Comfort or sporting prowess? It's quandary that every car maker faces when launching a new car, and it seems particularly pertinent when considering the new Mercedes C-Class. It used to be said that stepping into a Mercedes-Benz should lower the driver's heart rate by 10 beats per minute, compared to the average car. Such was the relaxing, calming and comfort-orientated qualities of the luxury brand's interiors.
Yet recent years have seen a shift away from the prioritisation of relaxation and comfort, with nearly all car manufacturers trying to play on sporting qualities. It's certainly what BMW and Audi - Mercedes' two key rivals - prioritise. And it's led the car industry down a road of huge, bling alloy wheels, which create a hard and unyielding ride that's the enemy of comfort and on-board refinement.
The omens for those hoping the C-Class prioritises the comfort end of the scale aren't great. In the UK, you can no longer get a C-Class with Mercedes' traditional limousine grille - the one with lots of thin bars, and a small three pointed star mounted above it on the bonnet. Instead, you have to go down the sport grille route - with a massive three-pointed star at its centre, leaving you in no doubt about just which brand of car is coming towards you.
Then there's the trim levels: SE, Sport and AMG-Line (AMG being Merc's performance arm). Everything points to the C-Class being pitched to take on board the class leader in the sporty stakes, the BMW 3-Series.
But the exterior design gives the first hints that Merc isn't about to go all hardcore on us, as the C-Class delivers an elegant design. It's one of the longest cars in its class and the body surfaces are some of the least fussy we've seen from the brand in a long time. More to the point, it looks very much like a scaled down S-Class in design - the S-Class being the pinnacle of discrete, refined passenger transportation.
Step inside the C-Class and things get better still. We wrote as much in our initial report at the Detroit motor show, but the C-Class has a cabin design which puts to shame anything BMW, Audi, Lexus or Jaguar will be able to offer you in this class. At least until the new Audi A4 arrives next year.
Yes, the Merc doesn't offer quite the modernist design qualities of an Audi, and we would try to option our C-Class without the masses of piano black gloss trim, but nonetheless the perceived quality and use of materials in here is absolutely top notch. So much so that you'll see exactly the same vents, switches and knobs being used in Merc's forthcoming £100k+ AMG GT. If they're good enough for that, they don't have look good in a bottom of the range C200.
READ: Mercedes-Benz AMG GT
It's roomy in the C-Class too, if you need to carry four passengers and are holding out for the Jaguar XE, forget it and choose between the Merc and one of the other German car brands, as there's far more room on board - particularly in the back.
Only the unwanted intrusion of the transmission tunnel into the footwell spoils the on-board experience. If you've hefty size 11 shoes like us, you'll find your clutch foot doesn't fit on the rest provided. Something's gone amiss in the conversion to right hand drive. We can't image this being an issue for our friends who drive on the "wrong" side of the road though.
The C-Class starts at £26,855 for a C200 petrol manual, which we suspect no one will buy. Instead we drove two relevant versions: the C300 BlueTec hybrid in Sport trim (£36,625), and the C220 BlueTec Automatic that most people will probably buy. Ours was in top-of-the-line AMG-Line trim (£34,355). It's worth noting that, with options, both cars list price was in excess of £40K.
A word on the hybrid first. Merc's effectively mated the C250 diesel engine to a 20kW electric motor in this car, running through a 7-speed auto gearbox. And while it's not the version everyone will choose (it costs more than the regular diesels, obviously), it's well worth looking at it if your budget permits. Not only does it impress with its figures (0-62 in 6.4 seconds and 99g/km CO2) but the way it works on the road is impressively seamless.
The electric motor can work on its own, or with the diesel. And like other hybrids, the C300 moves off in silence unless you get heavy with the throttle. But the real trick is that once up to speed, the switching in and out of the diesel engine is exceptionally quiet and refined. This diesel engine is not the most refined unit in its own right, but coupled to the electric motor you have to work it less hard and Merc should be commended for just how refined it's made the whole thing. It adds to a brisk, but very relaxing way of getting about.
The C220 CDi, on the other hand, is a car which impresses in nearly every way, bar that engine which, now working on its own, seems particularly noisy and can get quite raucous when worked hard. It takes 7.4 seconds to get to 62 mph, and produces 113g/km CO2 officially.
We'd like to live with a C-Class for longer to truly understand its talents in relation to a BMW 3-Series or Audi A4 but what we can deduce from our two drives is that the car is more refined, in terms of aspects like wind noise, than either of the other German pair.
It goes, steers and stops with reasonable aplomb, although if you want to really have some fun on back roads (or be having as much fun as a 3-Series driver) save up for the £895 AirMATIC agility package fitted to our C220 CDI AMG-Line test car, which helps quell body roll while maintaining a composed ride.
While we're on the subject of options, we're acutely aware many company car drivers who buy cars like this don't have the leeway to throw £5,000 of extras on the car in the way manufacturers do when they lend them to us. So it's nice to see that both of these C-Class models come as standard with a Garmin Map Pilot navigation system, and include SD card and hard drive storage. You also get Merc's scroll-wheel and touch pad interface, which we find much easier - and more satisfying - to use on the move, than a touchscreen.
We would, of course, still be tempted by the full COMAND online infotainment system, which brings goodies like a bigger 8.4-inch display, pan Europe maps, emergency assist and internet capability. Temptingly, Merc's wrapped this upgraded system into one of its options packages - the Premium Plus pack, which also includes an ambient lighting pack, keyless go, driver electric seat adjustment and memory, a panoramic roof, and a rather wonderful Burnmester stereo - complete with beautifully detailed interior speaker grilles. At £2,795 it sounds expensive but is good value considering the individual cost of those options, and is the first option we'd put on a new C-Class.
You can go tech crazy if you want. Add a 21x7cm head up display (£825), or driver-assistance pack - which includes lane-keep assist and blind spot elimination - for another £1,495. And keep going in this vein, as with all German cars. For us - if we had the choice - it'd be a metallic colour paint job, with an automatic gearbox, the Premium Plus Package and the AirMatic agility pack. Oh, and possibly some upgraded interior trim (such as the red leather you see in the photos of the straight diesel). What were we saying about not going crazy with options again?
But the C-Class doesn't really need any of this to stand on its own as a very good car. And while it's far from perfect - we really hope Mercedes is working on a new range of four-cylinder diesel engines - we think they've judged the new C-Class just right. Because its character isn't thrusting, and sporty or "dynamic" like a BMW 3-Series or Audi A4.
Yes, on a challenging road we'd rather be in the BMW, but for a 300-mile motorway slog we'd rather be in the C-Class. It recaptures that quality of being that relaxing, refined machine that all the best Mercs are. It might even be able to lower your heart rate. And in a class full of sporty pretenders, that gives the new C-Class a unique selling point.