Mercedes-Benz USA

The C-Class compact is the smallest and most affordable point of entry for Americans wanting to own a fine Mercedes-Benz vehicle. From its humble beginnings as a sedan and a wagon, the C-Class has grown into a full-fledged lineup including a coupe, wagon, convertible, and high-performance variant.

The C-Class first arrived in 1994 as a replacement for the Mercedes-Benz 190 entry-level sedan and wagon. That first C-Class featured an upright design that has become its enduring classic look. Through the years, subsequent generations have represented the design trends of each respective new era. The second generation introduced circular double headlights. The third generation C-Class, sold until 2014, had crisper lines, a broader revised grille and front fascia, LED taillights, and a high-tech instrument cluster on its dash.

The current generation C-Class, which arrived for the 2015 model year, embraced the flowing lines of the range-topping Mercedes-Benz S-Class full-size luxury sedan. In a quick glance, you might see the C-Class as a baby version of that Mercedes-Benz flagship model. The C-Class carries over the styling to the 2016 model year.

The plot thickens in 2016, as there are now six variants of the standard C-Class sedan: C300, C300 4MATIC, C350e Plug-in Hybrid, C450 AMG, AMG C63, and AMG C63 S. Other than the sporty AMG models, the C300 and C350e Hybrid are available in either Sport Styling or Luxury Styling versions. The Sport Styling places a large Mercedes logo in the center of the streamlined grille, while the luxury model features a more traditional grille and upright hood ornament.

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The C300 comes standard with a 14-way power driver’s seat, dual-zone climate control, power-folding side mirrors, a keyless start system, and 60/40 split folding rear seats. There are also a host of optional features including heated/ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel, leather upholstery, and a power open/close rear trunk.

The C-Class now comes with a cabin fragrance system, a feature previously reserved for only the most expensive luxury models. A backlit replaceable vial has one of four fragrances – such as citrus, rose, or cedar – that are atomized to disperse a subtle aroma throughout the cabin.

Every C-Class boasts an opulent interior with flowing lines and elegant accents. At the center of that interior is the touchpad controller, which operates the vivid digital screen in the center of the dash. It controls the stereo, a Bluetooth-paired phone, vehicle settings, and the available navigation system. Past iterations of this type of controller were problematic, and although it is still not perfect, it is a marked improvement.

All things considered, this combination of attributes is enough for the C-Class to tie for first with the BMW 3-Series and the Audi A4 in a crowded field of luxury small cars.

[Read: Small Cars, Big Luxury]

That base 241-horsepower variant is plenty to make your commute a fun one, but if you seek more excitement, the C450 AMG – bringing the MSRP to $50,800 – is a half-step between the entry C-Class and the range-topping, high-performance C63. The C450 AMG features a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V6 making 362 horsepower. Power is sent through a seven-speed Speedshift Plus AMG transmission, which features rev-matching for even power balance when attempting to downshift and maneuver at the same time.

For those who are environmentally conscious, the C350e Plug-in Hybrid at $45,590 delivers up to 20 miles of pure emission-free electric driving. When the energy in its battery pack is depleted, power duties switch from the 80-horsepower electric motor to an efficient 2.0-liter inline-4 engine. The full system makes 275 horsepower and an impressive 442 pound-feet of torque.

There’s no official word on an exact fuel economy rating for the C350e, but it will undoubtedly become the mpg champion of the C-Class lineup. For comparison, the C300 RWD gets 25 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway, and the C400 4MATIC gets 24 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway.

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There are two high-performance variants from AMG, the Mercedes in-house tuning firm. The Mercedes-AMG C63, selling at $65,250, makes a whopping 469 horsepower from a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 – and there’s the S variant making an impressive 503 horsepower. The C63 S, at the tune of $73,250, will zip to 60 mph in around 3.9 seconds. That’s supercar-level fast.

But you don’t need the top-tier performance models to enjoy a rewarding and energetic drive. The four-wheel multi-link suspension that is standard in most of the lineup makes for precise turning with minimal body roll. This is through the help of standard agility control which firms up the suspension in corners. An available air suspension further enhances the blend of performance and comfort.

The 2016 C-Class was our winner for the 2016 Best Upscale Small Car for Families, and did so based on its long list of standard and available safety features. The C-Class comes with standard safety gear such as advanced front- and side-impact airbags, daytime running lights, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

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The C-Class ups the ante on safety with advanced equipment like forward collision avoidance that alerts drivers about dangerous situations and even intervenes to automatically brake if a collision is imminent. Remarkably, this feature is standard in even the base C-Class.

Other optional features include blind spot detection, lane-departure warning, a rearview camera, and even a lane-keeping system that helps you guide the car in a straight line on the highway.

All of these features underscore a vehicle that is an extraordinary blend of style, performance, safety, and practicality. The C-Class has come a long way from the 1990s, and the latest result is a true showcase of the engineering and design of today’s Mercedes-Benz.