The C-class sports sedan from Mercedes-Benz is often called the “baby Benz” because it was the smallest and least expensive model the German automaker sold in the U.S.
Baby has grown up.
Mercedes revealed details Monday about the next generation C class, which will go on sale as a 2015 model next fall. The car is roomier than the current model and will offer more safety features and amenities, including a touch pad on the center console that will work the controls.
“The car matures,” said Steve Cannon, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz USA. “The level of refinement takes a dramatic step up.”
The role of the C had to change because it is no longer expected to bring entry-level buyers into the Mercedes brand, Cannon said, a task that’s now on the shoulders of the smaller and less expensive CLA.
Mercedes hasn’t discussed its pricing strategy but hinted that the vehicle will sell close to its current cost, which starts at around $36,000 and quickly climbs north with options. The CLA starts at about $30,000.
This latest generation will be built at the automaker’s factory in Alabama, the first Mercedes sedan built in the U.S. market, Cannon said.
The model also will be built at other factories around the world as Mercedes works to assemble more cars closer to the markets where they are sold to avoid the negative affects of currency fluctuations.
The bigger C gives Mercedes a balanced progression in cars in size and price the starts with the CLA and also includes the E-class to the S-class, Cannon said.
“This is feeding the entire eco system,” he said.
Mercedes plans to debut the car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month.
Even with the new model, Mercedes will still likely trail arch-rival BMW in the sports sedan segment, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Automotive.
Mercedes, which will sell about 343,000 C-class cars this year, trails BMW 3-series sales by about 130,000 vehicles, a gap that would be hard to close even with the new model, she said.
But while competing with BMW is important, it’s probably not Mercedes’ top priority for this segment of the market.
“Mercedes is more concerned about maintaining their own personality and brand and not so much about surpassing BMW,” Brinley said.
Still, a lot is riding on the C, currently Mercedes biggest seller both in the U.S. and the world, Brinley said.
“It has been the heart of their market for quite some time,” Brinley said.
The new C will launch with two engine choices.
The C300 will come with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder engine that will produce an estimated 235 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.
“We are getting six-cylinder power out of a four-cylinder engine while maintaining four-cylinder fuel economy,” Canon said.
The C400 will have a 3.0 liter turbocharged direct-injection V6 that produces an estimated 329 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. Expect a diesel option at some point.
Initially, Mercedes will offer only the all-wheel-drive version. A rear-wheel-drive model will follow, Cannon said.
Mercedes said the dimensions of the new C class have grown to take account of people’s increasing average height. But analysts note the car had to grow to separate it from the CLA, which went on sale in September.
The new C is nearly four inches longer than the generation it replaces and 1.6 inches wider. Mercedes has used a lot of that extra space in the back to make the car more comfortable for back-seat passengers. The trunk capacity also has grown to 17 cubic feet from 12.4.
In a nod to increasing fuel economy and emission standards both in the U.S. and globally, Mercedes worked to whittle weight out of the new C class. The new car will be up to 220 pounds lighter than its predecessor.
Mercedes is one of the automakers -- along with Ford and Jaguar-Land Rover -- that are pushing heavily into the substitution of lightweight aluminum for steel. In the current model, aluminum accounts for about 10% of the car’s platform and body but that approaches 50% in the new car.
This lightweight construction cuts fuel consumption by up to 20% over the current model without any loss of performance, Mercedes said. Mercedes has not released fuel consumption numbers for the new car but the current generation gets 24 to 25 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving, depending on the engine choice, according to Environmental Protection Agency ratings.
The new C comes standard with a safety feature that’s a favorite of the insurance industry and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- a system that alerts a driver who is in danger of hitting a vehicle or object in front and then automatically activates the brakes if a crash is eminent.
One of the more unusual features of the C will be a touch pad -- think of a small electronic tablet -- in the center console. The touch pad won’t have its own display; the functions will show up on the dashboard screen. But it will operate like a tablet to allow the driver to control various information and entertainment features of the car.
The driver will be able to swipe the touch pad to move through screens or use two fingers to shrink or expand what is displayed. The touch pad also permits letters, numbers and special characters to be entered by writing on top of it with a finger.
Mercedes says it will recognize any language, allowing a Chinese driver to enter the address of the best dumpling restaurant in Beijing or someone in Southern California to find the nearest Taco Bell.
Analysts said Mercedes risks some cannibalization as people who might have bought the more expensive C class opt instead for the CLA.
But that’s likely to decline when the new C comes out because the cars are clearly different, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds.com.
The CLA is a front-wheel-drive car with a less powerful engine while the C remains either all-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive and will also offer a sport coupe and convertible versions over the next several years.
Growing the C is part of an industry trend where models tend to increase in length and cabin size over multiple generations.
That gave Mercedes the room to come up with the CLA to find underneath the C, Brinley said.
But don’t expect Mercedes to offer cars below the price of the CLA.
“There is a point past which we will not go,” Cannon said. “We have to make money and we have to be offering a real Mercedes-Benz. We are not going to get caught making mistakes like the Cadillac Cimarron or the Jaguar X-Type.”