This article was originally written by Hannah Elliott for Bloomberg.
I must admit to feeling some apathy about driving the 2019 Mercedes-Benz C Class.
After all, this is a simple refresh on a mid-size mass luxury sedan, a segment notorious for offering safe, reliable and relatively interchangeable vehicles to an upper middle class public.
As expected, yes, the act of driving the CLS 450 around the horse farms of New Jersey was pleasant, placid, peaceful – you name it. Warmer than lukewarm and not quite forgettable. In a word: unobtrusive.
But as for the exterior and interior of the car, including under the hood, I was surprised with some significant new features that should lend themselves to genuine delight for prospective buyers.
The C Class started in 2003 and became Mercedes’ first foray into four-door “coupe” territory, a slight misnomer that has taken hold with other brands courting consumers who want performance and space, like in BMW’s “Gran Coupes”. From the time the CLA Coupe debuted, more than half of its buyers have been conquests from other brands. They are, on average, 11 years younger than the average Mercedes buyer.
“The formula for success in this industry is pretty simple: attract younger customers to the brand and keep them for life,” Mercedes president and CEO Dietmar Exler said in Brooklyn.
Back to those surprise delights: key among them is the fact that the CLS now comes standard with five seats, rather than four, and has up to two futuristic 12.3-inch flat- and touchscreens. (One comes standard; if you choose to pay several hundred more for two, they join in the middle to create one long surfboard screen that spans the bulk of the dash.) They were a joy. I used them to navigate from tiny back roads in New Jersey back to Brooklyn’s DUMBO area and found them well-balanced in combining some modern touch-screen functionalities with some tactile old world controls, like a big centre knob, buttons set in the steering wheel, and those cool turbine vents.
Meanwhile, the new heads-up display is startling in its clarity. The sporty three-spoke steering wheel comes standard; inductive mobile phone charging, Apple CarPlay and a big sunroof do, too. And the CLS now incorporates 64 different colours of ambient lighting including inside the turbine-style air vents, which change brilliance and hue as you adjust temperatures. Effectively that means you can have a red-tinged interior, if you like. Or blue, etc.
You can also run any of multiple “spa on wheels” experiences.
Those are pretty wacky and possibly effective in their stated goals, if you’re not embarrassed to do them with your driving partner. They work by adjusting music, lighting, temperature and massage functions to achieve a certain effect, like “Energising Comfort” or “Vitality”. They will even have the car talk to you; one, called “Comfort/Well-being”, requested listeners to “scrunch up your face into the shape of a smile…regardless of how you feel”. Another, aimed at “training”, told us to make ever-smaller circles with our shoulders as we drove hands-on-wheel. I am not ashamed to say I ran through the entire programme, six 10-minute sessions, and can report at least a placebo effect of improved circulation along my spine. (It might also have been caused by my giggling following these prompts.)
More seriously, the completely new inline-six cylinder engine marks the first inline-six Mercedes will put in a vehicle in two decades. It gets 362hp plus a 21hp boost from a unique integrated starter-generator, called EQ for short.
Another completely new invention, EQ, works by using a 48-volt electrical system that powers an integrated starter-generator that amplifies acceleration at all speeds and can take over for the engine when cruising. It basically evens out lag times to help improve fuel economy. Mercedes says the performance of the new powertrain with EQ is akin to what you would find with a 402hp 4.7-litre V8. Frankly, I couldn’t tell the difference. From acceleration to steering to braking, the CLS 450 does everything you ask of it with not a peep of protest.
The nine-speed automatic transmission gets to 60mph in 5.1 seconds in the rear-wheel-drive CLS 450 or 4.8 seconds in the all-wheel-drive CLS 450 4MATIC.
Some good angles
You might also like to know that the C Class was the first car the brand introduced with the now unmistakable design language of modern Mercedes sedans everywhere. This week’s debut was no different: its swooped roofline and A-shaped grille with intricate diamond detail, flared low front grille, and rounded rear end follow chief designer Gordon Wagner’s famous philosophy.
“If you remove an edge and still like how it looks, remove another one,” he says.
The new CLS 450 has frameless doors and novel intelligent LED headlights set with ultra-wide high beams that adjust to lighting levels and follow the road as you drive. They allow the driver to use activated main beams without dazzling other road users by automatically switching off when they detect oncoming traffic.
There is one brand-new surprise that is particularly worth noting: an optional “pre-safe” impulse system that pushes front-seat occupants toward the centre of the car if it senses an impact. The idea is that it protects against side collisions and collateral damage.
Like what you hear? I would be surprised if you did not – the CLS 450 is mild enough to be inoffensive to anyone yet manages class-topping performance with a thoughtfully well-made feel throughout the car. Pricing for all of this has yet to be announced, but it will likely start around US$70,000.