Within any automaker there is a slow but steady trickle down of technology from high-end to middle and entry class. But for Mercedes’s newly redesigned C-class, that trickle was more like a torrent. Appropriately, the Mercedes demonstrated its social-climbing skills on the Côte d’Azur, in France. The test convoy included the all-wheel-drive C400 4Matic, which surges from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in 4.7 seconds, spurred by a wicked Biturbo V-6. The engine’s 245 kilowatts translate to 329 horses—81 more than the departing 3.5-liter V-6, despite that model’s extra half-liter of displacement.
But the more important part of what’s trickled down—from the US $95,000 to $200,000 S-Class to this $41K cousin—involves not speed but smarts. The Intelligent Drive suite, priced at the same $2,800 as in S- and E-Class models, lets the car manage its own speed and brakes and even steer itself along gentle highway curves. Radar and a windshield-mounted stereoscopic camera provide a 360-degree enclave of sensory safety. The Mercedes can react to other vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists, even the traffic crossing at an intersection.
At a test facility in Salon-de-Provence, I was invited to try to smack a pedestrian—actually a mannequin dressed nattily in Mercedes attire—and a slow-rolling trailer that mimicked a car ahead. No dice: The Mercedes performed a partial braking, then a full-on stop to avoid a collision, even when I kept my foot on the gas.
Active Blind Spot Assist doesn’t simply warn drivers about looming vehicles but will apply individual brakes to pop you safely back into a lane should you veer toward danger. Attention Assist monitors multiple parameters, including twitchy movements of the steering wheel, to recognize drowsy drivers and urge them to pull over for a break. Inside the surprisingly lush cabin, a new touch-pad console controller allows drivers or passengers to navigate contact lists, destinations, and the like by drawing letters or numbers or by using the swipes and gestures familiar from smartphones.
The C63 AMG version will debut just in time for spring in the northern hemisphere. This BMW M3 killer is armed with the same ripping 4.0-L Biturbo V-8 as the new AMG GT sports car, with up to 375 kW (503 hp). And there’s more: A plug-in hybrid C-Class goes on sale in the United States this fall, followed by a C-Class diesel in 2016.