Mercedes-Benz would rather forget the unloved hatchback Sport Coupe from a decade ago, a failed attempt to get on terms with the breed of compact Japanese-made hot rods that were making everyone look twice. Instead, the German maker of luxury cars would like you to look twice at its 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Coupe, the first real coupe ever based on the C-Class Sedan.
Above and beyond this car's sleek silhouette, you'll find a reason to look twice at a new 302-horsepower direct-injected V6 and a surprisingly precise suspension calibration. With a finely crafted cabin and enough telematics for techies to get their geek on, the C350 Coupe should be just the tool to attract a younger, hipper audience into Mercedes showrooms, without compromising the exclusivity to which even the young and hip aspire.
The C350 Coupe will go head-to-head with several well-entrenched competitors, most notably the segment's benchmark, the stalwart BMW 335i with its turbocharged inline-6 engine. Also standing in the way of sales supremacy are coupe versions of the Cadillac CTS and Infiniti G37, both featuring 300-hp naturally aspirated V6s.
The top-of-the-line C350 Coupe uses a new direct-injected version of the new DOHC 3.5-liter Mercedes V6. Equipped with variable valve timing for both intake and exhaust valves, it's a smooth runner from start-up to its redline of 6,750 rpm. Power jumps to 302 hp at 6,500 rpm, a substantial increase over the previous 3.5-liter V6's 268 hp at 6,000. There's also more torque — 273 pound-feet compared to 258 lb-ft — although it's produced between 3,500 and 5,250 rpm versus the more tractable 2,400-5,000 of the previous V6.
Despite the extra power, fuel economy has improved thanks to the engine's direct injection and the revised and more efficient seven-speed automatic transmission. The C350 Coupe is expected to deliver 22 mpg EPA combined, a 2-mpg improvement over the 2011 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sedan.
Mercedes claims the extra sauce and quicker shifting should result in a 0-60 mph sprint of 5.9 seconds. While it's true the engine isn't big on low-end power, it makes up for it with an exciting high-rpm rush, accompanied by an equally stirring rasp from the exhaust.
The smooth V6 and equally silky transmission complement each other out on the road. In Drive mode, the transmission gives relatively speedy upshifts and is quick to downshift. Sporting drivers might be disappointed that the transmission always shifts for itself at its own predetermined rpm limit even when you use the shift paddles on the steering wheel in Manual mode. This transmission also attempts to blip the throttle for quicker downshifts, but it's pathetically lazy (an ongoing issue with this transmission), so the result is not as crisp as we'd prefer in a real sporting coupe. And it's not exactly unexpected that a manual transmission will not find its way to the U.S.
All U.S. C-Class Coupes will come standard with a sport suspension that's optional in Europe. But the test cars we drove were fitted with the optional, upgraded Advanced Agility package, which features electronically controlled adaptive dampers. The driver can switch from the standard setting to Sport with the press of a button, not only providing firmer damping rates for more body control but also delivering quicker, sharper throttle response and heavier steering effort.
We were also glad to find that the Sport setting truly means sport. It transforms the 3,562-pound C350 Coupe from a slightly vague, light-steering highway car with the noticeable body roll characteristic of a Mercedes sedan into a sharp sport coupe. It feels glued to the road, with its body roll and suspension action very tightly controlled and its steering response both sharp and precise.
This Advanced Agility package really gives the C-Class Coupe the moves on a twisty back road that a sport coupe should have, and yet there's enough suspension compliance to help the rear end of the car absorb those tricky bumps in the middle of corners and stay on track.
Those looking for better fuel efficiency should consider the base-model 2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 Coupe. It uses a new turbocharged, direct-injected 1.8-liter inline-4 that delivers 201 hp at 5,500 rpm and 229 lb-ft of torque from 2,200-4,300. Mated to the same seven-speed automatic transmission, this engine is expected to deliver 30 mpg highway, Mercedes tells us. Although this engine feels a little coarse for the kind of Mercedes that comes to the U.S., it's actually pretty smooth as far as four-cylinder engines go.
As far as performance goes, the C250 proves a bit sluggish off the starting line, but a nice midrange surge does a decent job of moving the C250's 3,419-pound curb weight (143 pounds less than the C350) down the road. Still, it's no match for the pure grunt of the V6. Mercedes claims a 0-60 time of 7.1 seconds for the turbo-4. On the other hand, the C250's sprightly nature makes it more willing to change direction than the C350.
The Advanced Agility package allows the driver to switch between a standard suspension setting and firmer Sport. There's a significant difference between the two, and trust us, your backside will notice big bumps in Sport mode.
The front seats do a nice job of holding you in place during hard cornering thanks to supportive side bolsters on the back of the seat, yet ingress/egress never becomes a problem. The seat cushions are firm in the typical Mercedes style, but they're up to the task of all-day touring. The downside to the coupe's radical roof line is reduced head- and knee room in the backseat (which has two individual buckets). Even though headroom is down by 1.4 inches compared with the sedan, average-size adults can survive back there thanks to cutouts in the roof.
The C230 Sport Coupe from a decade ago never felt like a true Mercedes, but the C-Class Coupe seems like the real deal, with the vaultlike sturdiness for which the brand is known. Wind and road noise are kept to a minimum, while both the turbo-4 and V6 only crank up the volume when they're revved high.
The C Coupe's interior is short on high fashion but big on buttons, and the chrome ones on the center stack add some color to the otherwise monochromatic all-black equation. The cabin is generally well laid out, although we'd prefer that the gear indicators for manual shifting were larger, since the array of seven within the speedometer dial makes it difficult to quickly make out which gear is currently highlighted.
We also have an issue with the control stalks behind the steering wheel, a design strategy characteristic of Mercedes for many years. Three steering-wheel stalks on the left side and yet none on the right make it all too easy for your fingers to grab the wrong stalk. A nice standard feature on all C-Class Coupes is the two-piece panorama sunroof, which gives the roof a blacked-out look from the outside that's very sporting.
The C-Class Coupe has the full array of Mercedes-Benz driver aids available either as standard equipment or as options. Attention Assist (detects typical signs of drowsiness, such as weaving) comes standard, while Adaptive High-Beam Assist, Lane-Keeping Assist and Blind Spot Assist are available as extra-cost options.
The C Coupe has lost little in the cargo department compared to the Sedan, down to 11.7 cubic feet from the Sedan's 12.4. Even better, the rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split.
Design/Fit and Finish
Even though the Mercedes C-Class Coupe's interior isn't big on flash, it is big on class. The controls have nice detents and the numerous buttons don't feel plasticky or cheap. And the three-spoke steering wheel? A perfectly thick rim with grippy, perforated leather just where you want it at the 9 and 3 o'clock positions.
But the exterior is what will draw buyers initially to this car, the fastback roof line giving it a sporting flair. The aggressive front end with the two-bar coupe grille demands attention, too. You definitely notice a C-Class Coupe bearing down on you from behind.
Who should consider this vehicle
Since the 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Coupe only weighs 53 pounds less than the sedan, performance isn't enough of a reason to give up the convenience of two extra doors and some head- and legroom. And the lack of a manual transmission could drive some buyers straight to BMW and Infiniti dealers.
But this new Mercedes C-Class Coupe is a solid contender in every other respect, with strong and smooth engines, terrific handling and superb fit and finish. Further, its sharp, sporty styling should go a long way toward attracting the younger target groups Mercedes is seeking.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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