With sharper styling, Mercedes' new C-Class is aiming to attract a host of younger buyers. We see how the petrol version fares against Lexus' IS250

IT comes as no surprise that the new Mercedes C-Class is making waves in the compact executive class. The latest model’s sharp lines and athletic look should certainly help attract more youthful buyers from its biggest rivals, BMW and Audi.

We’ve already driven and tested a four-cylinder diesel model (see Issue 964) and were mightily impressed. Now we aim to find out whether the petrol equivalent is as good and can match the very high standards set by the oil-burner.

The C200K is powered by an improved version of the 1.8-litre supercharged engine from the previous model. This unit is also used in the entry-level C180K, but power is increased from 154bhp to 181bhp.

With prices starting at £24,117 for the SE model, it’s one of the least expensive routes to C-Class ownership. We’re testing the comfort-biased Elegance spec, which adds £1,195 to the base model’s price.

Standing in its way is another car that majors on refinement – the Lexus IS250. As well as a more powerful V6 engine, this range-topping SE-L model also has a higher price tag than the Mercedes, at £29,627.

Both are well equipped and packed with the latest technology, both in the cabin and under the skin. So, which one should you opt for if you want to create a stir in the company car park? Read on to find out...

Mercedes C200K

Want proof of how important the new C-Class is to Mercedes? Well, before launch, it completed the most comprehensive test programme in the company’s history. Over three-and-a-half years, pre-production examples clocked up more than 15 million miles across the globe.

Considering it’s the best-selling model in the firm’s line-up, with more than 1.4 million cars finding homes worldwide since 2000, Mercedes clearly had to get the new version exactly right, especially as it has to compete with ever-increasing competition in the compact executive sector.

In terms of looks, it echoes the luxury S-Class, with chunky wheelarches and a wedge-shaped front end. The short overhangs and bluff nose give it a more athletic profile than its predecessor – and the IS – while the rising swage lines on the flanks have echoes of the BMW 3-Series. We think it’s a real success, and should help the C-Class bring its image bang up to date.

There have been some sweeping changes inside, too. The C-Class is bigger than before and has a longer wheelbase than the Lexus, so it feels more spacious, particularly in the rear, with decent leg and headroom. The boot is also more generous and user-friendly than its rival’s.

Thanks to a superb driving position and plenty of adjustment in the seat and steering wheel, the cabin up front is also more spacious than the Lexus’s. But there are some criticisms. Considering it’s an executive saloon, we were disappointed by some of the plastics used. While the fit and finish is top notch, the cabin seems slightly utilitarian and lacks a sense of occasion. Overall, though, it’s a clean and unfussy design, while the switchgear has a quality touch to it.

The engine is a pleasant surprise. We’ve never been truly convinced by the supercharged four-cylinder Kompressor units that Mercedes has used for years, but this version of the 1.8-litre powerplant helps redress that. Modifications to the high-output motor now mean it has 181bhp, an extra 20bhp, and generates its maximum 250Nm of torque at 2,800rpm. Fuel economy and performance are also improved.

It feels punchy enough low down, and although lacking a decent engine note, it’s surprisingly responsive when mated to the five-speed auto gearbox. At the test track, it was a second behind the more powerful IS from 0-60mph, but a result of nine seconds means it’s no slouch.

Out on the road, the C200K is more willing than its Japanese rival and doesn’t have to be worked as hard as the V6 in the Lexus. Wind and road noise are impressively low at speed, but the best aspect of the Merc is its excellent ride.

Even over extremely rough roads it copes effortlessly, but that doesn’t mean it’s soft through bends. The standard Agility Control selective damping system ensures that body control and stability are both excellent without compromising comfort. It’s a shame, then, that the steering lacks sharpness and feels light at high speeds.

You would expect a premium brand such as Mercedes to charge high prices, but this mid-range C200 Elegance costs £26,407, which is £3,000 less than the Lexus. Standard equipment totals are fairly comparable, too, although our example did come with £4,000 worth of options, which took the final asking price above the £30,000 mark.

Lexus IS250

Traditionally, the first ports of call for anyone wanting a prestige sports saloon were BMW, Audi and Mercedes. But you can now add Lexus to that list. The premium spin-off from Toyota first introduced the IS range to the UK in 1999 and quickly established itself as a strong contender.

The second-generation model has further enhanced the firm’s reputation, and although brand image may not quite be up to Mercedes standards yet, the Japanese firm isn’t far behind. Styling is a key factor and the IS boasts a definite European flavour to its lines.

We’re not totally convinced by the shape, though. While the sharp nose looks good and the high waistline gives a solid air, the rather large rump seems ungainly and the tail-lights aren’t particularly stylish. It’s distinctive, although not quite as memorable as the athletic Mercedes.

But while the appearance is European, the interior is typically Japanese. There are some disappointing similarities with Toyota models, and the silver plastics on the centre console feel dated, even if the layout is simple and the controls intuitive. The standard leather trim is plush and build quality is a match for the Merc, but while everything is more tactile than in the C-Class, there are some big criticisms.

The seating is too high, restricting headroom for taller drivers, there’s a lack of storage on the centre console and some of the buttons are hidden away at knee level. And it’s no better in the back. Head and legroom aren’t great and footspace is tight, limited further by the large transmission tunnel. The boot is also very small.

However, push the engine start button, and things improve. The 2.5-litre V6 powerplant is one of the smoothest we’ve ever driven. There’s virtually no vibration, and noise is well suppressed.

At the test track, the Lexus was almost a second quicker from 0-60mph, with a sprint time of 8.1 seconds, although it was only marginally faster in kickdown. The reason for this is that while its 252Nm of torque beats the C200K’s 250Nm, it doesn’t peak until 4,800rpm – 2,000rpm further up the rev range than the Mercedes. So in everyday conditions, the IS seems a little sluggish, which isn’t helped by its extra kerbweight. The six-speed automatic box doesn’t provide much feedback, either, although the upshifts are virtually seamless.

Refinement is the IS’s strong point. Great insulation means the cabin is silent at speed, and although there is tyre noise on the motorway, it makes a superb long-distance cruiser. At idle, the IS was 3dB quieter than the C-Class’s 41dB, and it was also more hushed at 70mph. The ride is excellent, too, even if the rear suspension can become slightly unsettled on uneven roads.

The handling isn’t as involving as the Mercedes’, but it’s well balanced, and the IS feels agile. It’s let down somewhat by the electric power-steering, which is artificial and lacks feedback, but body roll is kept in check.

The Lexus isn’t cheap, though. At nearly £30,000, it carries a hefty premium over the C-Class. The options list isn’t as extensive as the Merc’s and kit is pretty expensive, too. For example, sat-nav will set you back £2,710, but that also includes parking sensors and Bluetooth. Will this high price count against it at the final verdict?


1st Mercedes C200K

2nd Lexus IS250

While both of these saloons make most sense as diesels, the petrol versions still have plenty to offer. The IS’s V6 has more character than the C-Class’s four-cylinder engine, but isn’t any pacier, unless pushed hard. The IS250 costs more in SE-L trim, too, and it doesn’t ride as well, either.

Yet these aren’t the only reasons why the Mercedes takes victory. The new C-Class is simply more talented. Yes, the cabin is plain and finished in brittle plastics, but it has extra room, plus the driving position is better and the boot bigger. What’s more, the C200K offers a smooth ride, sharp steering and excellent composure in corners – the Lexus is uninvolving in comparison.

But that’s not to say the C-Class is perfect; it lacks a little sparkle, and the engine isn’t best suited to an auto. Additionally, this model costs the same as the more frugal – and tempting – C200 CDI diesel. Nevertheless, the C200K is cheaper than the IS250 SE-L and comes generously equipped. The IS has always been renowned for comfort, and that’s still the case: for refinement, the Lexus is unsurpassed. But against the C-Class, that’s not enough.

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AutoExpress: Lexus IS250 vs Mercedes-Benz C200 Kompressor

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