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Mercedes’ classic has forward-looking engine

Wednesday, 1st May, 2019 4:46pm

What I love most about the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe is how backward it looks. Or perhaps that should be how it looks, going backwards.

For you see, at the front, the C-Class Coupe looks much the same as the C-Class saloon or estate, but once you get back behind the windscreen, it goes all Bauhaus — the way the rear end tapers almost to a point, with that small, inset, and curved rear screen, just makes it look like a 1920s streamliner, a refugee from an era of art deco and The Charleston.

Oddly, this one has Mercedes’ latest, and most cutting-edge internal combustion powerplant. Or perhaps that’s not odd at all.

After all, as Sir Humphrey once explained to a befuddled Prime Minister Hacker, if you’re going to try to introduce something new and radical, best to do it against a backdrop of leather books and wooden shelves and with some reassuring Bach playing on the soundtrack. The shock of the new sometimes requires a reassuring shoulder-pat from the old.

So, what’s new? Well, the engine is. It’s badged C200 but as is so often the case now, the number bears little relationship to the size of the engine. In fairness, it hasn’t done for the C200 since time immemorial, but whereas the C200 of old used a 1.8 litre supercharged engine, this one has a 1.5 litre, four-cylinder turbo with a mild-hybrid system, badged with Mercedes’ new electric EQ brand.

So, nominally, the 1.5 litre engine develops 184hp - not too shabby - but thanks to having a 48 volt mild hybrid system, and a small electric motor (fed by an equally small lithium-ion battery stashed under the boot) integrated into the nine-speed automatic gearbox, it can add an extra 14hp to the total when needed.

It can also add an extra 170Nm of torque to the petrol engine’s 280Nm, which is substantial. Push the pedal hard, and this diminutive engine pulls like Dwayne Johnson at a bell-ringing contest. It maybe doesn’t quite mimic the effect of the big, multi-cylinder engine but a 7.7sec 0-100km/h time is far from disgraceful.

Of course, at least half the point of a hybrid, even a mild hybrid, is to provide superior fuel economy and lower emissions. The C200’s CO2 emissions dip as low as 136g/km — that depends on which wheels and other equipment you choose, as evinced by our test car. In AMG-Line spec, with big 19 inch wheels, the CO2 figure swells to 148g/km, which means you’ll pay and extra €110 in annual motor tax, but perhaps that’s acceptable in light of a C200 Coupe purchase price which starts at €44,315 and works upwards from there.

What’s perhaps less acceptable is the actual average fuel economy. Now, theoretically, the C200 should be pretty frugal. Mercedes quotes an economy figure of 6.5 litres per 100km — a reasonable 45mpg — and the mild hybrid’s twin party tricks of allowing the car to ‘sail’ at zero rpm for short bursts on the motorway, and allowing the stop-start system to kick in earlier around town, should make it pretty parsimonious. Except it doesn’t. Or at least it didn’t in our hands.

On our usual mix of long, gentle motorway runs and lots of urban circulating, we averaged 9.3 litres per 100km. Which is 30.3mpg. Which is what is usually called less than clever.

Now, there are one or two perspectives from which you can look at this. From the traditional view, that of expensive, slinky, German coupes with good performance and selfishly small cabins, perhaps averaging 30mpg over a week’s driving isn’t too bad. From the perspective of mild hybrids supposedly being the great white hope of squaring the conflicting demands of ditching diesel power while clinging on to low emissions and modest fuel consumption? Well…

The rest of the C200’s performance is predictably polished. The 19 inch wheels induce a bit too much bump-thump around town, but on the open road, the chassis begins to sparkle, and feels better and more responsive the more you ask of it. It is a hugely talented car, albeit one that still feels half a step behind the best BMWs when it comes to communicating with the driver.

Comfort is excellent though (exceptional seats), refinement is good as long as you don’t venture beyond 4,000rpm too often, and the cabin is as beautiful to look at as it is beautifully constructed. The boot is slightly less practical, as the mild hybrid system chews 20 litres of space, reducing it to 360 litres, but it’s good enough by 2+2 coupe standards.

In general, we really like the updated C-Class, with its mildly tweaked styling, its improved safety systems, the optional digital instruments, and the improved car-to-internet connectivity. This specific C200 version, though? Hmmm… the feelings are a little more mixed.

While it’s fine to drive, the fuel economy — surely the primary reason for choosing a down-sized petrol with a mild hybrid system — just doesn’t stack up.

An argument that the latest-tech diesel engines have not quite had their day yet? Perhaps looking backwards still has some merit.

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