When Gottlieb Daimler adopted the line “das Beste oder nichts” as his motto more than a century ago, it actually meant something. The prolific German inventor pioneered the high-revving petrol engine as we know it today, and even in the decades after his passing, the Mercedes-Benz company he helped create set the benchmark for technical innovation, culminating in the futuristic (and absurdly expensive) W140 S-Class.
That’s why it’s incredibly ironic the brand adopted the “the best or nothing” maxim as its slogan in 2010 – just as it shed the last vestiges of its engineering-first philosophy. From then on, Mercedes became more interested in giving customers the most flash for their cash than actually building a good car – Sensual Purity design and 64-colour ambient lighting took precedence over things like refinement or ride comfort.
A great example of this was the W205 C-Class. Introduced back in 2014, it offered the suave style of the then-new W222 S-Class (both inside and out, I might add) at a fraction of the price. But it evidently didn’t carry over its big sibling’s serene driving experience – on modestly-specced Malaysian models, at least, it came with rough-sounding engines and a ride that lacked any sort of sophistication whatsoever. Not that this ever hurt the car’s sales performance in our image-conscious market, but I digress.
Tasked to redress that balance is the new W206, which was launched in February. Mercedes has placed a big emphasis on the suspension this time, reducing the number of options and improving the few that remain – all while retaining those big-car looks and tech. But has enough been done to impress this tough critic? We take the car on a round trip to Desaru and back to find out.
Hamstrung by initial CBU pricing – not that it matters
The W206 marks the fifth generation of a car that took the baton from the 190E in 1993 as the traditional entry point into Mercedes ownership. While Stuttgart has long since expanded its lineup downwards, the C-Class is still widely seen as the cheapest “real” Mercedes and as such maintains a level of brand kudos that its smaller siblings lack. No small wonder the C remains a very important model in Malaysia.
Revealed to the world globally in 2021, the W206 arrived on our shores almost exactly a year after. Given the relatively long lead time, it’s perhaps surprising that the car is offered as a full CBU import at first, with CKD local assembly only due to start in the second half of the year. Despite this and the fairly steep starting price of nearly RM290,000, the CBU C-Class is already completely sold out, which is encouraging news.
Two variants are currently being offered – the C 200 Avantgarde at RM288,334 and the C 300 AMG Line at RM330,681. Those figures are nearly RM40,000 higher than the equivalent CKD W205 variants, which can be attributed not only to the new model changeover and increased kit count, but also the higher import tax and excise duty and the half-rate sales and service tax (SST).
Some of that lost ground will be gained back through local assembly, but the CKD model will come with a big disadvantage – it won’t be eligible for the SST rebate, which ends on June 30 barring any more exemptions. Expect any price reduction to be modest as a result.
A case of personal growth
Like the also-new W223 S-Class, the W206 is based on a revised version of the Modular Rear Architecture (MRA 2) that underpinned the W205. There’s no wholesale revolution here – instead, Mercedes has worked on improving the existing package while piling on the technologies.
Even so, the new car has grown quite a bit. Measuring 4,751 mm long, 1,820 mm wide and 1,438 mm tall, the W206 is 65 mm longer, 10 mm wider and nine millimetres lower than the W205, while its 2,865 mm wheelbase is also 25 mm longer. Against its main rival, the G20 BMW 3 Series, the Merc is all but identical except for its 42 mm longer length and 14 mm longer wheelbase.
As a result of the increased dimensions, the C-Class is now a properly big car, and it looks that way on the outside. No longer does Stuttgart’s smallest rear-wheel-drive sedan look like the “baby” version of its larger siblings – it’s now very much its own model, with stretched-out proportions and a longer, less stubby rear end. The flip side is that you no longer get the pleasing compactness of this car’s predecessors.
Anonymous looks, despite more overt Mercedes cues
Mercedes has also cleaned up some of the body side lines (not that the W205 was very cluttered in the first place) while maintaining the fullness of the surfacing. However, there’s a fine line between a minimalist design and a plain one, and some of the old car’s distinctiveness has been lost.
Not helping matters is the lack of definition around the front end, making for a slightly blobby look. This is especially true of the Avantgarde model with its anonymous hexagonal grille and (very obviously fake) bone-shaped “air intake”. The result is a very middle-of-the-road design – blank the large badge and the C 200 could pass off as a late-2010s Opel. It lacks the W205’s assertive, confident look, which was readily apparent no matter how you specced the car.
Mind you, it’s not like Mercedes didn’t try. The AMG Line’s trapezoidal grille is almost excessively wide and it comes with a borderline obnoxious Three-pointed Star pattern – a product of the company’s narcissistic obsession with its own branding. The C 300 also has large twin exhaust tips for a more aggressive look, but like on all recent Mercedes models, they are completely fake. This trend needs to stop – if Volvo can make appealing cars without having to resort to visible tailpipes, then so can Stuttgart.
There are some details I do like, such as the sporty AMG Line front air intake design and the triangular two-piece taillights, the latter giving the car a sharp and handsome appearance from the back. However, I’m not too sure about the 19-inch alloy wheels on the C 300, which are missing the road racer look typically seen on AMG Line multi-spoke rollers. The 18-inch five-spoke items on the C 200, on the other hand, are ace.
A note about the headlights, which are the basic LED High Performance items on both models. Yes, you no longer get the array of cheap-looking reflectors on the previous C 200 (the low beams are now projectors), but the lamps still lack the sophisticated dual-projector look of the fancier Digital Light units.
It must be said that the pure performance (ha ha) of the headlights is beyond reproach, with a good amount of throw both forwards and towards the verges. But while automatic high beam is standard fitment, the lack of any sort of matrix high-beam blanking is a disappointment, especially at the C 300’s price. But hey, it’s the same story with the regular 3 Series, so at least the C-Class isn’t lagging behind.
S-Class-style display works wonders, wireless CarPlay and Android Auto a godsend
If this was an clickbait article, it would be titled, “Bigwigs Hate This Car!” That’s because the C-Class comes with a similar interior design and much of the same technologies as the new S-Class, which itself went on sale just last month. Put a photo of the dashboard of the two cars side by side and unless you are an avid fan of Where’s Wally you’d struggle to notice the difference
Both models come with a similar waterfall-style centre console, on which sits a large portrait-format touchscreen. The C-Class’ display isn’t an OLED panel and is an inch smaller at 11.4 inches, but it hardly matters – this is a giant screen, no matter how you slice it.
Ostensibly, the C-Class runs on the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX), the usability of which was a bit hit-and-miss when it debuted in the A-Class. But two things have completely changed how the interface works, and for the better – the first is that the centre console slopes gently and is finally angled towards the driver, putting the touchscreen much closer to your hand. This has the added benefit of dispensing with the objectively awful touchpad ahead of the armrest, which was never precise enough to use while driving.
The extra screen real estate has also enabled the home screen icons to be bigger and allowed more of them to fit in a single page, making it work much more like a smartphone – the way Mercedes has always envisioned it to be. The expansive display also makes using Apple CarPlay and Android Auto an unexpected delight, and best of all, the company has finally added wireless connectivity for these functions. What’s more, it comes with the car at no extra cost! Would you look at that, BMW?
Sure, there are still a few gripes, like the overly-dense settings menus and a pull-down notifications and favourites menu that somehow doesn’t go away by swiping up. I also still don’t like the fact that the climate controls are now in the touchscreen, although at least the “buttons” are big here.
The display is also a little low-resolution for its size – it looks fuzzy even from a distance, and in bright sunlight, the system forces Apple CarPlay into a low-contrast mode that makes the screen look pixelated (it isn’t). Overall, however, this is by far and away the best premium infotainment system in the business, which is a testament of how a simple change can have such a big impact.
Clunky instrument display and steering wheel touch controls
Not so impressive is the 12.3-inch digital instrument display, which continues to amaze and frustrate in equal measure. The Standard layout works well enough, sporting the usual analogue speedometer and rev counter, and you can access a wealth of features by simply swiping up and down on the right steering wheel touchpad (although it’s not the work of a moment – more on that in a bit).
The Sport display, meanwhile, switches the sweeping tachometer needle for a digital rev readout. While the tunnel-like design is cool, the lack of a clearly-defined redline makes it difficult to know when you need to shift gears in manual mode, oddly making it less conducive to sporty driving.
And while it’s great that the navigation map and driver assists get their own separate, full-screen display modes, you still need to get to a specific sub-menu to be able to change the radio station or skip songs using the steering wheel controls, which is infuriating to say the least.
All this is made even more annoying by the touchpads on the ‘wheel, which are both unresponsive to your touch and so wildly inaccurate that almost every swipe is registered in the wrong direction. The left touchpad is made redundant by the excellent new centre touchscreen, but the right touchpad is the only way to navigate the instrument display. The icing on top of this undesirable cake? Volume and speed adjustments (the latter for the cruise control, which is still a passive system) are also now touch-based. Good luck.
Material quality is a mixed bag, but added space compensates
The challenges of offering high tech at a (relatively) low price have also taken its toll on the material choices. Some of them have taken a decisive step forwards – the top half of the cabin is covered in Nappa-like Artico faux leather with a much smoother grain than before, and the Artico on the seats is now almost as supple as BMW’s real Vernasca cowhide, while being infinitely more sustainable.
However, the lower parts of the dashboard (including the glovebox cover) and door cards are made out of hard plastic, where they used to be soft to the touch. The glossy carbon fibre-like trim in the C 300 also looks rather cheap, and don’t get me started on the plain patterned plastic in the C 200, which looked like it was hydro-dipped in someone’s backyard – and not very well.
The ground lost to the W205 in terms of perceived quality has been more than made up by the improvements in cabin space. The old car wasn’t cramped by any means, but the considerable extra length has freed up a generous amount of legroom, especially at the rear of the car. The C-Class also continues to provide decent headroom, even if the C 300’s panoramic sunroof does cut into the space somewhat.
As for the seats, they are plenty supportive enough for long journeys and offer plenty of adjustment that can then be saved in your user profile (and brought up using the centre console fingerprint reader). The rear seat squabs are also much longer than before, vastly improving comfort for those at the back.
Elsewhere, the jettisoning of the aforementioned centre touchpad has freed up space for a large storage compartment on the centre console, although it can get a bit congested with the (removable) cupholders and Qi wireless charger all located in the same space.
One area that hasn’t been improved is the boot – in fact, it’s been downgraded thanks to the lack of a hands-free function for the powered bootlid. Once open, you get 455 litres of space, which is the same as before, and 25 litres down on the 3 Series. That could be down to Mercedes having to package a large lithium-ion battery to juice the now-standard 48-volt mild hybrid system.
Incredibly smooth mild hybrid system
Speaking of which, the W206 enters Malaysia with two electrified engines, both turbocharged four-cylinder units from the latest M254 family. The C 200 gets a 1.5 litre mill that produces 204 PS from 5,800 to 6,100 rpm and 300 Nm of torque between 1,800 and 4,000 rpm, which is on par with the runout W205 AMG Line model with a larger 2.0 litre M264. So equipped, the car gets from zero to 100 km/h in 7.3 seconds and achieves a combined fuel consumption figure of 6.6 litres per 100 km.
The C 200 bumps the displacement to 2.0 litres and pushes out 258 PS at 5,800 rpm and 400 Nm (up 30 Nm from before) from 2,000 to 3,200 rpm, enabling it to hit 100 km/h in six seconds flat; the car is also capable of a fuel consumption figure of 7.0 litres per 100 km. Both variants are rear-wheel drive and come with a nine-speed 9G-Tronic automatic gearbox as standard.
A 1.5 litre engine, a mild hybrid system – this all sounds very much like the 2018 C 200 that was swiftly dropped for the 2.0 litre non-hybrid model less than two years later. But the M254 is a very different kettle of fish, mostly because its design has more in common with the M256 straight-six, including the bore and stroke in the 2.0 litre version.
This, among other things, has enabled it to ditch the belt-driven starter generator (BSG) of the 1.5 litre M264 in favour of the M256’s more efficient integrated starter generator (ISG). This slim electric motor is sandwiched between the engine and transmission, which recovers kinetic energy usually lost under braking and stores it in a lithium-ion battery; this energy can then be used to power the air-con compressor and provide engine-off coasting, helping to reduce fuel consumption.
But the biggest draw is the motor’s ability to near-imperceptibly stop and start the engine, as well as the additional accelerative boost it provides, helping to plug any holes in the turbocharged engine’s torque curve. The outputs of the motor itself has been boosted by 6 PS and 40 Nm of torque to 20 PS and 200 Nm.
I asked Mercedes-Benz Malaysia’s (MBM) vice president of sales and marketing Michael Jopp during the trip whether the company was confident the reliability issues that afflicted the company’s past mild hybrid models (S 400 h, E 300 BlueTEC Hybrid and the aforementioned W205 C 200) had been resolved here. He said the system in the new C-Class has benefitted from three generations of development to iron out any faults, adding that customers will instead enjoy the benefits of the ISG.
Those benefits can be felt the moment you thumb the start button, the M254 flicking into life without any starter whirr or vibration – an impression that continues after the fact thanks to the engine’s remarkable smoothness. Once you get going, the four-pot cuts in and out seamlessly, a occasional mild tremor being your only clue that the car is starting up from a standstill. The car’s tendency to roll back slightly on an incline with the engine off can be a little annoying, but that’s the only downside.
Engines provide ample power, acceleration blunted by considerable weight
As for the engine itself, it’s decently tractable and vice-free, whether you go for the C 200 or the C 300. Power delivery is predictable, trading high-rev histrionics for usable mid-range grunt, with the C 300 obviously being noticeably punchier. However, the sense of speed is blunted somewhat by the weight of these two cars, being around 200 kg heavier than the equivalent 3 Series.
Even with electrical assistance, the two cars take a fraction of a second longer to get to 100 km/h than their Bavarian counterparts. The extra mass also explains the slight laziness from low revs, despite the ISG doing its best to compensate for some turbo lag. Even so, these cars are not slow – in particular, the C 300 is deceptively quick, the speed readout growing faster than what the seat of your pants suggests.
The C-Class’ cause isn’t helped by the gearbox, which seems to actively get in the way of any form of spirited driving. The version in the W205 was clunky, prone to sending an audible thud through the cabin on downshifts. While it’s much better in the W206 in this regard, it’s still very hesitant to downshift unless you absolutely floor the throttle, even in Sport and the C 300’s Sport+ modes. Worse still, it never seems to hang on to the manual mode (using the standard paddle shifters) for any length of time.
Better to cruise along and enjoy the seamless shifts when you’re not gunning it. The engine is also rather quiet in most situations, although the usual inline-four roar does become audible at higher revs. Some speaker-led augmentation does occur (giving it a bit more bass), but Mercedes hasn’t tried to make the mill sound anything other than what it is, even in the more aggressive drive modes. While wind noise is minimal at highway speeds, tyre roar is still a little too surface-dependent for the W206 to be properly isolating.
Much-improved ride fixes W205’s biggest drawback
So far, the new C-Class isn’t a revelation by any means, but ride comfort is the one area where the W206 desperately needs to show a decisive improvement. The outgoing model, at least on the passive Agility Control suspension fitted to most cars in Malaysia, had a peerless low-speed ride but was frankly terrible everywhere else, with springs that were too soft to actually absorb the bumps and dampers that were incapable of controlling any of the bouncing motion that ensued.
For the new model, the suspension variants have been trimmed, with engineers instead spending their time refining the remaining options. Airmatic air springs are no longer offered globally (they’re still fitted at the rear of the plug-in hybrid models), and while the local C 200 and C 300 retain the standard Agility Control setup, the good news is that the ride quality is far more acceptable this time around.
The springs are noticeably firmer than before and the result is that the car is no longer glassy smooth over minor surface imperfections and small speed bumps. But the trade off is far greater composure at anything other than walking pace, all while retaining a deft suppleness over potholes and larger bumps. There’s a pleasing balance struck here, even if the car still feels a little under-damped given its weight – a trait that makes itself known by the slight porpoising exhibited at very high speeds.
And just like with many Mercedes models, it’s still way too easy to scrape the bottom of the W206 on speed bumps, the suspension unable to stop the body from heaving under its own weight. Even so, this is finally a properly comfortable baby Merc, and with latest BMW 330i generating a surprisingly stiff ride, the W206 might be the compact executive sedan to recommend.
Capable handling, but a 3 Series beater this is not
With the increased body control the suspension provides, you might expect the new C-Class to be an incisive and involving sports sedan, and you couldn’t be further than the truth. This is still a car more suited to prowling Jalan Telawi rather than being caned up Ulu Yam – fling it into a corner with any sort of verve and you’ll be met with a healthy heaping of body roll.
To its credit, the W206 no longer gets thrown off line at the mere suggestion of a mid-corner bump, and there’s a good amount of grip even from the C 200’s modest Bridgestone Turanza T005 tyres (the C 300 gets more aggressive Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 5 rubber). But this is not the sort of car that sniffs out the apex of a bend, and the sluggish turn-in has much to do with that.
The steering also isn’t exactly sharp, although it delivers decent, consistent weighting across the rack, particularly in the sportier drive modes. All this means that the C-Class is more adept at cruising around – that’s always been the case, but the difference is that it finally has the comfort to match.
Verdict: Not the ground-breaker we were hoping for, but good enough
If it sounds like I’m heaping faint praise on the W206, that’s because I am. A cynical way of looking at it is that this is what the previous model should’ve been like in the first place, and while the new car has made a genuine step forward in most areas, it doesn’t break any new ground for the segment. The improvements made in ride comfort has only brought the C-Class on par with the competition and there hasn’t been a commensurate increase in driver involvement, leaving it vulnerable to being overtaken by newer rivals.
But I’m taking the optimist’s view here – this is a C-Class whose road manners finally match the expectations set by the swanky, high-tech interior. There’s a newfound sense of smoothness to the way the car operates that is bolstered by the well-integrated mild hybrid system; the new user interface also adds some much-needed usability to the highly-polished cabin.
There are a few faults, of course, not least the competent but insipid handling, the recalcitrant gearbox and the suboptimal kit list (which may be fixed on the CKD model). But while the compact executive sector is still cutthroat, the C-Class is finally at the sharp end again – something fans of the Three-pointed Star will have been waiting to hear for the longest time.
The W206 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is priced at RM288,334 for the C 200 Avantgarde and RM330,681 for the C 300 AMG Line, although it’s currently sold out. These figures are on-the-road without insurance and include the 50% sales and service tax (SST) rebate valid until June 30, as well as a four-year, unlimited-mileage warranty. Browse full specifications and equipment on CarBase.my.
GALLERY: W206 Mercedes-Benz C 300 AMG Line
GALLERY: W206 Mercedes-Benz C 200 Avantgarde