The first dozen kilometres spent evaluating the new 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Coupe presented a steep learning curve.
In actuality about a hundred of them and all of them very much vertically inclined as the narrow, and in one section unpaved, roadway twisted its way up through the tree-dense lower slopes, and then coiled around the sheer bare-rock upper reaches of 6,288-foot-high Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. This was the notorious Auto Road first negotiated by car in 1899 in a steam-powered Locomobile, but more recently and significantly faster by racers competing in the Mt. Washington Hillclimb.
My time for this 12.2-km climb – in places positively scary – wasn't recorded; a sundial would have sufficed, but the hill record, held for a dozen years by Canadian rally ace Frank Sprongl of six minutes and 41.99 seconds, saw 20 seconds trimmed off by American Travis Pastrana last year in an epic drive.
What I learned on my ascent in the $49,200 C350 – one of a trio of coupe models reintroduced as part of a thorough overhaul of the C-Class range for 2012 – was that even when pointed up a mountain it accelerates very quickly. A zero to 100 km/h run in the 302-hp/273-lb-ft, 3.5-litre V-6-engined model takes 6.0 seconds.
But more importantly it steers with vernier accuracy and has brakes that were unfazed by the trip back down. If I'd put us off in some spots there would have been a long silence eventually broken by the sound of the C350's 1l airbags going off like popcorn.
Less dramatic than my first few minutes in the C350 was the time spent driving from Portland to Kennebunkport the afternoon before in the $39,900 C250 Coupe, with its 201-hp, 1.8-litre, turbocharged, direct injection, four-cylinder engine.
Despite being down a hundred horsepower on the C350, the C250 has plenty of poke – its 229 lb-ft of torque is available from 2,300 rpm – and gets to 100 km/h in 7.2 seconds. The front/rear balance numbers indicate they are identical, but the C250, although only some 65 kg lighter, feels the more responsive of the two.
A new seven speed 7G-Tronic automatic that delivers improved response and fuel economy comes with both engines. The C250's fuel economy is rated at 9.7 litres/100 km city and 6.4 highway and the C350 at 10.9 city/7.0 highway.
These coupes share the new 2012 C-Class look, which includes reshaped bumpers, grille with big bold three-pointed star, headlight clusters with LED running lights and LED taillights. The coupe's roofline is lower by almost 40 mm than the sedan's and smoothly blends into the short rear deck. AMG-style side skirts add a unique touch and all coupes come with a panoramic sunroof.
The extensively redesigned interior is also shared – gone is much of the flat black plastic and the pop-up navi screen, replaced by a new instrument cluster with integrated screen, a new more upscale-looking centre stack and console, and a flat-bottomed multi-function steering wheel. Also shared is the upgraded electronics package.
Coupes come with supportive sports seats and rear seats that will accommodate a pair of passengers although knee and headroom are at a premium. The seatbacks fold to add some cargo size flexibility to the 450-litre trunk.
These aren't physically very big cars – a compact 4,590 mm in length – but they manage to feel roomy enough inside, up front at least, and punch above their weight in delivering performance and visual appeal.
And speaking of a big punch, rounding out the coupe threesome, is the $66,900, C63 AMG Coupe, which is powered by a 6.2-litre V-8 making 451 hp (upgradeable to 481 hp) and 443 lb-ft of torque, and which can reach 100 km/h in just 4.3 seconds.
I missed out on driving that one, choosing instead to spend some time in the C250, the new offering in the much revised – some 2,000 changes in all – for 2012 KC-Class sedan range.
C-Class models include the 1.8 turbo-engined, $36,700 C250, $39,990 C250 4Matic (with 2.5-litre, 201-hp V-6), $45,200 C300 (3.0-litre, 228-hp V-6), $49,000 C350 and $50,800 C350 4Matic (both with 3.5-litre, 302-hp V6) and the $65,000 C63 AMG (6.2-litre, 451/481-hp V-8).
The styling updates give the C-Class sedans a sportier, more upscale look to go with the decidedly much improved interior, which features wood trim on the dash and new upholstery colours. Not surprisingly, the rear seat area is more accommodating on the sedan, including better headroom and the trunk space increases to a more generous 475 litres.
Performance of the C250 with its 1.8-litre turbo four is essentially the same as the coupe's (the sedan is actually a little lighter) with the seven-speed transmission making good use of the abundant torque available. And fuel economy is actually a little better at 9.6 litres/100 km city and 6.3 highway.
This is a practical, comfortable and very enjoyable-to-drive sedan and its mid-30k starting price makes it a three-pointed star alternative to similarly priced mid-sizers of more "common" origin.
Both coupes and sedans are in showrooms now, with limited numbers of special intro editions available.
2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 Coupe
Type: Compact sports coupe
Base Price: $39,900; as tested, $41,895
Engine: 1.8-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 201 hp/229 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.7 city/ 6.4 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: BMW 1-Series and 3-Series Coupes, Audi A5/S5 Coupes, Infiniti G37 Coupe, Cadillac CTS Coupe