Today we are used to having the world – quite literally – at our fingertips. We use touchscreens and touchpads to operate smartphones, tablets, computers, snack and cash dispensers, ticket machines and many other everyday conveniences. What’s more, in recent years the gestures required to control these devices – the swipe, the drag, the tap – have become such a regular feature of our everyday lives that young children now stare indignantly at the printed words in a book when they stubbornly refuse to move off the page.
Touchscreens have introduced a closer relationship between man and machine. But for many years, the automobile remained largely untouched by this revolution. Why? Perhaps because the raw power of the machine, the irresistible force of several hundred horsepower, never seemed to sit quite so well with the simplicity of touchscreen control.
Presented by Mercedes-Benz at the Detroit Auto Show last January, the new C-Class is about to change all that: The centrepiece of its centre console is a silky-smooth touchpad. Just as with a smartphone, all vehicle functions – from ambient lighting to climate control and multimedia – can be operated by the driver with fingertip control. And, of course, the system is also hooked up to the navigation device. Using natural finger movements, the touchpad enables users to zoom in on a map; its handwriting recognition function identifies the individual letters of destinations “drawn” with the finger on the screen (the software can even interpret the most spidery of scripts); and after just a brief familiarization period, users will be writing commands instinctively and unsighted. For drivers who feel uneasy with touch controls, however, there is always the familiar controller knob, now relocated to a new position just below the magical touchscreen.
Premiere of the head-up display
Combining several functions in one device, the touchpad has a further positive spinoff: reducing the number of knobs and switches on the dominant centre console. The cockpit seems somehow tidier – almost minimalist. The effect achieved by the large, freestanding screen and the three air vents positioned below it is one of contemporary sportiness. And the look is underlined by the first-ever use in a Mercedes-Benz vehicle of a head-up display. This projects important information about speed or route onto the front windshield. To the driver’s eye, the virtual image appears to float in front of the C-Class.
Despite such innovative additions, the interior is neither overly technical nor unwelcoming, thanks in no small part to the tranquil surfaces and elegant, flowing lines, which converge at the centre console, holding passengers in their gentle embrace. Referring to the cockpit’s sculptural design, Hartmut Sinkwitz, Head of Interior Design at Mercedes-Benz, speaks of “sensual clarity.” Highlights include solid metal and galvanized surfaces, intricate stitching and fine wood finishes – the ultimate in automotive interior design.
At its introduction over 30 years ago, the predecessor of the C-Class – the 190 – was teasingly and affectionately nicknamed the “Baby Benz.” Of course, even then the moniker seemed ill-fitting. With today’s C-Class, it would be even further off the mark, for the credo faithfully observed by the developers has been to “upgrade inside.” To sit aboard the new C-Class is to experience the joy of an airline passenger upgraded from economy to business class. Indeed, on discovering the spacious and luxurious new model for the first time, it is not immediately apparent that this is a car nominally ranked in the mid-range class. “The development came about at the time we were redefining our brand and establishing our slogan ‘The best or nothing,’” explains design chief Sinkwitz.
Upon close inspection, it quickly becomes clear that this design credo has been implemented consistently throughout, right down to the bodywork. The car appears to have grown in size – and yet shed weight at the same time. A quick consultation of the data sheet confirms this initial overall impression. Thanks to intelligent design and the extensive use of lightweight components and aluminum parts, the current model tips the scales at approximately 100 kilograms less than preceding generations. This also has an impact on fuel consumption, where the new C-Class has set unprecedented best marks for its segment.
Despite these reductions, the new model line is around 10 centimetres longer. This not only improves legroom in the rear, it also serves to enhance the aerodynamic silhouette and elongated engine hood, the arching roofline that falls away steeply toward the rear, and the shortened tail end. Moreover, the distinctive side contours appear to generate additional momentum. The look is highly dynamic. Even when standing still, the C-Class appears to be in full flight.
It is impossible to ignore a family resemblance to the S-Class. Indeed, many technical innovations and assistance systems have found their way into the new C-Class barely a year after they celebrated their world premiere in the Mercedes-Benz flagship model. These include, for example, the on-board stereo camera, which provides a three-dimensional view of the area up to 50 metres in front of the vehicle and recognizes pedestrians, cyclists and cars approaching from the side. The camera also works in combination with many other sensors to provide all-round visibility. The car’s arsenal of optional equipment features also includes the enhanced Intelligent Drive Package, as well as the now individually available head-up display and LED High Performance Headlamps.
Technology transfer has also given rise to the DISTRONIC PLUS with Steering Assist, already familiar in the S-Class. This responds automatically to the flow in stop-and-go traffic and, as such, heralds hands-free driving in basic form. As well as enhancing comfort, it also increases safety. The new C-Class is more than equipped to face the future.
In terms of suspension, too, it has taken an evolutionary step forward. The new model features an all-new four-link front axle, in which wheel suspension is fully decoupled from the spring strut for improved agility. Alternatively, AIRMATIC air suspension is now also available in this segment. In combination with the aluminum hybrid body, this guarantees comfort and increased driving pleasure – and ensures that, along with all the interior upgrades, the focus remains firmly on the car’s handling.