x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Road Test: The surgery on Mercedes C-Class is not enough

The new Mercedes-Benz C350 has been given a subtle facelift but it still doesn't excite.

Mercedes claims that more than 2,000 new parts have been integrated into the new C-Clas. Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz
Mercedes claims that more than 2,000 new parts have been integrated into the new C-Clas. Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Facelifts have become part of everyday life. No longer the preserve of the Hollywood elite, like many things, the nip-and-tuck to hide one's true age is something that's now within the financial reach of most of us plebeians. In fact it's become so commonplace that it rarely, ahem, raises an eyebrow. Cars are not immune to this trend and Mercedes's best-selling model, the C-Class, has just emerged from mid-life surgery; not that you'd know it by taking a cursory glance.

Mercedes has chosen to launch the revised C-Class at the same time and location as the all-new SLK and I've already experienced that car on the challenging and (in case you're ever tempted to visit and hire a car) utterly stunning mountain roads of Tenerife, the Spanish island off the north-west coast of Africa. They're a thrilling mix of lush, tropical landscapes and bizarre, otherworldly volcanic vistas where the roads climb so high that altitude sickness can hit you like a brick in the face and any car will struggle to deliver its best.

The C-Class facelift has, indeed, nipped and tucked the lines; most obvious is the subtle nosejob, which brings a revised radiator grille (still fussy and traditional for the standard and Elegance variants while Avantgarde models are treated to a much more sleek and sporting item more in keeping with the SL, SLK, CLS et al). There are new bumpers and new lamps front and rear and the estate is a particularly smart-looking vehicle, especially with the right alloy rims fitted. Inside, however, the redesign is more readily apparent with a dramatic improvement in quality, both in its appearance and the materials used in its construction.

The scratchy plastics are gone, replaced by expensive-feeling surfaces that you can't help but run a finger along. The awful pop-up screen that used to serve as the infotainment centrepiece has also been consigned to the dustbin; in its stead a much better, more integrated item that nestles within the fascia. Switchgear is intelligently and intuitively laid out and there are expensive-looking metal trims to the rotating control knobs. The overall impression is that of an S-Class that's been shrunk in the wash, which can only be a good thing because that pervading feel of luxury is becoming more important in the sector in which this little Merc finds itself competing.

However, Mercedes claims that more than 2,000 new parts have been integrated into the new C-Class, which means it's the most comprehensive mid-life refresh ever undertaken by the company. So the real advancements must have been made underneath the sombre suit. The engines have been carried over from the outgoing model, as they'd been reworked just a year ago, but there is actually a new, direct-injection V6 petrol unit in the latest line-up: the 350, which forms part of Merc's eco-warrior "BlueEfficiency" charm offensive. And it really is the pick of the bunch, especially for the Middle East market where the benefits of diesel engines are seen much less than in Europe.

Performance from the 350 is brisk, as it should be given its technical specification, if not ultimately electrifying. It feels strong and muscular and the new seven-speed automatic shifter is perfectly suited to this engine. No matter how steep the incline of the roads I charge it along, it just goes and goes with almost contemptuous ease. Grip is excellent, too, and there's little feeling of interference from the car's electronic safety and traction systems. Which means that, while its interior refinements give it a "mini S-Class" vibe, on the road it's more focused, more chuckable, more fun. In fact, the C-Class has, in recent years, closed the gaping hole that used to exist between it and BMW's famed 3 Series for drivability. The Merc might look like the old man's choice but there's little between the two models when it comes to the experiences on offer from behind the wheel.

Those 2,000 new parts have done a fine job of coming together and making the C-Class a more resolved, more complete executive car, but the effects are subtle enough for many to miss. Mercedes seems not to care too much about that; the company would much rather home in on the fact that there are no fewer than 10 new "assistance systems for more safety". Most of the safety systems we take for granted on modern cars were introduced by Mercedes, so it's a given that any new model will come loaded with tech to keep occupants and pedestrians alike safer for longer. But things are getting a tad ridiculous now.

Active Bonnet and Attention Assist come as standard throughout the range, while Sport models come with Intelligent Light System and Adaptive Highbeam Assist, which automatically dips the lights when you're entering a built-up area. If you really want them, available as options are: Pre-Safe Brake, Distronic Plus, Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Assist and Speed Limit Assist, which flashes angrily at you when you transgress any given speed limit (the car even knows when you're driving within a temporary speed limit area because it can read the road signs it passes). All very admirable but if you need all these things, then perhaps it's time to analyse whether you should be sharing road space with other drivers in the first place. If you can't do without this tech, get off the road. Please.

For now, though, the C-Class might not set your world alight (the AMG nut-job will do that soon) but it's a fine car nonetheless. There's an enemy at the gates, though, in the shape of BMW's new 3 Series, which will be with us in a few months' time. Once that's here, all bets will be off and the Merc will need more than a Botox injection to keep us interested. No pressure, then.