Forget the specifics of performance and economy or the more subjective matters of beauty and prestige. There are really only two types of car: the ones you like and the ones you don't. I'm surprised to find myself putting the new Mercedes-Benz C-class firmly in the latter category. This is odd because, for amateurs of the automobile, Mercedes-Benz occupies a position comparable to that of Shiva in Hindu theology: it was there at the beginning and everybody else is a lesser deity or an upstart.
I was so struck by the deficiencies of the C-class that I found myself wondering whether some strange glitch had occurred in the automotive universe and I had been given a changeling, not the real thing: a Vauxhall in drag, not a Bismarck of the tarmac. A company that built its reputation on peerless research and a near-unhinged dedication to engineering integrity is now selling a product that makes you wonder how it passed the routine scrutinies that cars go through in development.
I'll get the faint praise out of the way first. The new C-class looks neat enough in an unobtrusive way; it's no classic beauty, but the diluted arrogance of its stance seems well suited to the nervous melodrama of contemporary traffic. Second, at least in the C320 I drove, there's ample power. Third, the car feels well built. And fourth... well, no, there isn't a fourth because after that short list the niggles begin. Starting off as individual instruments tuning up, these niggles are orchestrated into a symphony of woe.
Despite having as many electric motors as a submarine, it was impossible to get the driver's seat into a comfortable position. I don't mean 'difficult': I choose my words carefully. And, boy-oh-boy, am I an average height.
At the same time, while the front passenger can power back to achieve weird amounts of legroom, this leaves a gap behind that is too small for hands, let alone legs.
From the uncomfortable driving position, the rear vision is dangerously bad: do what bikers call a 'lifesaver' (a twist of the head to confirm the safety of moving out) and all you can see is a cosmic panoply of Stuttgart grey B-pillar, C-pillar and headlining. I mean, there is an unnegotiable blindspot.
Next, the demisting. The new C-class I drove had the worst demisting I have ever experienced, and that includes my own classic Fiat Cinquecento, which is so crude you service it with a hammer. In weather that was not extreme, the C320 could not clear either front or rear screens a full 20 minutes after engine-start. Given that we all now live in a Bladerunner eco-hell of permanent precipitation, this is intolerable.
In Sports mode the automatic gearbox is snatchy, like having someone in the cinema kicking the back of your seat. But by far the worst feature in a very competitive field was the steering. The C-class guidance system weights up at all the wrong moments: it is inert-to-dead at speed (a feature to aid snoozing on the autobahn), but develops a mind of its own around town so you get an unpleasant impression that the car will not change direction... which it won't unless you yank the wheel. It is so bad that for a while I suspected something was actually broken.
Now let's do inside. Unwisely, Mercedes-Benz has decided to throw out its own fastidiously evolved tradition of interior design. In the past you were always flattered by the seriousness of execution and the humourless lack of frivolity within a Mercedes: there was an archaeological depth to the detail and an architectural strength in the structure. However, reference points for the C320 seem to have been a cheap and nasty Korean ghetto-blaster, all droopy swoops and look-at-me shapes. As for the radio itself, this pounds 34,000 car could not hold on to Radio 4 in central London. Reception didn't just suck, it crackled.
I know this is now sounding manic, but lastly I must do the boot. Something about the geometry of the opening, together with an internal lock that stands proud of the lip, made me bang my head every time I accessed the trunk. It happened to my wife too, and she's no more stupid than I am.
So this sounds unfair? It's not meant to. I respect Mercedes and have owned one for years.
I just write as I find and what I found here I did not like. It's significant that the first popular Mercedes-Benz after the troubled merger with Chrysler is such a disappointing car.