Mercedes-Benz C220 CDI Estate (2009)
It's got good looks and a quality interior, but this isn't the C-Class for us. We'd pick a petrol engine and go without the gizmos, as the Comand system is just too fiddly to operate.
Smart looks, good quality, inside and out
Space and utility
Harmon/Kardon sound system sounds great in rear seat
Comand system tricky to navigate
Missing direct iPod support
Diesel engine gruff
In recent times Mercedes-Benz styling has jumped from between extremes as we've moved from one generation to the next. Not so long ago, Stuttgart's favourite cars were chock full of soft feline curves, now they've got enough hard edges, slashes and anger to turn the emo crowd a deep shade of angst.
Rather appropriately our review car came dressed in black and, with its AMG bodykit, was easily the meanest, baddest wagon this side of the River Hades. That's in no small part thanks to the bodykit's 18-inch alloy wheels, lowered suspension, spoilers and side skirts. The company's over-sized three-pointed star sits proudly in the centre of the grille, snarling at any rear view mirror that dares to look its way, while chrome has been all but banished.
Out the back there's an auto tailgate, which, unlike the one fitted to the 3-Series wagon, doesn't have a seperate lift-up windscreen. Indicators are mounted in the auto-folding wing mirrors and although the xenon headlights have auto height adjustment, they lack the ability to swivel left and right to keep the shaft of bright white light pointing down the road. Fog lights which switch on in concert with the indicators only partially makes up for this.
The angles are just as prominent inside as out, but while the design is quite sober, the fittings are either soft to the touch or have a feeling of quality — accusations that couldn't be levelled at the old model. Interior ambiance on our car was lifted greatly by the contrasting cream coloured leather — not MB-Tex — that's, unfortunately, discoloured rather all too easily. Plenty of light enters the cabin through the C's dual sunroof — both feature an electric blind, but only the foremost one roof opens.
All creatures great and small should have no problems with the wagon's rear seat: headroom is plentiful all around and leg space ample, unless you're sitting behind Michael Jordan. The rear seats split folds and can be folded flat to extend boot space. Handily the luggage blind folds down with the larger seat back, although it does require Samson's strength to lift it back into place.
Pop out luggage hooks and a series of pockets add to the boot's usefulness, while the full-size spare tyre is greatly appreciated. The front seats are deeply dished, and manages to be both comfortable and supportive during cornering. Irritatingly there's electric assistance for the front seats' backrest and cushion angle, but fore-aft adjustment is manual, although this may suit the longer limbed amongst us as foot space underneath the front seats is not compromised by complex electric gee-whizadry.
Mercedes-Benz thrived in the recession we had to have by emphasising its safety credentials, so it's little surprise to see that the C-Class comes with eight airbags, traction control, ABS, electronic stability control and emergency braking assistance. Automatic wipers and headlights are also standard, although depending on conditions the former can be more of an irritant than a useful feature. Front and rear parking sensors are fitted, but there's neither a reversing camera or sonar-style display in the Comand screen, just a bank of LED lights on the dash and in the ceiling.
A two zone climate control system is fitted as standard and, in European tradition, the recirculation setting is annoyingly reset every time you start a journey. Another Mercedes-Benz signature item we wish would disappear into the annals of history is the all-in-one indicator and wiper stalk. On the other side of the ledger is Benz's speed limiter and cruise control wand, which, with the ceaseless proliferation of speed cameras on Aussie roads, is like manna from heaven.
In the centre of the speedometer is a large LCD display capable of displaying radio and track selections or, even better, next turn instructions — annoyingly it defaults to an odometer reading on every start up. Using controls on the steering wheel's spokes, the driver can select stations/tracks, adjust the volume and handle calls via the Bluetooth hands-free system. The latter works quite well despite the diesel din, and the microphone is located near the central air-conditioning vents, so both passenger and driver are able communicate with faraway persons.
While it may carry the same name as the Mercedes-Benz's old button happy system, the new Comand system, which first debuted in the S-Class limosuine, features a host of improvements. Key amongst these is the adoption of the German obsession with push, pull and press scroll-wheels. Finished in studded metal, the new Comand controller feels great in the hand and controls a new menu system via the flip-out LCD display in the centre of the dash.
The Comand screen is divided into three sections: a strip up the top that allows you to switch between the main functions (navigation, audio, video, Bluetooth telephone and system settings). The main centre section contains the current selection's main function, like, say, the navigation map, or CD and track lists. Another menu strip sits at the bottom with more options for the current section, such as presets and sound stage settings for audio.
Counter-intuitive and roundabout are the first words that pop into our minds about the new Comand system. For instance, to switch to the radio using the scroll wheel requires you to click on Audio, nudge up to the main menu, click Audio again and then select Radio. Yes, there's a phalanx of shortcut buttons, but instead of being located next to controller they're on the dash, requiring a lean forward and a look away from the road.
It'd be nice to have all configuration options available in one place, but while some settings, such as the Bluetooth and Linguatronic voice recognition systems, are within the Comand system, others, like those for the mirrors, light timers and so forth, are set via the in-speedo display.
The voice recognition system throws up a handy context sensitive list of commands on the central LCD screen whenever it's activated. But there are a few quirks in the system; for example, many tasks, such as changing discs or tracks, or dialling contacts, can be done in any Comand screen, but you're forced to physically change to a Navigation screen before verbally entering a destination. Whole word recognition isn't available for destination entry, and numeral and letter recognition is iffy at best.
Sitting in the rear seat, with the optional Harmon/Kardon system turned up to 11 is a joy that bears repeating. No matter the music (jazz, classical, old standards, rock, house and alternative), they all sounded crisp, true and worthy of a bum-shaking boogie or mimed conductor's wave. Moving to the front seats, the bass emanating from sub-woofer, mounted on the left wall of the boot, was a little muddy, and mid tones a tad less distinct and more distant.
Start the engine and all this airy fairy nitpicking takes a dive into the nearest bin. From the driver's seat, the V6 turbo-diesel that we sampled in an E-Class last year was all muted tones and hushed growls. The 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel in this C-Class, however, is brash, gruff and easily overwhelms the sound-deadening materials put between it and us. It not only forces music and people to shout over it, but detracts from the feeling of luxury imparted by the plush leather, soft, squishy plastics, rubberised finishings, pleasing ker-thunk of the doors and general air of refinement.
While the auxiliary jack that's located in the glovebox is handily situated right next to a 12V outlet, there's no USB port anywhere to be found. MP3 collectors must do without their iPods and pop their tunes onto a disc and then into the six-stack disc changer. Alternatively music can also be played via a memory card, but, in a move we just can't fathom, it needs to be wrapped in a PCMCIA adapter before being inserted into the centre of the dash.
The Comand system's hard disk is primarily for storing sat nav maps, but there's 6GB set aside for music storage; CD ripping isn't on the menu, but MP3 files can be copied from disc or memory card. Although no TV antenna is included, DVD movies can viewed on the pop up LCD screen.
Like most factory in-dash systems C-Class drivers will have to do without niceties that portable nav users take for granted, like text-to-speech and traffic messaging. On the plus-side the new 3D view is married to a large split-screen view of upcoming turns, spoken directions are only played on the driver's side speakers, and as the system's linked to the car's accelerator and gyroscope the sat nav keeps functioning even when it's out of view of GPS satellites.
Utilising a hard disk for storage means that point of interest and street name searches are much quicker than on the previous DVD-based system. Using either the scroll wheel or voice recognition, destination entry is on the wrong side of being cumbersome. Calculation times are quite quick, but routes are no better than average and the system is rather dogged in getting you back onto its preferred course should you miss a turn or two or three.
With a large mesa of torque available only in a fairly narrow rev range, the C220CDI is a car that requires a degree of finesse to drive smoothly. Prod the accelerator too much and, after a short pause, the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine's wave of torque will push you firmly into your seat before the five-speed auto shifts up a gear and you repeat the process. Go too gently and you'll spend a short lifetime being overtaken by old folk dawdling off to a game of bowls.
Drive with anything approaching vim and vigour and the C-Class feels fast. The short dash and resultant seating position contribute greatly to this, as does the over-assisted and feel-free power steering. There's more self-centering than on the just superceded E-Class, but it can be occasionally caught out on roundabouts and sharp turns. For the simple task of shifting between park, reverse and drive — we weren't really inclined to do more — the metallic shifter is a wonderfully tactile device. According to the official figures, the C220 CDI should sip 6.4L/100km, but in our city-based testing the best we saw was around 8L/100km.
In the dry, the low profile 18-inch wheels that accompany the AMG kit fitted to our car proved more capable of handling the diesel engine's torque, and required more speed and courage than we were able to muster to break traction. The pay off for this surefootedness is, naturally, a firm ride and a dash of tyre grumble to accompany the engine's raucous tones.
Switch on the Sport mode that comes with the AMG pack and the suspension becomes hard and unyielding, amplifying Sydney's array of speed humps, unintentional undulations and potholes. Gears are also held for longer and kick-down is not only easier to trigger, but also more abrupt, causing us to lurch uncomfortably during stop-start driving. With Sport mode off, an open highway wending its way to the horizon and the prospect of many miles to be eaten, the C220 CDI is a much happier camper.
Much as we're fans of the AMG kit's bad-boy looks and the mean black paint, it's uncomfortably out of sync with the gruff, loud and thumpy diesel engine. Engine-wise we'd opt for any one of the petrol alternatives, unless we lived in the bush. Tech wise the feature list is fulsome, although the lack of iPod control is a minus, and the interface is much too complex and unintuitive for easy on-the-road use.