Engineered like no other car in the world. At some point in the 90's, Mercedes dropped their longstanding ad campaign. And no wonder. The promise had become a snigger-worthy ironic joke. That said, it stopped being funny when it started being you making regular pilgrimages to your local dealership. Mercedes trumpets its new C-Class as a return to the legendary, over-engineered cars of Mercedes-Benz's past. Heading straight to the very bottom of the range, will the cheapest and most basic of all "true" Benzes right 15 years of wrong?
"Heir ist Ihr Mercedes C180." The attractive Europcar clerk handed me the keys and pointed to a basic looking silver Mercedes nestled in between two extremely seductive Alfa Romeo wagons. Sitting next to the two beauties, the C180K looked more like Miss Moneypenny instead of Vesper Lynd. Restrained and elegant, the new C-Class dropped last year's goofy ovoid look and returned to the timelessly classic wedge shape of the late 1970's.
Being the cheapest in the C-Class range, you get a hood ornament, body colored door handles and plastic wheel covers. The C180K offers none of the chrome disco bauble trinkets found on the North American C300, and its all the better for it. The C180K feels eminently secure in its inexpensive roots, proclaiming to the world that you purchased an engineering masterpiece, not a tarted-up special (cough Lincoln cough).
The unadorned minimalism continues inside; the only gleaming surface you'll find is a polished aluminum six-speed manual gear lever. High-grade black plastic and a few chrome touches accent the rest of the C180K's interior and gauges. Power windows, locks, climate control and a small Nav screen hidden away in the top of the dash are the only options. For a mere 30k Euros, you get what you need und nothing more (unless you need a place to put your coffee).
Everything about the C180K's interior reeks of superior design and craftsmanship, from the ergonomically perfect cloth-covered seats, to materials that feel as though they were constructed to survive a nuclear blast. The C180K shows every Euro's worth of its cost in its absolute perfect construction.
Putting the infrared key into the slot, I cranked the Merc's diminutive 1.8-liter supercharged four-cylinder powerplant. The engine places 156bhp and a torquey 230Nm at your disposal, with a solid little thrum exiting the single chrome exhaust pipe. The engine revs as smoothly as it sounds, and, surprise, it does so with puppy-dog eagerness. Depressing the perfectly weighted clutch (yes, a manual) and slipping the vague-feeling gear lever into first, I pulled out of the carpark and headed straight for the autobahn.
The smallest engine in the C felt right at home puttering around Kaiserslautern. Despite the hefty 3400lbs, the C180K felt sprightly and nimble around the narrow streets, weaving around Smart cars, Golfs and BMWs. The steering was light and tossable.
The firm-yet-compliant ride was brand faithful. Whether surmounting cobblestones, concrete or brick, the C180K was a planted, communicative and comfortable city car. Never wanting for power, easy to shift, the C gave everything, demanded nothing.
Amy, my electronic navigatrix, told me to turn left to merge onto the A6 autobahn. Und now it's time to learn whether the downmarket Merc had upmarket aspiration.
Shifting to third, flooring the accelerator, the C180K moved forward at an adequate pace. A useful 100kmh arrived in about nine seconds. I've driven faster cars, and I've driven slower. The C180K slots nicely between the two, in that special place where hot-footing into a merge requires some attention, but not a lot. And then you're done.
Entering the unrestricted speed zone, I mashed the gas again. Expecting the engine to run out of puff, I looked on in amazement as the engine kept pulling. 140kmh flashed by. The steering tightened-up, the suspension hugged the ground and the cabin remained quiet. When 160kmh rolled around, I shifted gears. The Merc continued to plunge ahead.
The wind noise increased slightly as we topped 260kmh (downhill), yet the little Merc remained as composed as Yoda in a flotation tank. When the engine finally petered-out on the flat and level, the C180K was doing over 130mph, in the rain, in the Alps, at night. And my passengers were sound asleep. We averaged 40mpg coming back from Munich. Astounding.
It's been years since I've driven a car so completely cohesive. The C180K was inexpensive, but never cheap. It wasn't powerful, but it was fun to drive. It delivers excellent fuel economy. Priced right, the low-C could well help Mercedes NA restore some lost luster.
Of course, mechanical and electronic reliability are the ultimate hurdles for a true return to greatness. I remain skeptical, but the odds just got better for American mid-market motorists willing to bet on a Benz.