There's no doubt that the redesigned 2015 C-Class is critically important to Mercedes-Benz. It's the volume seller for the brand, competing against the likes of the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and even the supporting CLA-Class. With pressure mounting, Mercedes could either play it safe with a tame refresh or tempt fate with a bold new reinterpretation.
We traveled to Sindelfingen, Germany, home to Mercedes' R&D and its largest production facility, to find out for ourselves. In our short time with the C-Class, it became apparent that Mercedes sacrificed nothing in its approach to this important new car.
A trio of lightly camouflaged C-Class sedans was presented to the media in a darkened room at the factory-adjacent studio. It was immediately clear that the sole purpose for this transatlantic trip was for viewing rather than driving, and details were few. Even powertrain and body variant information will wait until the car's official unveil at the Detroit auto show next January.
Despite poor lighting and camouflage, the C-Class' exterior styling appears more flowing and organic than the more angular outgoing model. This was no surprise, since numerous spy photos and the recent S-Class redesign have already blown its cover. When the wraps are pulled off this new C-Class in January, its exterior will likely represent an evolution of the current model rather than a breathtaking departure.
But it's the interior we were brought here to see, and after experiencing it firsthand, the justification for the flight to Germany was clear.
Beautiful Things Come From Italy
The interior of the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is a departure from the usual Mercedes in many ways, starting with the initial design seed. This new model will house the first Mercedes cabin crafted in Italy, by Mercedes' Advanced Design Studio near Lake Como. This studio has historically been tasked with creating concept vehicles and design studies, not cars destined for full production. One of the more recent examples of its work, the F800 Concept that was shown at the 2009 Geneva Auto Show, gave us an early glimpse at the company's current direction.
According to Hartmut Sinkwitz, director of interior design, the new C-Class embodies Mercedes' latest design ethos, branded "Sensual Purity." They're words seldom used together in conversation — unless you're talking to a designer. Here they're used to describe the tension between the prevailing organic sculpting (sensual) and the contrasting basic geometric (pure) shapes.
The early sketches by Till Varailhon in Interior Advanced Design demonstrate the tension best. The single, curved dash top gives the impression that it's floating above the facing dashboard, and the arching center stack swoops down to join the console between the front seats. The geometric interruptions — in the form of the Mercedes heritage-based air vents, gauges and the iPad-like display — are simple enough in their execution to not detract from the underlying organic shapes.
It was these sketches that vaulted the Como studio into the lead design position for the C-Class, edging out a more horizontal and traditionally German submission from Sindelfingen.
From Drawing Board to Assembly Line
As with any automotive design project, battles are fought between designers and engineers, but according to Sinkwitz and Varailhon, the final product did not compromise the initial direction. Concave surfaces in particular tend to give those in manufacturing fits, yet they survive in the C-Class' door-mounted seat adjustment panel and in the metallic dash-face trim.
In Europe, and likely Stateside, too, the base models will feature scratch-resistant piano-black surfaces for the center stack and doors. Wood veneers are available for higher-trimmed vehicles and we were quite taken by the matte veneer treatments, which may have late availability. And yes, they're real wood facings that are laser cut to ensure perfect continuation of the wood grain over various elements.
As we pored over the 2015 Mercedes C-Class interior in the darkened studio, it was evident that the material quality of the cabin was up to Mercedes-Benz standards, perhaps even improving upon its predecessor. Hard plastics are few and far between.
While we were sufficiently impressed by the interior design, it seemed that the real scene-stealer was the new touchpad controller that works in concert with the existing COMAND system. Thanks to the first Apple iPhone introduced in 2007, onscreen gestures like swipes and reverse pinches have become second nature. Mercedes-Benz capitalizes on this better than any other carmaker by employing a sleek black and silver input device that hovers above the COMAND dial.
Users simply trace a single fingertip on the glossy surface, controlling all of the same functions as the dial. Using two fingers to swipe upward reveals a shortcut to audio functions. In a nod to Apple, a Cover Flow-like presentation of album artwork can be swiped through quickly, just as on an iPhone.
A single tap on the pad selects a function and is confirmed by a strong and very convincing haptic feedback (pulse) response. Alphanumeric inputs are made by tracing your finger on the surface and are confirmed by voice feedback through the audio system. Only deliberate one- or two-finger commands are recognized, so resting your hand on the pad or fiddling with it in traffic is unlikely to trigger an accidental input.
As with previous Mercedes displays, the screen does not accept touch inputs. For this reason, Mercedes is able to place it atop the dash and out of reach. Situated there, it is well within comfortable sight lines, allowing drivers to keep their eyes on the road. Lower-trimmed C-Classes will have a 7-inch live area on the screen and higher-trimmed models increase that area to 8.4 inches, though both utilize the same size housing.
Designers insist the screen won't be prone to harsh reflections and glare. The glass face looks glossy, but has a semi-matte coating, and the angle of the mounting should minimize reflections.
Real Beauty Is on the Inside
From the inside, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is impressive. The new interior is a vast improvement on the previous model and is arguably the finest in the segment. The Italian cabin design and the new technology will no doubt be a draw for customers. If the exterior styling and driving dynamics are executed with the same expertise, the next C-Class could be the entry-level luxury sedan of choice.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.