Direct-Injected V6 Finally Arrives
You can't go to Tenerife without getting a taste of its endless nightlife, so we're hardly surprised to find a colleague who's overdone it on the local mistela passed out in the backseat of our 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport Sedan.
He's unwanted ballast and he's shown up just as we're about to hit the Carretera del Bailadero. This little mountain road winds its way through the northern tip of the largest of the Canary Islands. The verdant landscape is unreal, but you have no business here if you're liable to lose your lunch.
Then, we decide this will make a good informal test of the revised drivetrain and suspension on the refreshed 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sedan. If we can carry some speed through the turns and still deliver our passenger alive to the hotel, well, maybe the 2012 C350 Sport finally has some of the sport-sedan character that's been missing from previous versions of Mercedes' entry-level luxury sedan.
300 or Bust
One big reason we've never been able to take the current-generation Mercedes C350 Sport seriously as a sport sedan is its lack of power. With only 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, the previous-generation C350 was significantly slower than the BMW 335i, Infiniti G37 and Lexus IS 350, all of which have 300-hp six-cylinder engines.
For 2012, the C350 finally joins the 300-horse club. Mercedes has added direct injection to its 3.5-liter V6, and this has allowed the engineers to raise compression from 10.7:1 to 12.2. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 is rated at 302 hp at 6,500 rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm.
Flooring the throttle on Tenerife's main highway reveals a liveliness in the midrange that wasn't here before, along with a sweeter soundtrack. Mercedes is predicting a 5.9-second 0-60-mph time, but our 2012 C350 Sport feels a couple tenths quicker than that.
This still won't be quite enough to keep pace with the 335i, which hits 60 mph in 5 seconds flat, or the G37, which does it in 5.2. The C350's naturally aspirated V6 offers adequate low-end torque for accelerating out of the slow corners on Carretera del Bailadero, but of course it isn't the kind of instantaneous grunt you get with the turbocharged 335i.
Nor does the C350's seven-speed automatic transmission match revs (though we're pretty sure G37-style automated throttle blips would have reduced our passenger to a quivering pile in the footwell). At least downshifts are respectably quick in Sport mode. Paddle shifters aren't available, and don't even ask about a manual gearbox — nobody in America wants a three-pedal Benz.
Less Efficient Than Europe's D.I. V6
Gear ratios haven't changed on the seven-speed automatic, but engineers have made various improvements to reduce torque-converter slip and frictional losses. These updates, along with the new engine, will result in slightly better fuel economy — Mercedes estimates the 2012 C350 will get 21 mpg combined versus 20 combined for the 2011 model.
This probably isn't the dramatic improvement you've been expecting from the direct-injected Mercedes V6, and that's because the U.S. version won't get all the fuel-saving measures on our Euro-spec C350 tester. The European-market 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 uses stratified-charge combustion in low-load situations up to 3,800 rpm. This cuts consumption by 10 percent. But the U.S. can't have it because our higher-sulfur gasoline would destroy the NOx catalyst.
Our European-spec C350 also has a start-stop function. Although we find it unobtrusive when it engages at stop lights, Mercedes executives aren't convinced we won't freak out when the engine shuts off, so no U.S.-bound 2012 C-Class will have it.
If you're bent on saving fuel, you're better off with the entry-level 2012 Mercedes-Benz C250, which has a new turbocharged and direct-injected 1.8-liter four-cylinder, rated at 201 hp and 229 lb-ft of torque. It comes with the seven-speed automatic, too, and will get 30 mpg on the highway, says Mercedes.
In between, there's the C300 4Matic. It has a carryover, port-injected 228-hp 3.0-liter V6. It's no quicker than the C250 (7.1 seconds to 60 is the claim), and it's the least fuel-efficient of the three models (20 mpg combined), but it's the C-Class sedan to get if you want all-wheel drive. The C250 and C350 are rear-drive only.
Sport or Luxury. Is That Even a Choice?
We keep referring to our Euro-spec test car as the 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport, but that's actually the only way you can buy it in the U.S. — with adaptive dampers and a sport-tuned suspension calibration. The lower-line models also come in C250 Luxury and C300 4Matic Luxury variations with a softer state of tune, but the adaptive dampers are standard across the board.
This midcycle refresh doesn't bring radical change to the C-Class suspension, which includes struts and dual lower links in front and a multilink rear, but the lead chassis engineer tells us they've increased compression damping to improve the ride, though we've never had any complaints about how the current-gen C-Class rides.
And after our adventure on Tenerife's back roads, we still don't. However, even with the dampers in their sport setting, the 2012 C350 Sport still isn't very engaging. It's capable on technical roads, but it lacks the sharp turn-in response and communicative steering that make sedans like the 3 Series and G37 so addictive. The C350 may well match their handling numbers, but it won't inspire many "just because" drives.
We remain fans of the Mercedes-Benz C350's brakes, though. They're unchanged for 2012, and that's OK because they work great.
Less Austerity, More Features
Every current-generation C-Class sedan we've been in has had excellent build and materials quality, but the hospital-ward vibe can run a bit thin, especially in our long-term 2008 C300 Sport's plain black cabin.
So Mercedes has brightened the place up for 2012, adding more metal (Sport models) and wood inlays (Luxury models) and a couple new steering wheel designs. In a nod to our modern times, the automaker has integrated the 7-inch navigation screen into the dash, rather than having it pop out on command. Europeans will be able to use the screen to surf the Web and view SMS texts, and though we won't enjoy such diversions here, the new 80GB hard-drive-based nav system will include 3-D maps.
New standard features include Bluetooth streaming audio capability and the Attention Assist system that will give you a virtual elbow if you doze off in your C-Class. Blind-spot and lane-departure warning systems will be a package option. In Europe, the systems will take corrective action if you don't, but in the U.S., they'll merely warn you, because we're all about personal freedom here.
Price Isn't Going Up
By day's end, we deposit our rested and rejuvenated passenger at the hotel, where he suits up for another night out. Although our 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport has had a hand in his recovery, it still wouldn't be our first pick for a sport sedan under $50,000 when it goes on sale this August.
The new direct-injected V6 puts the C350 back in the game, but the Benz still isn't as quick as the BMW 335i or Infiniti G37, and it doesn't offset that with outstanding fuel economy or amazing handling. Once again, the C350 Sport is just a well-executed luxury sedan that happens to have "Sport" in its name.
It also happens to be a bit cheaper than its BMW rival, as Mercedes plans to hold the line on pricing for 2012. Look for the C350 to start around $40,000 and top out in the mid-$40Ks when equipped like our tester. With comparable equipment, the C350 will likely cost $3,000-$4,000 less than the 335i — at which point you have to decide just how much the BMW's stronger personality is worth to you.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report, which originally appeared on insideline.com.