IT IS very interesting to observe the goings-on at Mercedes right now as the company eyes-up a rate of expansion that is more wildly ambitious than anything the great German marque has undertaken in its long and illustrious history.
Time was when the Stuttgart concern looked down from its lofty perch with a disdainful eye on what other manufacturers were doing, safe in the knowledge that lesser car makers could never match the levels of brand awareness and loyalty, as well as the sort of brand recognition that rivals of the three-pointed star could only dream of.
Mercedes’ previously lofty indifference at such expansionism and its belief that steady profitability and growth was a much better state of affairs, has now radically changed and a new policy which has seen massive investment in plant and product in recent years, is aimed at mining much greater mother lodes of new markets and new customers.
Its main area of vehicle expansion has been into the SUV market and that’s hardly a shock. With European sales of SUVs having increased this July by 11.9% compared with the same month last year and now cornering some 25.5% of the overall pan-European car market, these are the cars consumers want and Mercedes wants its’ fair share of those customers.
Cars such as the GLA, GLC, GLE and GLS will become stalwarts in the SUV genre, but it is not just the obvious market segments Mercedes is rushing to fill as it is also going after various niches in which it has not been represented before — and that’s where this week’s tester, the C-Class Convertible, comes in.
Mercedes has not — somewhat surprisingly — had a C-Class ragtop before. Sure, there was the last generation CLK which was based on the C-Class platform, but it was not technically a C-Class variant in the great Mercedes scheme of things.
Now, regular readers will know that with very few exceptions — the Mazda MX-5 being a notable one — I am not a big ragtop fan, but I have to say that after my time with this car, it could well join a very elite band of such cars which gets the thumbs-up from this quarter. Like the other C-Class variants it has very clear familial connections with the S-Class in terms of the design and the look of the car and that’s no bad thing at all.
One of the biggest problems with such cars is chassis flexing, simply because it does not have a roof and this undermines and compromises the torsional rigidity of the car’s structure and thus its’ driving characteristics. In most cases the result is a mushy handler whose most notable trait is terminal understeer.
To counteract this potentially fatal flaw, Mercedes has added some 125 kg of added chassis strengthening to the C-Class and while this means there is a lot of extra metal to drag around the place, it has also largely cured the flexing issue and resulted in a car which is a lot more pleasing to drive than most of its rivals.
Obviously it is not quite the same as either the saloon or coupe versions, but the car — having been also blessed with a new four link front suspension layout and an adapted version of the saloon’s multi-link set up at the rear — demonstrates little more than a touch of lean in heavy cornering with little or no understeer. It is very well balanced.
Initial fears that the established sharpness of the 170 bhp 2.1 litre twin turbo diesel might have been somewhat blunted by the weight penalty created by the absent roof, proved unwarranted and with 400 Nm of torque on offer, decent performance is available, what with a 231km/h top speed and an 8.2 second 0-100km/h time.
The engine does get a bit noisy and coarse when under pressure and it may be that this, the smallest engine on offer, could well be dismissed by those for whom more grunt and more refinement is demanded. What will appeal though is the 4.6 l/100 km (60+ mpg) and the €270 annual tax bill.
On the plus side, one of the technical joys of the test car was the nine-speed automatic gearbox which truly impressed with its’ slickness and the general seamlessness of the gear changes. And, unlike other similar transmissions out there, it is not constantly looking for another cog and hopping from one to another. It genuinely adds to the pleasure of driving the car.
And, unlike a lot of these things, this boasts a pretty genuine 2+2 seating layout, although the rear headroom is compromised by the folding roof. Considering that with most such cars you cannot get much more than a rolled up newspaper into the back seats, the C-Class Cabrio is very passenger friendly. That said, the boot space is not great, especially with the roof folded away.
With acres of wood, leather and aluminium on show, the interior design is elegance personified and even against its main German rivals, you’d have to say the Mercedes is the stand-out in this department.
Because of the many excellent technical and design features of the car, it is surely one that will appeal to any driver who not only likes having the wind-in-the-hair option, but also the ability to drive hard without the certainty of ending up in a tree.
That is a certainty which far too many of the opposition offer, but with this car Mercedes steps away from that argument with a refreshing contender and one which will certainly help the company’s expansion plans — even in a small way.
COLLEY’S VERDICT: MERCEDES C-CLASS CONVERTIBLE
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