Up to now, a BMW 3-Series coupe was Andreas Heidl's natural choice for a ride as stylish as his suit (elegant, worn with no tie), his glasses (matte-black) and his facial hair (micrometer-trimmed).
It'd have been a career killer. A Mercedes-Benz executive on the rise being seen in a 3-Series would be out of the question, but Heidl's dilemma pointed to a shortcoming in the Benz lineup.
For many years, the absence of a small, sporty two-door coupe has caused younger buyers to turn to BMW, or more recently to Audi or Infiniti. So it was that Mercedes put Heidl in charge of developing the C-Class Coupe that comes to Canada in September - two months after he takes delivery of his own company car.
"I am the demographic for this car," he said to me. "I'm 38 years old."
Concerned about the greying of its European customer base, Benz talks a youthful story at every opportunity in the process of introducing the C-coupe. It's as though it has suddenly realized that the sub-middle-age two-door buyers it has been ignoring for decades could become customers for life once hooked by a winsome coupe.
So in glossy company publications, younger members of the creative team are at the forefront. Interior designer Adriana Balko, 32, is said to love the two-tone steering wheel in Edition 1, a limited-production run of the C350, of which 50 will be on offer in Canada. Ulrich Baer, a design team member, age 39, favours the rear of the coupe as its best angle. Heidl himself speaks of the cabin possessing "a really stylish lounge atmosphere."
Seeing the car for the first time, though, my gut reaction to the fruit of their youthful labour is rather mature in appearance. If BMW's 3-Series coupe appears sinuous and Audi's A5 sculptured, muscular might be the word that most positively describes the new entrant in the class.
Heidl identifies the 3-Series coupe as the target. And like the BMW, the C-Coupe is intended to appeal to everyone from lounge lizards to track junkies. The atmosphere is sporty and elegant, regardless of engine and suspension configuration: rear seating as well as front consists of individual buckets, and panoramic sunroofs overhead will distinguish all cars sold in Canada.
We drive the V-6-powered C350 first. This is the offering intended for well-dressed, well-heeled coupe buyers - i.e., those men and women who've been walking past Mercedes-Benz dealerships and buying $46,700 Infiniti G37 coupes. (Pricing for the Mercedes line is to be announced closer to the September introduction, but can be expected to range from $40,000 to $70,000.)
Comfort may be as important as pace for lounger-drivers, which is why the Dynamic Handling Package is standard in this model, optional in the base-priced C250. A touch of a button engages a soft suspension setting. Selecting sport mode becomes the obvious choice when making full use of the direct-injection V-6's 302 horsepower on our way into the Sierra Morena foothills, much reducing lean and sharpening turn-in on the two-laner's tight curves.
During such times of 100 per cent concentration behind the wheel, the automatic transmission plays its role shifting more quickly and steering centring alters, contributing to the rush. Or not - for this model is first and foremost a luxurious cruiser and many of its buyers will engage the sport setting once and never more stray from comfort.
The C250 to this driver turns out to be the more engaging car. Its turbocharged four-cylinder, 1.8-litre engine is lighter than the V-6, improving front-rear weight distribution while dropping curb weight from 1,615 kg to 1,550. Steering response seems sharper than with the heftier six. Plus it's an engine with character and affirmative exhaust music.
Although the four-cylinder's 201 horsepower falls well short of the V-6's 302 or, for that matter, the base BMW inline-six's 230, its 229 lb-ft of torque exceeds the BMW's 200 - and you feel its pull at lower engine speed than with the C350's V-6.
According to the manufacturer's performance figures, the V-6 reaches 100 km/h in 6.0 seconds, the four in 7.2. In either case, 210 km/h is the electronically limited top speed. You'll prefer the six if a strong initial lunge pulling away from a stop is a priority, or the four for its responsiveness to the involved driver.
Certainly you find yourself using the manual-mode of the automatic in the four-cylinder car more than in the C350 on the twisting roads Mercedes has chosen to showcase the coupes. Working the paddle shifters beneath the steering wheel keep the engine in its sweet zone between 2,300 and 4,300 rpm.
It's a shame the paddles aren't standard in C250s destined for Canada, but are part of the optional Sport Package. Heated seats are optional, too. And a Premium Package is necessary for such niceties as power-folding mirrors, Harman-Kardon surround sound, Sirius satellite radio and a parking distance sensor system.
Even the more luxurious C350 requires a Premium Package for a navigation/DVD system as well as the audio and parking aid in the C250 grouping. Mercedes-Benz Canada appears to be working toward introducing lower base prices than competitors' with desirable options likely upping the ante.
Ambitious Mercedes increasingly wants to compete in every conceivable category, soon introducing the A-Class (even smaller than the B-Class) to North America, breathing new life into its super-luxury Maybach division, taking over selling the Smart in the United States. Adding a sport coupe to the lineup was long overdue.
2012 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe
Type: Two-door coupe
Base Price: Not available
Engine: 1.8-litre, turbocharged, direct-injection, four-cylinder/3.5-litre, direct-injection V-6
Horsepower/torque: 201 hp/229 lb-ft for four; 302 hp/273 lb-ft for six
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with manual function
Fuel economy: Not available
Alternatives: BMW 3-Series coupe, Infiniti G37 coupe, Audi A5, Cadillac CTS