After driving eight compact luxury sedans, researching their strengths and weaknesses for weeks, and finally consulting with other experts, we have no doubt that the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300 is the best choice for most people. It’s the only model that surrounds you with the rich environment and pampering amenities of a true luxury car while also providing the most enjoyable overall driving experience. The C300 starts just under $40,000,1 but we’d pay a bit over $49,0002 to get it with what we believe are must-have features for a compact luxury sedan. Continuing with only minor changes for 2016, the C300 received a complete redesign for 2015 with handsome styling that borrows its look from the brand’s flagship S-Class sedan; the car also gained a sumptuous interior that sets new levels of luxury for the class. Best of all, the C300 backs up its good looks with the best balance of ride and handling, along with lively acceleration and exceptional fuel economy from its turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Lastly, you can order it with a long list of both practical and fanciful features, and it boasts what is arguably the most coveted brand cachet.
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Visually, the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300 looks like a larger and much richer car than either its compact dimensions or accessible sticker price suggest. The new interior is also particularly well designed and comes lavishly finished with top-quality materials that give it a truly luxurious look and feel. While many models in this class try to outgun the BMW 3 Series, which is known for its precise and sporty handling, they often sacrifice a certain level of comfort in the process. By contrast, the C300 manages to deliver tenacious cornering grip while still maintaining a smooth ride over all but the roughest road surfaces. Though the C300 packs what some might consider a small engine, its 2.0-liter four-cylinder is turbocharged to deliver strong acceleration while still getting among the best fuel economy (rated by the Environmental Protection Agency at 28 mpg combined) of the cars we looked at (excluding hybrid and diesel versions, of course).
If we were buying a C300, we’d get the base C300 with a modicum of features we deem essential even in an “entry-level” luxury car. These include amenities like leather upholstery; power-adjustable and heated front seats; a premium audio system with satellite radio; a navigation system; a sunroof; keyless entry/pushbutton start; and, for added safety at a nominal additional cost, a backup camera and blind-spot warning system. Adding the necessary option packages and standalone options, we pushed the car’s MSRP up to around $49,000.3
While we stuck fairly close to the basics to avoid running up the car’s sticker price, the C300 also offers more sophisticated and costly safety systems and a number of more fanciful–though less essential–features, including, yes, an integrated fragrance atomizer for the climate control system that was previously only available in the top shelf S-Class. And, of course, the C300 is a Mercedes-Benz, which communicates an unmistakable message about its owners: that they’ve made it, they deserve something this good, and they’re okay with you knowing that.
Those seeking the best-handling car in the compact luxury class need look no further than the BMW 328i, part of the larger line of 3 Series sedans, hatchbacks, and wagons. Able to hold corners tenaciously, it’s no slouch in the acceleration department, either, posting the quickest 0–60 mph time among the cars we looked at (6.3 seconds in the most recent Consumer Reports test). Yet it still gets good fuel economy at 27 mpg combined, just behind our top pick. And the car’s performance gets even better as you move up the model line into the six-cylinder 335i model and then the ultra-high-performance M3 version, though the latter breaks the bank at around $63,000.4 Unfortunately, the 328i rides rougher, and it isn’t as elegantly styled or as luxuriously accommodating inside as is our top pick, the C300. With the base 328i starting at around $39,000,5 we had to add the $2,450 Premium Package, the $1,700 Driver Assistance Plus Package (which forced us to also get the $950 Driver Assistance Package), leather upholstery for $1,450, heated seats for $500, and a navigation system for $1,950 to obtain all the features we wanted. This collection of add-ons bumped the final cost to around $48,5006 with the destination charge, which put the 328i a couple hundred dollars ahead of the C300.
The Acura TLX is an ideal entry-level luxury car that holds its own among costlier competitors in this group. Next to the other compacts we looked at, it has a roomier interior (which technically makes it a midsize car, according to the EPA). While the base four-cylinder engine isn’t turbocharged like the engines of the other cars here, it provides plenty of power and gets fuel economy (28 mpg combined) that puts it near the head of the class. The TLX comes well equipped even in its base version, starting at around $32,500,7 and although we had to take the recommended $4,055 Technology Package to obtain all of our desired features (including leather sport seats, a premium audio system with satellite and HD radio, a navigation system, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and forward-collision and blind-spot warning systems), the TLX remained the most affordable among the cars we considered, with an out-the-door price of around $36,500.8 But the TLX suffers from some cheap-feeling interior materials, and the Acura brand hasn’t built the same cachet as more established European luxury nameplates like Mercedes-Benz, which is why it isn’t our top pick.
The best choice for the safety-minded, the Volvo S60 offers a long list of standard and optional high-tech safety technology, including auto-braking if an impending collision with another car, a bicyclist, or even a pedestrian in city traffic is detected. It’s also the only vehicle in this group to earn top scores in every crash test conducted by the insurance industry and government.
Overall, the S60 sedan holds its own with energetic handling, a smooth ride, and a distinctive design. Its standard four-cylinder engine delivers peppy acceleration with fuel economy that beats all of the compact luxury sedans we looked at, even our top pick. And the Volvo name still possesses a larger measure of brand cachet than second-tier luxury brands like Acura and Infiniti.
The S60 starts at a reasonable price of around $35,0009 and remains affordable at about $39,00010 for the Premier version we configured with an optional blind-spot monitor and heated front seats. Still, while attractive in its own right and a leader in safety and fuel efficiency, the S60 doesn’t look, feel, or drive quite as luxuriously as the C300.
I have 30 years’ experience covering autos exclusively from a consumer’s perspective. I spent 17 years as automotive editor for Consumers Digest magazine, where I remain a contributing editor. Now a full-time freelancer, I’m also a contributor for Forbes.com, write a syndicated newspaper column called Wheel Deals, and provide car-based articles to other print and web-based publications. I drive and test at least 70 new vehicles each year, evaluating them on highways, back roads, and racetracks across the U.S. I’ve also honed my skills at a high-performance driving school, so I know what I’m doing behind the wheel.
I am proudly the “go to” guy among my circle of friends, relatives, and well-wishers for car-buying advice; I’m pretty disappointed when someone I know buys a new car without asking what I think first, and I bite my tongue if they later end up not liking their choice.
For the purposes of this article I also sought the opinions of experts in the field, particularly with regard to the concept of luxury as it applies to autos. These included Dr. Charles Kenny, a branding psychologist and president of the consumer psychology firm The Right Brain People; Bloomberg.com’s luxury auto editor Hannah Elliott; and Robert Ross, longtime automotive consultant for the The Robb Report, a publication aimed at the ultra-wealthy.
Until recently, compact models like these were the least-expensive luxury sedans you could buy, but they’ve since been supplanted by a new wave of even smaller entry-level luxury models like the Acura ILX, Audi A3, and Mercedes-Benz CLA.
Most models in this group we compared are officially classified as compact cars by the Environmental Protection Agency, though the EPA considers the Acura TLX and Infiniti Q50 to be midsize models thanks to their larger interiors. While these cars all offer sufficient room up front for six-footers, backseat space tends to be tight. If you like to adjust the driver’s seat all the way rearward when you’re behind the wheel as I do, you’ll generally leave precious little legroom for rear passengers among most cars in this class.
Importantly, luxury cars tend to offer a higher level of brand exclusivity and perception than more mainstream models, something that can be sacrosanct to both those residing in higher income brackets and those aspiring to reach them. Buying a luxury car also provides additional benefits of ownership, such as longer warranties, more generous roadside assistance programs, and a better service department experience, including free upscale loaner cars and amenities like espresso bars and flat-screen TVs in waiting rooms.
On the other hand, Robert Ross, automotive consultant for the upscale-lifestyle publication The Robb Report, and who has driven some of the most expensive cars in the world, argues that a luxury-oriented user experience is not necessarily exclusive to high-end cars and exotic brands. “I don’t think that the concept of luxury is being diluted per se, but rather that luxury cars offer benefits that have less to do with practical aspects such as performance and more to do with aesthetics and connoisseurship,” he says. “Brands like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz have clearly leveraged their so-called ‘luxury cachet’ in marketing lower-end models, with the idea that younger consumers will adopt the brand and work up the model line as they mature and become more affluent.”
Indeed, the sales of many luxury cars are based more on perception than reality, with a model’s nameplate being valued as much or more with some shoppers than its performance, styling, and comfort. “It is all about the brand for anyone who buys a BMW,” suggests Dr. Charles Kenney, a brand perception expert and president of the consulting firm The Right Brain People. “The essence of BMW is expressed perfectly and beautifully in its theme line, ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine.’ These words set it apart from all other brands.”
We also expect compact luxury sedans to maintain a sporty demeanor, with quicker steering and livelier handling than the norm. Five of the eight models considered here are rear-wheel-drive in their base forms, which purists favor for their more-refined ride and handling traits. The rest are front-wheel-drive models, which generally give you a roomier interior and slip and slide less over wet or snowy roads than rear-drive cars. Of course, all new cars now come standard with traction control, which helps minimize slipping and sliding, regardless of the drivetrain. Of benefit to those living in the snowiest areas of the country, all of the cars we considered offer optional all-wheel drive for added foul-weather grip.
Finally, since the very definition of luxury (according to Merriam-Webster) is “an indulgence in something that provides pleasure, satisfaction, or comfort but is not absolutely necessary,” we expect any decent compact luxury car to offer an abundance of fanciful features, the breadth of which should be limited only by the depth of one’s finances. Items like push-button entry/start, heated leather seats, GPS navigation systems, a sunroof or moonroof, and premium audio systems should be considered the bare essentials, while “nice but not necessary” upgrades include things like cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel and rear seats, adaptive cruise control, and a 360-degree around-the-car backup monitor. Our top pick Mercedes-Benz C300 wins the award for most fanciful feature, offering an optional automatic fragrance atomizer built into its climate control system (although we didn’t include the $350 Air Balance Package in our configuration). Now that’s luxury.
On the more-practical side of things, shoppers of luxury cars, even compact ones like these, should expect the latest, state-of-the-art safety technology. This includes blind spot warning systems, which we included when configuring and comparing these cars, as well as lane departure warning systems and forward collision warning systems with auto-braking that engages at full force if the driver doesn’t react quickly enough to avoid an impending crash.
This is not an easy task, as the segment is filled with good choices that all combine a sporty character with elements of luxury to varying degrees. These include the Acura TLX, Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and Volvo S60.
We began our research by checking spec sheets on automakers’ websites to compare things like dimensions, features, and performance figures as well as equipment levels and warranty terms. We checked each model’s fuel economy ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency, and researched crash- and other safety-test scores from the insurance-industry-sponsored Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. We also compared long-term ownership costs and residual values from Kelley Blue Book and Intellichoice.
Of course, nobody would spend this much money on a car (or at least admit to it) without first giving it a proper test drive. And for that we relied on our own impressions gleaned from a week’s experience behind the wheel of each of the cars, which were loaned to us by their manufacturers.
When we test a new car, we pay attention to obvious attributes like acceleration, handling, steering, ride quality, and braking. We also strongly consider rear passenger room, cargo space, and the quality of materials used throughout the cabin, as well as subjective aspects like seat comfort, the legibility of gauges, and how easy or difficult controls are to operate. We’ll drive a car we’re testing on side streets and highways, through sharply curved roads, in stop-and-go traffic, and even around large empty parking lots to test their mettle. While we will push a vehicle hard when the opportunity arises, as will many buyers in this segment, we don’t need to test a car to its limits on a racetrack or punish it beyond reason to get a solid feel for how well a given car will perform in real-world use. Rather, we want to judge a car according to the standards of an ordinary car shopper.
Since ours is just one humble opinion, we also considered those from other reliable sources, both consumer- and enthusiast-oriented. These include published reviews from Autoblog, Automobile, Car & Driver, Consumer Reports, Detroit News, Edmunds.com, Motor Trend, MSN Autos, The New York Times, and U.S. News Car Reports.
We also consulted a few experts for their opinions, including Hannah Elliott, Bloomberg.com’s luxury auto editor; Robert Ross, automotive consultant for the ultra-upscale publication The Robb Report; and Dr. Charles Kenny, a branding psychologist and president of the consumer psychology firm The Right Brain People.
After evaluating all of the data, driving each of the eight compact luxury sedans we considered, and consulting a raft of other sources and experts, the Mercedes-Benz C300 was clearly the leader of the pack.
While most of the cars we compared do offer six-cylinder engines, we kept our evaluations limited—wherever possible—to models equipped with four-cylinder engines, the exception being the Infiniti Q50, which (for 2015) comes only with a V6 engine. We took this approach to save money (a V6 costs as much as $5,000 to $10,000 more depending on the model), achieve better fuel economy (around 4 mpg better, which the EPA estimates will save about $750 a year in fuel costs), and reduce the weight (about 100 pounds) over the front wheels, which results in livelier and more fun handling.
All the models in this group offer all-wheel drive as an option for added traction over wet or snowy roads, but we stuck with each car’s base configuration—either rear-wheel or front-wheel drive—for the sake of cost savings and consistency (not all cars offer AWD with all engines or in all trim levels). That said, if you require AWD, expect to pay around $2,000 for the added foul-weather traction. The exceptions in this regard are the Audi A4, which offers the feature for the bargain price of $1,100, and the Acura TLX, which requires you to choose a more expensive configuration at an additional bottom-line cost of $9,880.
Otherwise, we configured all of these compact luxury sedans to come with all of the features we feel an entry-level luxury car should have, which in most cases means choosing both standalone options and some option packages.
At the least, we feel a compact luxury sedan should treat its occupants to leather upholstery for sheer poshness and should further include power heated seats up front with a memory function for the driver’s side. Even for those living in a warm climate, seat heaters can come in handy on a cool morning or if you suffer from back or joint pain. And having multiple motorists in a household makes retrieving seat adjustments at the push of a button a welcome convenience.
Most of the models in the specific trim levels we considered come with a sunroof/moonroof, so we added it to the few models for which it remains optional; it’s a standalone option with the BMW 328i (at $1,050) and Mercedes-Benz C300 ($1,480), and is bundled with other features on the Cadillac ATS 2.0T Luxury (we chose the $1,870 Sun and Sound Package). While including a sunroof is largely a matter of taste, it’s a popular luxury item, with the extra-large “panoramic” sunroofs in particular—like the one in our pick, the C300—emulating a convertible for open-air enjoyment on a warm and sunny day.
In terms of sheer convenience, we definitely wanted push-button start and proximity keys that let you unlock your doors and trunk with the key still in your pocket. Likewise, having automatic headlamps that turn themselves on at dusk and off when the car is shut off is hard to live without once you’ve tried them. Same thing goes for an auto-dimming rearview mirror that automatically adjusts to reduce glare from other cars’ headlamps while driving at night, and heated side mirrors that keep themselves clear when things get icy cold. Lastly, dual-zone automatic climate control, which allows both driver and passenger to set-and-forget their own temperatures, is a must.
Most of the cars we considered also offer a number of the latest high-tech systems that can help prevent a driver from getting into an accident. Among them, we consider a blind-spot warning system to be the only essential item because of its widespread availability and affordability, and what we deem is real-world value in preventing collisions. Here, the system engages a warning light whenever cameras or sensors detect there’s another vehicle immediately to the side and rear of the car in the driver’s blind spot, then further signals an audio alert if the turn signals are engaged in that direction. In some cars this is a stand-alone option ($550 on the Mercedes-Benz C300 and $925 on the Volvo S60), though like other accident-avoidance systems noted below, it’s often bundled with other features.
Other collision-prevention systems offered in these cars include adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set speed and distance from a vehicle ahead; forward-collision warning, which gives the driver visual and audible signals if it senses the car is closing in on a vehicle or other object in its path too quickly; an auto-braking function that automatically tightens the safety belts and pre-prime the brakes for full stopping force if a crash is imminent; and lane-departure warning that sounds an alert if the car inadvertently crosses highway lane markers without the driver first engaging the turn signal. Unfortunately, such features aren’t available on all the models we surveyed, and where they are offered they’re usually bundled in costly option packages. Worse, some drivers find the frequent alerts such systems make to be annoying– so much so they eventually become ignored, thus defeating the systems.
One strange thing you’ll encounter with this particular group of cars is that few include a spare tire. This is done both as a space- and weight-saving measure. Leaving out the spare and jack typically saves around 25-50 pounds, and according to the EPA, the average car gains around two percent more fuel economy for every 100 pounds cut from its curb weight. The Audi A4 and Lexus IS 200t are the only models here to come with a spare, and it’s a compact “donut” type at that. Otherwise, most cars here use so-called run-flat tires that are engineered to be able to operate for as much as 100 miles after a complete loss of air – enough to get you to a service station to buy a new one.
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300, starting at around $39,00011 and priced just over $49,00012 as we configured it, is the best compact luxury sedan for most people because it raises the bar in nearly every respect for all other compact luxury sedans.
The C300, which is the base model in Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class line of compact luxury sedans and coupes, is about the same size as a Honda Civic. It’s ideal for younger buyers moving up into the luxury segment as well as empty nesters downsizing from larger, more expensive luxury cars. Its biggest downside is common to compact cars of all stripes: the inherent limitations of their size in terms of cramped rear-seat room and a smallish trunk.
The C300 blows away its chief rival, the BMW 3 Series, by accentuating elements of luxury—especially its rich, comfortable, and quiet cabin—to levels the BMW can’t match. Best of all, it accomplishes this while maintaining a deft balance of ride and handling characteristics that is second to none in this group. When driven with some aggression, it rewards you with crisp and quick cornering abilities while maintaining a reasonably smooth ride that absorbs bumps and jolts in the road.
The result is an upscale sedan I found to be uncompromisingly easy to live with. Among friends and neighbors, everyone loved the car’s styling, which turned more than a few heads while driving around our bucolic suburb of Chicago. Likewise, the car got high marks from one and all for its rich and accommodating interior, though the cramped backseat was made usable only because my height-challenged spouse had the front passenger’s seat adjusted fairly far forward. Sitting behind the wheel, I felt a lot more affluent than our tax forms might otherwise indicate, and the comfortable and quiet cabin was a serene haven in which to endure rush-hour traffic. Farther out of town where the traffic thins, the roads tend to twist and bend, and I was able to stretch things out and test the car’s limits of performance. The C300 delivered truly entertaining (yet never overwhelming) driving dynamics that even an average driver should be able to appreciate.
The 2015 C300’s new look lets the world know you’ve arrived, both literally and figuratively. It features a truly upscale-looking design that stands tall even next to more expensive Mercedes models. In fact it bears a strong resemblance to Mercedes’s flagship S-Class sedan, which starts at over $95,000 and is arguably one of the best vehicles on the road at any price.
“Mercedes-Benz has always been a value leader with the C-Series sedans, and the new C300 is an excellent example of an entry-level car from a luxury brand that has successfully ‘trickled down’ its DNA so that it can win customers early on in their car-buying lifecycle,” says Robert Ross.
By comparison, the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, and Volvo S60 are tastefully designed but remain rather plain-looking inside and out. On the other hand, the Cadillac ATS tends to overdose on curves and creases with a too-busy interior. The Acura TLX, Infiniti Q50, and Lexus IS take a more functional approach to styling, with all three plagued to a certain extent by eccentric front-end treatments.
“Longer and wider overall than the car it replaces, (the C300) looks reassuringly expensive and more obviously upscale than either BMW’s 3 Series or Audi’s A4,” writes Motor Trend Editor-at-Large Angus Mackenzie. “The redesigned sheetmetal, from the prominent grille to the sculpted body sides to the softly rounded rear end, clearly channels the imperious new S-Class.”
Inside, where a motorist spends most of his or her time admiring the view, occupants are treated to one of the finest cabins in the industry, again taking cues from the much more expensive S-Class. There’s extensive use of upscale materials throughout the interior, with every surface and switch having a rich look and feel.
“This is a mini S-class inside, with far richer materials than before, avant-garde design, and technology that enhances the experience,” concludes reviewer Erik Johnson in Car and Driver. “The detailing is superb; as one example, the outside of the spherical vents carries a piano-black finish that you see only when they’re turned. The interior is better than anything in the segment right now.”
Even the standard “MB-Tex” leatherette used on the dashboard, doors, and seats is nicer looking and feeling than most cars’ genuine leather upholstery. While leatherette, even Mercedes’s, might suffice for budget-minded buyers or rental fleets, we feel a genuine leather-clad interior is essential to the luxury car ownership experience. Leather seating is one of those features that should be standard in luxury cars but rarely is; those with a hankering for hides in their C300 can upgrade for an added $2,300.
The dashboard is nicely trimmed with high-gloss piano black and real aluminum surfaces, and while we find this look to be the most attractive in a dramatic sort of way, those who prefer genuine wood trim can choose from three optional varieties: open-pore black ash, burl walnut, and linden, each for a modest $325. The sweeping dash is otherwise driver-focused with large and easy-to-read gauges, a proper analog clock (now considered an essential design element of luxury cars), and five large metallic round air vents spread across the dash to help give it a vintage touch. It’s far from a retro design, though, with a large LED screen “floating” at the top-center of the dashboard—fast becoming a trademark Mercedes design element.
This tablet-like display works in conjunction with a rotary dial and a palm-sized, touch-activated interface, both located on the center console. They allow the driver to control functions of the car’s COMAND multimedia system via finger gestures, similar to using a smartphone or a laptop computer’s touchpad. Only the Audi A4 matches the C300 for the number of ways you can interface with its multimedia systems. By comparison, the BMW 3 Series employs just a knob to scroll through and select on-screen choices, the Acura TLX uses both a knob and a touchscreen, and the Cadillac ATS gives you only a touchscreen. As with many such systems in the auto industry these days, we found the learning curve required to master the C300’s multimedia control system to be a bit steep—especially the touchpad interface, which can be distracting to operate and sluggish to respond to commands. Worse, we weren’t able to use the touchpad to enter navigation addresses, which we found irritating. We’d point this out as a flaw, but all of the cars we looked come up short to some degree with regard to their multimedia control systems; to its credit, the C300’s is far from being the most annoying or difficult to operate in the industry.
On the road, the C300 strikes one of the best balances between ride and handling. It’s got a smooth, quiet, and comfortable demeanor around town but can be equally athletic, aggressive, and fun to drive when you push it.
And, yes, the Mercedes-Benz C300 handles nearly as well as its chief rival, the BMW 3 Series, long considered the handling benchmark among these compact luxury sedans. As it is, few drivers would be able to discern major differences in handling among most of these models, as they all range from good to great. But we found the C300 to be agile and athletic enough to make even a short jaunt to the post office enjoyable.
Best of all, the C300’s suspension manages to maintain a pleasingly smooth ride that soaks up most jolts and pavement imperfections, keeping its poise over extended stretches of pockmarked pavement. The worst bumps still transmit a slightly sharp edge through the cabin, which is likely a by-product of the car’s run-flat tires that use a harder rubber compound and stiffer sidewalls than normal tires so you can drive for as much as 100 miles after going flat. The side effect of run-flat tires, though, is that they tend to ride somewhat stiffer and create more noise than conventional tires.
There is an optional Sport Package ($2,175) with a stiffer suspension that lowers the car by about a half inch for a notch more proficient handling, though it comes at the expense of a firmer ride. There’s also an optional Luxury Package ($325) with an even softer-sprung suspension that affords a smoother ride yet results in less precise steering. Lastly, an optional adjustable air suspension ($1,190) can deliver sportier handling or a more comfortable ride based on driver-selectable modes.
Still, most critics agree with us that the base model C300’s standard suspension remains the best choice for most motorists. According to Consumer Reports, “Pushed to its limits at our track, the C300 proved predictable, secure, and enjoyable … it’s fair to describe the C300 as having ‘neutral’ handling.” What CR really means, in their own words, is that the German-built C300 is “More fun than an Oktoberfest celebration.”
Rear-wheel drive, which is the C300’s standard configuration, should suffice for most drivers. If you drive a lot in snowy, icy, or other slippery conditions, you can get all-wheel drive (AWD) for an additional $2,000, which is about average for the cars we looked at that offer it on most trim levels (the Acura TLX and Cadillac ATS require other upgrades to get AWD).
As for power, the C300’s standard 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is among the most powerful and most fuel-efficient four-cylinders in its segment. You might be asking yourself, “Isn’t a four-cylinder a little puny for a $40,000 luxury car?” Not any more. All automakers are fast turning to smaller, turbocharged four-cylinder engines to get better fuel economy while still delivering competitive power. The C300’s engine is rated at 241 horsepower with a peppy 273 pound-feet of torque, and it’s mated to a smooth-shifting seven-speed automatic transmission.
What do those numbers mean? Simply put, higher horsepower numbers typically translate into quicker acceleration. As a frame of reference, Consumer Reports clocked the C300’s acceleration time at 6.8 seconds from 0-60 mph, which is just above the middle of the pack among the cars we considered. Non-luxury compact cars usually come with far less potent engines (except perhaps in costly high-performance versions); the Honda Civic’s base four-cylinder engine, for example, produces 143 horsepower and 129 pound-feet of torque, and even though the Civic weighs about 550 pounds less than a base C300, it limps along with a much slower CR-timed 0-60 mph run of 9.6 seconds.
The 2015 version of the Infiniti Q50 has the most powerful base engine, a larger V6, and is the quickest to reach 60 mph according to CR, at just 5.6 seconds. In practice, most of the models we looked at, including the C300, are sufficiently quick for all but the most speed-crazy motorists who can afford costlier, higher-performance models with as much as 400, 500, or even 600 horsepower.
Standard on the C300 is a system called Agility Select that enables a driver to essentially adjust the car’s performance character via a dial on the center console. There’s a choice of Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Sport Plus settings, with each mode adjusting acceleration, steering, and transmission settings to make the car feel more or less sporty as desired. Eco tends to take all the fun out of the vehicle and make it feel like a common Toyota Camry, while Sport Plus makes it behave like a jumpy teenager after drinking a few cans of Red Bull. As is the case with most cars that include a similar system, we tend to just leave it in default mode (Comfort, in this case), perhaps switching into Sport mode for the occasional joyride when a twisty road and a clear path permit.
The C300’s impressive fuel economy places it near the top of all gas-powered luxury cars (not counting hybrids), with an EPA rating of 28 mpg in combined city/highway driving (25 mpg and 34 mpg in city and highway driving, respectively). The only car in our group that edges it out is the Volvo S60 at a combined 30 mpg. At the other end of the spectrum is the 23-mpg 2015 Infiniti Q50’s thirsty V6.
The C300’s fuel economy is bolstered somewhat via a standard automatic stop-start system that shuts down the engine when the car comes to a stop, such as at a stop sign or traffic light, when a car otherwise gets zero mpg. Start-stop works efficiently, quickly restarting the engine when the driver takes his or her foot off the brake pedal, but we find the feature to feel intrusive at times, especially in stop-and-go driving. Fortunately, those who prefer a smoother city driving experience can disable this function (as we often do on such models) via a center console switch.
Though we feel the base C300 will suffice for most shoppers for its perky power and excellent fuel economy, those who prefer a larger engine can upgrade to the C400 model with its more muscular 329-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 engine. While a tad smoother, this engine is only slightly quicker than the standard turbo-four. Plus, the C400 costs about $8,000 more than a comparable C300, gives up 4 mpg in fuel efficiency, and tends to be less playful through turns due to the extra weight of the larger engine. Those with a real power craving and deeper pockets might want to trade up for either the limited-production, high-performance AMG C63 version with a 469-horsepower V8 engine (starting at just over $65,000) or the even-faster AMG C63 S with 503 horsepower (about $73,000).
Nimble, fast, and frugal it may be, the C300 is at its core a luxury sedan; as such, it offers a generous array of features.
Like a growing number of models, the C300 provides a brake-assisted forward-collision mitigation system that Mercedes calls Collision Prevention Assist Plus. It automatically applies the brakes at highway speeds up to 124 mph if sensors determine a forward crash is likely and the driver isn’t reacting quickly enough. Unlike most cars that offer this feature, however, it’s standard on the C300. Also standard is Attention Assist, which is a driver monitoring system (similar to one that’s optional in the Volvo S60) that scrutinizes over 70 parameters of driving behavior to determine if you’re becoming sleepy behind the wheel. If so, it sounds an alert and illuminates a “coffee cup” icon on the dashboard to tell you it’s time to take a break.
Though we didn’t include them in our targeted version of the C300, largely for cost considerations, an optional Driver Assistance Package ($2,800) includes myriad other safety systems, among them being DISTRONIC PLUS with Steering Assist that helps keep the vehicle centered within a lane via subtle steering adjustments.
Less essential, though still noteworthy, are available items like an optional heads-up display ($990) that projects critical information like the car’s speed, the speed limit where you are, and navigation instructions onto the inside of the windshield to help the driver keep both eyes on the road. An Active Parking Assist system ($970) can maneuver the C300 both into and out of parallel and perpendicular parking spaces all by itself. As if that’s not enough, the C300’s optional Air Balance system ($350) adds an air filtration and ionization feature to the climate control system, and can automatically dispense one of four select fragrances—Downtown, Nightlife, Sports, or Freeside—into the cabin to help set the right motoring mood. Again, this is a feature that comes straight out of the S-Class (and Mercedes’s since-discontinued line of Maybach ultra-luxury cars) and is arguably the most decadent option currently available on a vehicle of any price.
We had to add both individual options and bundled option groups to the base C300 in order to obtain all of our desired luxury-car features. Along with selecting a panorama sunroof ($1,480), we had to choose the pricy Multimedia Package ($2,690) to obtain a rearview camera and a GPS navigation system with voice commands, and we needed to add the Interior Package ($2,300) to obtain leather upholstery, which we consider elemental among luxury cars. Of the added features in the latter package that we didn’t necessarily require, the ventilated seats and passenger-seat memory are the most practical, with the ambient lighting array and illuminated door sills being just fanciful frills. Selecting the Interior Package required us to also obtain the Premium 2 Package ($2,220), which added a few of our required features—satellite radio, KEYLESS-GO push-button entry/start, and a blind-spot warning system—along with a couple of extras such as LED headlamps and a premium Burmeister audio system.
Among intangibles, the C300 leads this pack of cars with the sheer brand cachet of the Mercedes-Benz name. Brand cachet is an important emotional element, especially among those moving up into the luxury-car segment for the first time. Buying a Mercedes is like joining a private club where the price of entry is the cost of ownership. For many buyers and lessees in the luxury class, a Mercedes (or BMW, for that matter) is an automatic choice, based largely on the brand itself, which is no small feat these days. “People make an emotional connection that transforms the literal product or service into an implicit promise that drives their perceptions, the way they feel, their behavior and their expectations,” explains Dr. Charles Kenney, a brand perception expert and president of the consulting firm The Right Brain People who has conducted research about the power of brand perception for assorted automakers.
Among a luxury car’s long-term ownership costs, depreciation is particularly significant, simply because there’s more money at stake than with a less-expensive car. For example, choosing a $45,000 model in this segment that delivers a five-percent better five-year resale value over a similarly priced sedan would save an owner around $2,250 at trade-in time. Also, choosing a car that best preserves its value over time is equally critical when leasing, which many shoppers in this segment do, because monthly payments are based on the difference between a model’s transaction price and its projected value at the end of the lease’s term, financed at a given interest rate. All else being equal, a car having a lower rate of depreciation will be cheaper to lease.
Still, the C300 does have this group’s second-highest five-year ownership costs: $56,382 as estimated (for the 2015 model year) by Kelley Blue Book, or about 75 cents per mile. That calculation includes the cost of depreciation, insurance premiums and fuel, maintenance, and repair costs. KBB.com, though, says it’s “average” among similar models. The C300’s higher long-term costs are largely due to its higher initial purchase price and the lack of a complimentary maintenance program like those included by most other automakers in this segment (except Acura and Lexus). Still, we feel it’s money well spent for what is an exceptional luxury sedan. As an affluent yet frugal friend of ours maintains, “Sometimes you can pay too little for things.”
Meanwhile, the costliest car to own among compact luxury sedans is the Infiniti Q50 at $56,890 over the first five years (76 cents per mile based on 2015 data); the least expensive to own is the Volvo S60 at $50,259 (about 67 cents per mile based on 2015 data).
Having just been redesigned, full crash-test results for the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C300 from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) were not available as of this writing. They did, however, give it the top rating of “good” in their side-impact and moderate overlap crash tests. Ratings were not yet posted, however, for the relatively new small-overlap frontal-crash test or the roof-strength and head-restraint tests. The previous generation model received “good” scores for all of the aforementioned tests except for the small overlap frontal crash test, for which it garnered only a “marginal” rating; we anticipate this new C300 will do better. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Mercedes-Benz C-Class an overall rating of four out of five stars for occupant protection, with four stars given for frontal crash protection, five stars for side-impact protection, and four stars for rollover protection.
The 2015 Mercedes-Benz C300 is not without its quirks. We particularly took issue with the car’s oddball transmission shifter, its dearth of back seat legroom, and the number of what we consider basic luxury car features that you have to pay extra for.
Even in today’s high-tech cars, one hardly expects to have to negotiate a learning curve in order to master a vehicle’s shift lever. But such is the case with the C300. Mercedes and BMW in particular have been reinventing the gear selector on their latest models, and here it’s been moved off the console and onto the right side of the steering column, where it resembles a windshield wiper stalk. This is possible because today’s automatic transmissions are electronically controlled; the gearshift selector is actually just a switch and not a mechanical lever of any sort. So, instead of moving a lever through the gears from “Park” to “Reverse,” “Neutral,” and “Drive,” you tap the lever down to engage Drive and up to put the transmission in Reverse; to set it in Park, you push a button on the end of the stalk.
Why did they do this? Interior designers are finding a large, traditional shifter on the center console to be a precious waste of real estate that can be used instead for things like multimedia controllers, more cupholders, and storage bins. The problem is that newbies are sure to instinctively reach for C300’s gearshift lever whenever it starts to rain, thinking it’s the wiper stalk, and we’ve been guilty of mistakenly shifting the car into Reverse after it’s parked. So we can attest this is one anomaly that certainly takes some getting used to.
Unfortunately, all compact cars, luxury and mainstream alike, suffer from a lack of rear seat room. The Mercedes is no exception. About average among our competitors in terms of rear legroom, it’s officially considered a five-passenger car, though at best only two adult riders – smallish ones no less – can fit comfortably in the C300’s back bench seat, and that’s provided the driver and front passenger don’t have their seats adjusted all the way rearward. The trunk space, as well, is about average for the group, with its official volume listed at 12.6 cubic feet and our patented grocery bag test revealing a floor space that can accommodate 12 bags in a straightforward grid layout.
And though one doesn’t necessarily expect a car like the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300 to come cheap, we were surprised by how many of what we consider essential luxury-car features are extra-cost options. Among these are a backup camera, a satellite radio, and heated seats, three items that you can find standard on many less expensive mainstream models these days. Thus, what started out as a car that costs around $40,00013 quickly blossomed to more than $49,00014 when we configured it to our liking, and that’s with what we consider a light touch on the options list.
What’s more, Mercedes split up two features we think should always go together: push button start and proximity keys that let you unlock the doors with the key fob still in your pocket. You get push-button start standard, but Mercedes charges an extra $550 for the full KEYLESS GO system that lets you unlock the doors without the keys in your hand. We’d rather have both features together or none at all, as getting the keys out of your pocket or purse just to put them away again is annoying.
Mercedes is no lone gunman here, however. BMW also tends to nickel-and-dime 3 Series shoppers with regard to features. In our research, we found a BMW 328i having a base price of about $38,50015 goes out the door at around $47,00016 after making it similarly optioned to how we configured the C300. We found the base version of the Acura TLX to be the easiest and most economical model to equip in this class. Starting at around $32,500,17 it required us to choose a single (not to mention, the only) option—the Technology Package at $4,055—to obtain all of our desired features.
We’ve scoured evaluations from several trusted sources to see how this otherwise worthy field of compact luxury sedans stacks up against our own opinions. As we suspected, our top pick, the Mercedes-Benz C300, received high praise from car magazines and consumer-oriented publications alike.
CR’s editors concluded, “The new C-Class has a beautiful interior and delivers a driving experience that is close to ideal when it comes to balancing performance and comfort. Simply put: The C300 delivers the driving pleasure people expect from the brand. For those new to the brand, we think you’ll find the C300 comfortable, quiet, agile, and altogether well done.”
U.S. News & World Reports, which consolidates the opinions of other sources on its Best Cars website, gave the C300 a combined 8.9 score out of a possible 10, which places it tops among the compact luxury sedans we considered. Meanwhile, the Acura TLX received the second-highest score at 8.8, with the Infiniti Q50 at the bottom of the list with a score of 8.1. The bottom line: “With an elegant interior design and a composed ride, critics agree that the redesigned 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan stacks up quite well against the competition.”
Among auto-enthusiast sources, Car and Driver’s Eric Johnson raved, “The new C has moved up and moved on; one needs only to sit inside for proof. This is a mini S-Class inside, with far richer materials than before, avant-garde design, and technology that enhances the experience. The richness of the cabin carries over to the driving experience. The C still aims to pick off 3 Series and A4 buyers by the bushel, but it’s finally comfortable in its own (S-class–derived) skin, being a luxury car first and a sports sedan second.”
Meanwhile, over at Motor Trend, Editor-at-Large Angus MacKenzie cited the 2015 Mercedes-Benz’s C300’s handsome new styling: “Longer and wider overall than the car it replaces, it looks reassuringly expensive and more obviously upscale than either BMW’s 3 Series or Audi’s A4. The redesigned sheetmetal, from the prominent grille to the sculpted body sides to the softly rounded rear end, clearly channels the imperious new S-Class. So does the beautifully executed interior. Even in base form it’s awash with softly polished metal and sumptuous forms.”
About the only overtly negative remarks regarding the C300 we could unearth came from Mark Phelan in the Detroit Free Press, who found the car’s multimedia system lacking. “The interior is stunning…the controls are less satisfying.”
Other accolades: In addition to the aforementioned recommendations, the C300 is easily one of the most recognized cars for 2015, based on a shelf’s worth of trophies. Most prestigious among them is being named World Car of the Year (selected by a jury of 48 international automotive journalists from 22 countries) at the 2015 New York International Auto Show. It was also cited for having one of the 10 Best New Car Interiors for 2015 by the industry publication Ward’s Auto World. It was also named Cars.com’s Car of the Year, Yahoo Autos’ Luxury Car of the Year, and is one of Automobile magazine’s All Stars for 2015. By our count, no other car in this group comes close to having as many major trophies as the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C300.
The BMW 328i—part of the larger BMW 3 Series of luxury sport sedans, hatchbacks, and station wagons—is often the automatic choice in this segment, especially among automotive journalists and driving enthusiasts who like to explore the limits of its superb handling. It isn’t, however, the best small luxury sedan for most buyers, lacking the styling pizzazz, ride comfort, and sheer number of upscale luxury features as in our top pick, the Mercedes-Benz C300. The 2016 version brings a “midcycle refresh” that includes modestly tweaked styling inside and out, suspension and steering improvements, and an updated eight-speed automatic transmission.
For starters, we skipped the base-model 320i sedan and its underpowered, 180-horsepower, four-cylinder engine for the sake of parity among our contenders, looking instead at the 328i sedan and its 240-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. This is the second-fastest car among our contenders, next to the V6-powered Infiniti Q50, with a Consumer Reports–timed run to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds; by comparison, the turbo-four in our top pick, the C300, clocked in at a close 6.8 seconds. The 328i’s fuel economy is good at a combined 27 mpg, but it falls short of the Volvo S60’s class-leading 30 mpg and our top pick’s 28 mpg.
The BMW’s handling prowess is without question, and to be sure the 328i favors die-hard enthusiasts; more-casual drivers might feel overmatched by the car’s abilities and put off by its firmer ride. And what starts out as a superior performer only gets better provided you have the money to afford its upper levels of achievement. For starters, a $700 Adaptive M Suspension lets the driver choose sportier or softer ride characteristics as desired. Upping the ante is the $1,700 Track Handling Package, which also includes variable sport steering, specific wheels and tires, and beefier M Sport brakes. Or you can go all in and specify a 328i with the $3,000 M Sport Package, which includes a tauter but rougher-riding M Sport suspension along with other, mostly cosmetic upgrades.
As for features and pricing, we’re always surprised by how BMW tends to charge extra for features that are standard on other automakers’ models. To bring the 328i up to our desired equipment level and get all the features we wanted, we had to add the $2,450 Premium Package, the $1,700 Driver Assistance Plus Package (which forced us to also get the $950 Driver Assistance Package), leather upholstery for $1,450, heated seats for $500, and a navigation system for $1,950. These extras bumped the final cost to around $48,500 with a destination charge, which puts the 328i a couple hundred dollars ahead of the C300. The cost to own a 328i is about average among the cars we looked at, but the car benefits from a generous four years/50,000 miles of free maintenance.
Meanwhile, trading up to the new-for-2016 340i model gets you a more powerful, 320-horsepower, turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine and other upgrades but costs about $45,750,18 or an additional $8,300 over the base 328i. Not enough power for you? You’ll have to spend around $62,00019 for the rip-roaring M3 model to obtain the ultimate expression of BMW handling, along with a speedy 425-horsepower, turbocharged six-cylinder under the hood. In comparison, you have to hand over $48,50020 to obtain the V6-infused (and AWD-equipped) upgrade to our pick, the C400, while Mercedes’s answer to the M3, the AMG C63 sedan with 469 horsepower, is priced similarly to the BMW, around $64,000.21 An even higher-powered C63 S version with over 500 horsepower is also available for a bank-breaking $72,000.22
While the 328i is handsomely styled on the outside, its stark inside has a long way to go to meet the lofty standards the C300 sets. And though the 328i offers a decent selection of comfort and safety features, the C300 has it beat with an even longer list of fanciful and high-tech options.
The Acura TLX is a true bargain among luxury sedans. Its affordable base price of about $32,50023 (or around $36,50024 as we equipped it) is the lowest in this group. But the TLX is noteworthy for much more. It offers pleasing overall performance, a roomy cabin (the EPA considers it a midsize car by virtue of its interior volume), and a full assortment of what we consider essential luxury features. Unfortunately, it’s neither as stylish or well finished, nor does it possess the cultivated brand cachet of its European alternatives, especially our top pick, the Mercedes-Benz C300.
While all the cars in this class offer all-wheel-drive for added traction in inclement weather, the TLX’s so-called Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system is further designed to enhance the car’s cornering abilities on dry roads. It not only splits engine power between the front and rear axles to maintain traction (up to 90 percent can be sent to the front wheels and as much as 70 percent to the rear wheels) but can channel 100 percent of that power to either the left or right rear wheel to help quicken its handling on dry pavement. Unfortunately, Acura offers SH-AWD only with the V6-powered version, and at that requires either of two extra-cost option packages, which bumps up the sticker price by at least around $9,900 over the cost of the base front-drive model.
The TLX otherwise comes well equipped with lots of standard features, and we were able to include the remainder of our required features by adding a single $4,055 Technology Package to the base version, which starts around $32,500.25 The package adds leather seats, a premium audio system with satellite radio, navigation, and both forward-collision and blind-spot warning systems.
Exterior styling is a bit conservative compared to most cars in this class – it’s more Buick than BMW – and is highlighted for better or worse by a busy-looking front end. While the TLX’s interior is sufficiently roomy, quiet, and comfortable, it’s not nearly as handsome or well finished as the C300; it’s plagued by cheap-feeling materials, video displays that tend to get washed out in bright sunlight, and some confusing dashboard controls. Also, the Acura name carries little in the way of luxury brand cachet, a fact that may mean little to some but sorely stuck out to us when comparing this group of luxury cars against one another.
The Volvo S60 sedan offers an entertaining drive with energetic acceleration and admirable fuel economy, all at an affordable starting price. It’s cleanly styled inside and out and places an emphasis on safety that few cars can match. That said, it’s not as stylish or refined, nor does it carry the lofty brand identity as our top pick, the Mercedes-Benz C300.
As befits the brand’s reputation for safety, the Volvo S60 offers a long list of high-tech accident avoidance systems. Standard features include a segment-exclusive low-speed auto-braking system called City Safety that will automatically apply the brakes to avoid rear-ending other cars in stop-and-go traffic. High-speed auto-braking is optional as part of a $1,500 Technology Package, which also includes another unique system that automatically detects and can avoid hitting pedestrians and bicyclists that veer into the car’s path. What’s more, the S60 is the only car among those we looked at to garner perfect crash test scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
We chose the S60 T5 Premier version to consider to obtain the standard turbocharged four-cylinder engine and most of our required features, adding only heated front seats ($500) and a blind-spot monitor (at $900), which includes front/rear parking sensors. We took a pass on the costlier turbocharged five-cylinder engine/all-wheel drive combination, as well as the S60’s powerful turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder engine. As we equipped it, the car costs nearly $39,000.26
As nice as it is, the S60 is still far less stylish or luxurious inside and out as our top pick, the Mercedes-Benz C300, and it comes with less-refined driving dynamics. And while the Volvo name carries a greater degree of brand cachet than does Acura, it’s still on a second-tier compared to the German brands.
The Audi A4 is the third German compact luxury sedan we considered and usually mentioned in the same breath as the Mercedes and BMW. It’s traditionally one of the top-rated models, but today’s A4 is an aging design that’s slated to be replaced in 2016. Most luxury buyers want to be seen in the new hotness, which is a strike against this Audi. The A4 also no longer holds an advantage with its AWD system, and actually lags this pack of cars in terms of safety.
What’s more, while the A4 was once revered among those living in the Snow Belt for its excellent “quattro” all-wheel-drive system, every other luxury carmaker has since developed AWD systems of their own, some of which are far more mechanically sophisticated. The only advantage Audi has left in this regard is that its system is the cheapest to add at $1,100.
Another casualty of the car’s age is that the A4 received a failing “poor” grade in the recently introduced “small overlap” frontal crash test conducted (as part of a larger testing program) by the Insurance Institute for Higher Safety. We expect Audi’s engineers will ensure the next-generation model aces this exam. Of the five models we considered that have undergone the IIHS’ full battery of tests (not all cars, particularly lower-volume luxury and sports cars, are tested), the BMW 328i was the only other model that failed the small overlap crash test with a “marginal” ranking; where tested, all cars in this segment scored “good” in the IIHS moderate overlap front, side-impact, roof strength and head restraint tests. On the plus side, the A4 was only one of two among the five models in this group that were tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to receive a perfect five-star overall occupant-protection rating.
In terms of acceleration, the A4’s turbocharged engine is sufficiently peppy with 220 horsepower and a lively 258 pound-feet of torque (our top pick C300’s turbo four produces 240 horsepower with 241 pound-feet of torque), and it enables a respectable 0–60 mph launch in 7.2 seconds. Still, the 328i, the ATS, and our top pick, the C300, all use their power more effectively for quicker acceleration, according to Consumer Reports. The A4’s fuel economy, though, is decent at 27 mpg in combined city/highway driving. And while not as well finished as the Mercedes-Benz C300, the A4 nonetheless treats its occupants to a comfortable and quiet cabin with uncluttered styling; it also offers an easy-to-master multimedia control system and many available comfort, convenience, safety, and appearance options.
With pricing starting at around $36,000,27 and with a reasonably uncomplicated model line, we had to pick only two option groups (the $4,000 Technology Package and the $2,100 Premium Plus Package) to outfit the base model with the features we wanted, for a grand total of about $41,25028 (including a $1,700 credit that Audi is giving for the Technology Package), an amount that puts this car near the middle of the pack among the cars we considered.
2016 Cadillac ATS 2.0T Luxury
The Cadillac ATS comes up short in terms of performance, styling, and fuel economy, though it does offer a generous warranty.
The ATS delivers sufficiently sporty handling qualities, though the trade-off is a jostling ride. We skipped over the rather crude and underpowered 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in the base version in favor of the more widely available turbocharged 2.0-liter version with a more-than-competitive 272 horsepower. A larger, more powerful V6 is also available, but it’s an unnecessary expense in our opinion. For 2016, the 2.0-liter turbo-four engine gains an auto stop-start function that automatically de-powers the engine while at idle, and you can now mate it to an eight-speed automatic transmission (versus six speeds last year); while this feature improves the 2.0T’s fuel economy a notch, the result is still far from being class-leading at 26 mpg in combined city/highway driving (that’s 2 mpg lower than what you get from our pick, the C300). An ultra-sporty ATS-V version, new for 2016, packs a punch with a 464-horsepower twin-turbo V6 engine, but it’s stratospherically priced (around $61,500).
To our eyes the ATS’s exterior styling is overly angular and not nearly as elegant as that of the C300, and its interior is nicely styled but burdened with Cadillac’s clumsy CUE multimedia system. To equip the car, which starts at just over $33,000,29 with our desired features, we chose the Luxury trim level and had to add three option groups. These included the Sun & Sound Package for $1,870 and the $600 Cold Weather Package; a blind-spot warning system is a new offering on the ATS for 2016, but only as part of the $1,585 Safety & Security package, which also includes a lane-departure warning system, auto high-beam headlamps, and a few other gizmos. As equipped the ATS comes out to a total cost (with destination) of around $44,000,30 which is a bit above average for this group.
On the plus side, Cadillac offers the best warranty among all compact luxury sedans, with six years/72 months of both full coverage and auto-club-like roadside assistance, as well as four years/50,000 miles of free maintenance.
2015 Infiniti Q50 Premium
The Infiniti Q50 is sufficiently roomy and is the most powerful among the cars we considered, but it’s costly and gets dismal fuel economy. Overall, it just isn’t as refined or appealing as other cars in this class.
The Q50 is the most expensive model we looked at, starting at about $37,000,31 but costing close to $51,50032 when equipped the way we like, which is about $6,000 more than our top pick, the Mercedes-Benz C300. We added leather seats for an extra $1,000, a navigation system for $1,400, and two option groups, the $3,200 Technology Package and the $3,100 Deluxe Touring Package, the latter just to obtain split-folding rear seats (along with several items we didn’t otherwise want).
The car’s powerful V6 engine isn’t particularly smooth, nor is it economical, with an EPA rating of 23 mpg combined—lowest among our considered cars. And despite all that power and size, the Q50 is the least sporty car in this group to drive. Its interior is very spacious and nicely designed, with a back seat that’s roomier than most in this class, but it’s not as quiet or well-finished as the best cars here, and it certainly lacks the panache of the C300.
2016 Lexus IS 200t
For 2016, Lexus’s IS received an update with a new base engine and transmission, braking and steering improvements, and a freshened-up interior/dashboard with an updated climate-control system and an audio system/display with Apple’s Siri Eyes Free standard.
Renamed the Lexus IS 200t, it comes powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 241 horsepower, an amount equivalent to that generated by our top pick’s turbocharged four-cylinder engine. We were able to give a 2016 model a brief test drive, and it was indeed much livelier than the standard six-cylinder engine in the previous version. It still makes less torque (258 pound-feet) than our top pick C300 (273 pound-feet), however, which gives the Mercedes the edge in terms of quickness from a standing start. The IS 200t’s handling feels a bit quicker than before, but this car still lags the top compact luxury sedans, including the C300, in that regard. The C300 also gets better fuel economy at 28 mpg combined versus 26 mpg for the IS 200t. Lexus offers an IS 350 version that has a peppier 306-horsepower V6 and (unlike the 200t) can have AWD, but it starts around $2,500 more than the IS 200t, which has a base price of about $37,50033 and comes in at just over $43,50034 the way we configured it.
Styling is subjective, to be sure, but we find the IS 200t’s odd exterior styling to be slashed with far too many creases, especially at the front end. Inside, the revised dashboard features an interesting two-tier design and a nicely finish, but its mouselike multimedia controller remains difficult and distracting to operate. And with the vehicle’s dimensions unchanged for 2016, the IS 200t continues to be a tight fit, with difficult entry and exiting, sport seats up front that are built for speed over comfort, and the least hospitable rear seat in this group.
There are two other sedans we researched right along with the rest in this guide, but ultimately decided against including: the Buick Regal and Volkswagen CC. They’re arguably nicer than your everyday Ford or Toyota, but these two “near-luxury” sedans just aren’t at the level of being true luxury cars without having to twist and distort what that really means.
The Buick Regal actually comes highly rated from Consumer Reports, which surprisingly ranked it right behind the Mercedes-Benz C300 and BMW 328i. We looked at the Premium II version of the Regal with its optional turbocharged, four-cylinder engine and an out-the-door price, as we equipped it, around $35,000.35 That makes it a shade costlier than the most affordable compact luxury sedan in this group, and one of our alternative picks, the Acura TLX. While the Regal’s plusses include being fun to drive and coming with lots of standard features, its resale value is rock bottom. This car is estimated to be worth just 38 percent of its purchase price after five years, which is very low compared to our top pick’s estimate of 52 percent. Its fuel economy is also near the very bottom and the Regal’s lackluster looks are still a few years off from being addressed. Perhaps most telling is this dubious distinction: The Regal was recently found to be the one car that buyers can’t wait to get rid of most.
As for the Volkswagen CC, we liked its “four door coupe” styling better than the Regal’s, though the swoopy roofline makes getting in and out of the back seat harder and encroaches on rear headroom. Its ride and handling are also nicely balanced, though its 200-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine lacks power compared to the other cars we looked at; a larger, more powerful V6 engine is available, but it only comes with all-wheel-drive and costs around $5,500 more. As we equipped it, the CC came out to cost around $39,000. At that price, it’s more expensive than both of our alternate picks, the Acura TLX and Volvo S60, and at the end of the day, a Volkswagen doesn’t scream you’ve arrived.
Having just been fully redesigned for 2015, our top pick, the Mercedes-Benz C300, is set for a while, but it will welcome to the lineup a plug-in hybrid sedan for 2016. Otherwise, we expect several models in this group will undergo some noteworthy revisions over the next couple of years, including the Audi A4, BMW 328i, Lexus IS 250, Cadillac ATS, and Volvo S60.
According to Automotive News, a redesigned A4 is expected during 2016 that will be, “larger but lighter, with more features and a bigger price tag to distance it from the [smaller] A3.”
The BMW 328i (along with the rest of the 3 Series line) will receive what’s known as a mid-cycle refresh for 2016 that will feature modest styling tweaks, particularly at the front and rear of the vehicle, along with assorted engineering updates. The Lexus IS 250 is likewise expected to undergo a refresh of its own for 2016 that will, among other updates, include a new turbocharged four-cylinder base engine with an estimated 240 horsepower to replace its underpowered V6.
The Mercedes-Benz C300 is the best compact luxury sedan for most people. Simply put, no other car we looked at comes close to the C300’s exceptional interpretation of automotive luxury. While being one of the costliest, it’s worth every penny for its winning combination of real luxury with just the right amount of sportiness. The C300 comes standard with strikingly handsome exterior styling and an elegantly designed and opulently finished interior. In fact, it’s no stretch to consider the C300 a smaller and lower-cost version of the automaker’s peerless S-Class flagship sedan. We recommend choosing the base C300 with rear-wheel drive and its peppy turbocharged four-cylinder engine to save some money and get the best balance of ride and handling qualities. Despite its relatively accessible sticker price (for a luxury car), you’ll feel incredibly wealthy sitting behind the wheel of the sumptuous C300.
Special thanks to Scott Ragland, Nicholas Anhold, and the team at Mercedes-Benz of North Olmsted in Northeastern Ohio for supplying the Mercedes-Benz C300 in these photographs.
Originally published: November 12, 2015