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Mercedes' Most Beautiful Sedan In 50 Years: The New C-Class

|Includes: Tesla, Inc. (TSLA)

I spent a week driving the all-new 2015 Mercedes C400, four wheel drive. While the price starts a hair below $50,000, the version I drove was just over $63,000. It is the first Mercedes sedan manufactured in the United States.

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful Mercedes sedan since the epic and enormous flagship 600 that was first shown at the 1963 Frankfurt Auto Show, and was in production from 1964 to 1981. It is simply a piece of art in the design columns -- exterior as well as interior.

The exterior design is very well balanced. It is clearly the younger brother of the all-new 2014 S-Class sedan. However, it has removed all the "fat" from the design, paring it down to the more athletic essentials. The proportions are flawless, as are the individual design details.

As with the mid-cycle refresh of the E-Class for the 2014 model year, the all-new 2015 C-Class comes in two exterior trims -- Sport and Classic. The Classic has the traditional Mercedes grille and stand-up star, as well as more conservative -- and non-staggered -- tires, and more compliant suspension and ground clearance. I prefer the Classic, but that wasn't the car I drove this time.

The beautiful design continues to the interior. The first thing the strikes you is the one big center stack piece of wood. It is unlike anything else in the industry. It's big, beautiful, and spectacularly shaped. The only piece of wood in the industry that I remember being even more impressive is the door inlay in the Rolls Royce Wraith. That car starts around $300,000 and can easily hit $400,000 with various customization options.

Speaking of the doors, the Burmester speaker grilles are also industry-leading in design. In any case, this is Gorden Wagener's finest sedan exterior, and in strong competition for his finest interior job to date.

The only fly in the ointment with that magnificent center stack wood piece, is that once you open the storage compartment (for keys, etc), it doesn't look quite as impressive anymore. But you need the space.

Front seat comfort is excellent, approximately on par with the other German automakers as well as Volvo. I am not a fan of the infotainment system, as it's not as good as the ones in Audi, Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep and of course Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA). That said, it's better than BMW, Jaguar, Subaru and a few others.

The back seat lacks in head room. Otherwise, the car has just enough room for four or five adults.

Power is more than ample at 329 horsepower, and the four wheel drive makes for outstanding handling. The stalk-mounted transmission shifter is one of my favorites.

If I had driven this car a month or two earlier than I did, I would have declared it class-leading in terms of the overall drive feel. It really is superb. However, I had just become polluted with a surprising discovery, in the month or two before driving the Mercedes C400, and that was the Volvo V60 T6R.

As near-flawless as the Mercedes C400 was, the Volvo was simply even better. I never expected this. The Volvo's steering and throttle feel were the best ever, trumping the superb Mercedes C400. The Volvo was just barely above $48,000, significantly below the $63,000 price tag on the Mercedes. Yes, the Volvo didn't even have a rear view camera, but still.

From a fuel economy perspective, the Mercedes C400 is rated at 21 MPG city, 29 MPG highway. For what it's worth, that's better than the 18/28 in the Volvo as well as in a similarly powered (but not 4x4) Jaguar XF Sport I drove recently.

It is pretty obvious to me that Mercedes will soon offer the C-Class with the same 2.1 liter four cylinder diesel engine that it now offers in the E, ML and Sprinter nameplates. That engine should yield at least 45 MPG highway in rear wheel drive, and 42 MPG in four wheel drive configurations. My advice is to wait for this one to enter production. It ought not to take long.

All in all the Mercedes C400 -- as well as its smaller-engine brother C300 -- is a design masterpiece. It also drives supremely well. If a sedan is what you want, and you don't want, need or can buy a larger sedan, then this is about as well as you can do in the market today, assuming that this is the amount of money you can and want to spend.

That said, I cannot say that it is the very best-driving car of this general class that I've driven in recent memory. That crown goes, surprisingly, to the Volvo V60 T6R, which also costs a bit less.

Personally, I would look to another small premium car for my first choice, and that is the Audi A3. It has a better infotainment system, a diesel available today, and costs only $43,000 fully loaded ($34,000 base). Yes, it doesn't have four wheel drive in the diesel version, and yes it is considered a hair smaller than the Mercedes C-Class, but I found that the Audi A3 just fits me like a glove in so many dimensions.

Disclosure: The author is short TSLA.

Additional disclosure: At the time of submitting this article for publication, the author was short TSLA. However, positions can change at any time. The author regularly attends product launch events, press conferences and equivalent, with the automakers. Some of those events are paid for, in whole or in part, by those automakers. The author regularly test drives cars provided by the automakers. Mercedes provided the car for review.