Mercedes-Benz C-Classes have often been regarded as the cheap seats in Hong Kong's luxury car world, the preserve of our skinflint rich and brand-slave wannabes. Not any more, because the German marque has given its entry-level best-seller a sleeker body and packed it with technology developed for bigger Benzes.
The new C-Classes are also 5.5cm longer than their predecessors, at 4.58 metres; 4.2cm wider at 1.77 metres; and with a wheelbase stretched by 4.5cm to 2.76 metres. The marque has also given the range's three models distinctive translucent 'eyelids' on their slanted, intelligent bi-xenon headlights. Dealer Zung Fu has imported two of the range's three styles: the Elegance, which has the Mercedes-Benz star on the bonnet, and the Avantgarde, which has the bling of a three-louvred silver grille and a big star badge in the middle. The Elegance will look best in silver, grey or beige and remind sandwich-class Mazda8 owners who's the real king of the block in Taikoo Shing. The Avantgarde test car is flashier, however, and flaunts its chrome best in black, dark blue and a hitherto un-C-Class deep red.
The Avantgarde's interior is comfortable and airy with an electric panoramic roof (HK$6,500 extra, Zung Fu's website says) and a black and grey faux leather finish. If you're buying a black model, I recommend the Porsche-like brown leather finish. The new C-Class is a roomy ride, with 4cm more shoulder room at the front and lots of head and legroom front and back for four tall folk, despite claims in western countries that it's cramped at the back. The C-Class has similar front legroom and only 9mm less headroom than the E-Class.
The boot's also larger, at 474 litres, and the luggage yank seems kind on the back. The three-tube instrument panel is clear without reading glasses, and the centre dial shows radio frequency, time and speed information on a blue dial that defies the glare of daylight on a simple black dashboard. The finish of the upholstery and brightwork suggests that the C-Class is at last a 'real' Mercedes-Benz, not a wannabe's ride.
The C280 Avantgarde is also my drive of the year because it gives its owner as much face as an E-Class and a BMW 5-Series, and is such a pleasure to drive in Hong Kong. Newcomers to the marque might take a while to get used to the car's Keyless-Go (HK$8,500), starter-button and handbrake routines, but the car is as easy as the A-Class in Kowloon traffic, thanks to excellent all-round vision, generous mirrors, and plenty of poke for lane changes with a 231-brake-horsepower, 2,996cc V6 engine. The 7G-Tronic transmission is so smooth that we're soon chasing a Subaru WRX Sti in Kwun Tong and relishing the prospect of an open run to Tsing Yi.
On Route 3 the test car proves an excellent commute. The steering is responsive and there's plenty of push for the growl of overtaking - and little wind noise, thanks to cabin insulation improvements. The suspension is fine, but I don't notice the selective-damping improvements of its agility control in Lai King, or feel the claims of 10 per cent flatter cornering under Lion Rock. The steering wheel and brakes feel more BMW direct than its predecessor's, however. Parking is easy, too.
The Avantgarde's steering wheel also feels substantial - luxurious - for your money, with phone and audio controls within easy reach. The seats have firmer seat cushions, back air chambers and headrest angles. Their adjustment can take a while to set to the car's memory, but patience is rewarded with perhaps the most comfortable driving position outside the Lotus Exige S. You may have to take your eye off the road to adjust the air con or load a CD, but these are small gripes.
The optional cockpit management and navigation device (Comand APS, HK$25,000) twiddler on the central armrest works with a new seven-inch screen that pops up above the central air vents on the dash, and guides you through audio, hands-free telephone (HK$4,000) and navigation functions. I still find any dashboard screens a distraction, as you might, but the standard stereo is brilliant and stores more than 500 MP3 tracks.
Comand also has only one set of sub-menus, and voice recognition for place names, phone numbers and hands-free Bluetooth functions. All work well, I'm told.
You can also jazz up your Avantgarde with three AMG packages from HK$15,500 to HK$29,500 extra for 18-inch AMG five-twin-spoke light alloy wheels and a dynamic handling package. But the new C280 is fine as standard in Hong Kong. It tells your neighbours and clients that you've done your homework to buy a fuel-efficient luxury car that whacks 170Nm of torque at 6,000rpm, yet drinks about 13 litres per 100km of gas for the spew of a respectable 219 grams of CO2 per kilometre.
The Avantgarde is also one of the safest cars on the road that is not a Renault or a Volvo. It was given a five-star safety rating in the European New Car Assessment Programme crash tests less than a fortnight ago, thanks to its standard seven airbags, seatbelt tensioners, belt-force limiters and neck pro-crash-responsive head restraints. The C-Class body has been designed to distribute impact forces and standard-fit electronics such as ESP and brake assist enhance drivers' control in an emergency, the marque says.
The C-Class is also the only car in its segment to feature anticipatory occupant protection electronics, Pre-safe (HK$4,000 extra), which basically braces the car for a smash and reduces the loads exerted on the occupants 'by up to 40 per cent'.
So, the C-Class is an admirable response to the BMW 3 Series (HK$523,00) and Lexus IS ranges. Audi has yet to offer us a test drive of the new A4, but then Mercedes-Benz's new C280 Avantgarde is a hard act to follow. It's smaller and less expensive than an E280 (HK$645,000) or a BMW 530i (HK$629,000), but it's a bigger, greener boast. The C-Class is just right for Hong Kong. Anything bigger is just showing off.