or destinations to the vehicle?s navigation system, and remotely unlock the doors when keys are locked inside.

 

Angular But Uncontroversial

The C-Class sedan's exterior updates are subtle at best, and you may even be hard-pressed to notice the differences compared to the outgoing model. Among the tweaks are a re-worked hood, bumpers, and headlamps, which now emphasize a "front-end arrow form" where the tops of the lights meet the new, aluminum hood. LED running lamps are still found up front, while the rear now features tail lights integrated with a one-piece "jewel case."

The C-Class's modestly restyled exterior commits no sins - it's a balanced, likable, and ultimately inoffensive body that takes an angular design direction in contrast to the more organically styled BMW 3-series. And while Japanese competitors Iike the Infiniti G37 and Lexus IS boast splashier lines, their designs may also be more susceptible to the ravages of time; call it staid, conservative, or simply Teutonic, we think the C-Class will look just as good in a few years as it does today.

 

More Power and Better Fuel Economy

Despite bumps in horsepower and torque, US-bound C-Class engines have seen up to 15 percent in fuel economy improvements, thanks largely to the addition of direct injection. The technology has become a mandatory part of any state-of-the-art powerplant, and offers greater efficiency by more precisely controlling how and when gasoline is injected into the engine for combustion. Direct injection has been a long-awaited addition to the C-Class, having been introduced to all manner of cars from exotics to subcompacts.

But direct injection isn't the only way the C-Class engines gain their efficiency. A new heat-management process prevents unnecessary coolant circulation when the engine is cold, enabling faster warm-up cycles when outside temps are low. Camshaft adjusters have been optimized for better low-end torque, and the net sum of these improvements helps every C-Class sedan earn Mercedes-Benz's BlueEfficiency classification.

The cabin of our C350 test car is a tidy but fairly luxurious space; black, grain-finished surfaces abound, and a thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel frames large, white-backed analog gauges. Trim materials offset an otherwise no-nonsense demeanor; our tester was clad in AMG trim, sporting real aluminum across the steering wheel, dashboard, and center console. Other variants feature black ash or burl walnut bits for a richer, more traditional feel.

The C350 sedan drives with a sense of confident calm. Suspension has been re-tuned for slightly more responsiveness with adaptive shocks that enable a smooth ride over most surfaces, and stiffen during higher speed cornering or abrupt steering input. While negotiating twisting mountain roads, the C350 offered a reasonable balance between ride comfort and control. Its 3,615-pound body hustled itself effectively, thanks in part to a five-arm multilink rear setup and the aforementioned automatic suspension stiffening. The new 302 horsepower V6 (which Mercedes-Benz estimates will whisk you to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds) feels noticeably gutsier than the 2011 model, with assertive torque that pulls nicely in concert with the smooth-shifting seven-speed transmission. Though more engaging to drive than its predecessor, the 2012 C350 still veers toward the functional end of the spectrum, offering solid on-road manners that will satisfy all but the most performance-oriented drivers.

The C350's economy is estimated at a combined 21 mpg; in contrast, the turbocharged four-cylinder C250 should hit 30 mpg on the highway, for a combined average of 24 mpg.

 

The German Value Proposition

The most notable area of improvements lie in its V6 engine, which finally approaches the output of its archrival, the BMW 335i. Though the twin-turbocharged Bimmer delivers more torque at lower rpms (300 lb-ft at 1,400 rpm, versus the Benz's 273 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm), the Mercedes' raison d?Ítre is decidedly different; the C350 is less an all-out sport sedan, and more a stylish but utilitarian twist on the four-door format. It also undercuts its German adversary by $2,050, making it a more value-oriented draw.

While a more apples-to-oranges comparison might pit the C350 against the Lexus IS350 ($39,070) or Infiniti G37 ($35,800), it?s BMW that Mercedes-Benz has in its crosshairs. And if the C350 is still too rich for your blood, the upcoming four-cylinder C250 should offer an even more attractively priced package when it?s released later this year.

With its subtle exterior tweaks, uprated interior amenities, and more efficient drivetrains (which happen to produce more power), the 2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class takes on the competition with a stronger arsenal of amenities and a more focused sense of purpose on the road.

While its improvements are more evolutionary than revolutionary, the C-Class has matured into a more involving car to drive than its predecessor, while maintaining a relatively competitive pricepoint.

It may not be quite as driver-oriented as the BMW 335i, but that doesn't stop the 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 from being a strong proposition for luxury sedan shoppers. And if the C350's $40,000 MSRP is outside of your pricepoint, the more attractively priced C250 should draw even more buyers towards the triple-pointed star.

author photo

Basem Wasef is an automotive journalist, author, and photographer with two coffee table books under his belt, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics, Robb Report, and Maxim among others. When Basem isn't traveling the globe testing vehicles, he enjoys calling Los Angeles home.

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