For the record, there’s very little wrong with the standard Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Starting at $40,000, the C300 sedan drives like a dream and has a gorgeous interior. Then there’s the $66,000 AMG C 63, a wonderfully bonkers version with a snarling V8 engine and almost double the horsepower (more than double with the C 63 S).
Filling the void between the C300 and C 63, both in terms of performance and price (starting around $53,000), is the new 2017 Mercedes-Benz AMG C 43. This midrange Mercedes is designed to compete with similar models from Audi and BMW, and if our first impression is any indication, the battle will be decided by a razor-thin margin.
In the span of an afternoon we had the opportunity to drive each of the AMG C 43 models, from the sensible sedan to the sleek coupe and drop-top cabriolet. In terms of performance they’re essentially equals, with the same twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 producing 362 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque. That power is routed through a nine-speed automatic and distributed to all four wheels (69 percent of that power is sent to the rear wheels). In addition to Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, all models also come standard with the Dynamic Select drive modes and an adaptive suspension.
Among the three models, the sedan is the obvious choice for those who regularly transport more than one passenger and cargo. Rear headroom is adequate for the average adult, and the 12.6-cubic-foot trunk accommodates a decent amount of luggage. The coupe reduces rear headroom to provide only enough space for smaller adults, and the trunk is limited to 10.5 cubic feet. The cabriolet’s rear seat space is identical to the coupe’s but the trunk drops to only 8.8 cubic feet.
Practical concerns aside, the differences in personality of these models are likely more important to potential owners. The AMG C 43 sedan has a more traditional Mercedes appearance while the coupe’s stretched proportions and sweeping roofline echo the seductive (and significantly more expensive) S-Class coupe’s lines. With the fabric top stowed, the cabriolet is more striking, capable of even turning heads in the affluent bubble of Malibu.
Although some may gravitate to an AMG Mercedes for prestige and appearances, the most important reason should be performance, an area in which the C 43 shines. Flick the Dynamic Select switch up a few times for the top Sport+ mode and the suspension stiffens, throttle response sharpens and steering effort firms up. The V6 emits a burly growl as the engine abruptly spins up, bolstered by some manufactured noises through the speakers.
Acceleration is brisk, with a claimed 4.6-second time from zero to 60 mph, but there’s very little drama. All four tires claw at the pavement without ever losing traction, and gear changes are pleasantly aggressive. Braking is similarly capable, with an appropriate amount of pedal travel and resistance. Over several repeated downhill runs on a challenging mountain road, the pedal never softened.
As far as handling goes, the AMG C 43 is as entertaining as it is manageable. There’s enough compliance in the suspension to shrug off midcorner bumps and enough rigidity to reduce body roll for a flat cornering stance that entices you to drive harder. With all of these systems working in concert, there’s no doubt these midrange AMGs pose a threat to BMW when it comes to spirited driving.
As performance-oriented as the AMG C 43s are, the sacrifice in ride comfort is negligible. Yes, you’ll feel more imperfections in the road surface, but not to any objectionable level, and we intentionally sought rougher pavement. In regard to quietness, the sedan and coupe are understandably better than the cabriolet, but as far as convertibles go, the C 43’s fabric top filters road and wind noise out better than you might expect.
More importantly, the cabriolet is remarkably free of buffeting at highway speed with the top down. You can hold a conversation with your passenger without raising your voice and you won’t emerge from a long drive with a hairdo that looks like modern art. The cabin remains calm enough that you’ll rarely feel the need to snap the removable wind blocker in place.
All the AMG C 43s feature an interior that is refined and attractive. Leather seats with racy red stitching and strategic placement of grippy suede inserts set the C 43 apart from its standard C-Class brethren. We’re still not sold on Mercedes’ touchpad controller, though, opting to use the customary COMAND dial controller instead. Ease of operation is comparable to competing systems from Audi and BMW, which means there is a slight learning curve, but it can become second nature with some practice.
Now we come to the $50,000-plus question. The 2017 Mercedes-Benz AMG C 43 competes directly with the BMW 340i xDrive sedan and 440i xDrive coupe. On paper and in person, it’s a virtual dead heat between similarly optioned cars. Both benefit from a compliant Comfort drive mode and a distinctly athletic Sport+ mode. Build quality is also impeccable across the board, making for a difficult decision.
Audi has an all-new S4 and S5 on the way, which will likely make this a three-way battle royale. The recently released A4 is a class leader, and we expect the higher-performing S models to keep the Benz and Bimmer honest. Audi sets itself apart from the rest of the class with a more aggressive exterior and an elegantly minimalist interior, highlighting the possibility that aesthetics may be the deciding factor among these choices.
It’s a clear indication that if you’re fortunate enough to be in the market for a sporty and luxurious sedan, coupe or convertible, you’ll benefit from an embarrassment of riches.