Pros: More fuel efficient, yet still sophisticated; plenty of Mercedes tech on board

Cons: Styling is new but not innovative

Mercedes-Benz may be known for big sedans and six-figure convertibles, but the German manufacturer's bread and butter is its 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 first unveiled at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show is a sporty spinoff, but it is the 2012 C-Class sedan that reveals just how far Mercedes-Benz has gone toward improving its entry-level four-door. In European form, the 2012 C-Class is 31 percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor (thanks to the start/stop technology offered there). U.S. cars 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 has also been boosted, with the V6 offering a gain of 34 horsepower and 15 lb-ft of torque over the outgoing model.

The C-Class sedan is available in four configurations: C250 (turbocharged inline-4, rear-wheel drive), C350 (V6, rear-wheel drive), C300 (V6, all-wheel drive) and C63 AMG (V8, rear-wheel drive). The midrange C350 is priced at $41,450.

Although 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 number of driver aids were inherited from more expensive models, a trend Mercedes-Benz calls the "democratization of high-tech."

Comfort & Utility

Adapted from higher-end Benzes to the 2012 C-Class is a 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.

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 reworked 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 taillights 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. While Japanese competitors such as the Infiniti G37 and the 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.

Technology

Optional interior items include a multimedia package, which adds an 80-GB hard drive navigation system, voice control for audio, telephone, navigation, an in-dash six-disc DVD/CD changer and a rear-view camera. Among the C350's stand-alone options is Mercedes-Benz's new mbrace system, which offers automatic collision notification and roadside assistance using GPS technology, similar to General Motors' 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.

Despite bumps in horsepower and torque, U.S.-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. It 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 warmup cycles when outside temps are low. Camshaft adjusters have been optimized for better low-end torque. Taken together, these improvements help every C-Class sedan earn Mercedes-Benz's BlueEfficiency classification.

Safety

Safety features include adaptive high-beam 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. U.S-equipped cars merely warn the driver through vibrations in the steering wheel.

Driving Impressions

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 burled walnut bits for a richer, more traditional feel.

The C350 sedan drives with a sense of confident calm. Suspension has been retuned 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-hp V6 (which Mercedes-Benz estimates will whisk you from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds) feels noticeably gutsier than the previous model, with assertive torque that pulls nicely in concert with the smooth-shifting seven-speed transmission. Although 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 2012 C350 sedan's fuel economy is EPA rated at 20 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway; in contrast, the turbocharged four-cylinder C250 is rated at 21/31 mpg.

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.

Other Cars to Consider

BMW 335i - Mercedes C-Class's arch rival, the 335i is more driver-oriented. The twin-turbocharged Bimmer delivers more torque at lower rpm (300 lb-ft at 1,400 rpm, versus the Benz's 273 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm). It also costs about $2,000 more and has a very different feel than the Mercedes, which is more of a stylish but utilitarian twist on the four-door format and less of an all-out sport sedan.

Lexus IS350 - More of an apples-to-apples comparison with the C350 than the BMW is. Similarly priced, too, at $39,070.

Infiniti G37 - Even lower in price at $35,800, putting it on par pricewise with the C250 Sport Sedan, and like the Lexus, its design is more stylish than the C-Class's.

AutoTrader Recommends

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 your price point, the more attractively priced four-cylinder C250 at $35,675 for the Sport sedan and $36,095 for the Luxury sedan model, hould 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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