2023 Mercedes-Benz C220d AMG Line W206
The breed of turbodiesel executive sedans may be falling out of favour; however, the 2023 Mercedes-Benz C220d W206 exists to prove a point
The north, by way of nowhere
- 6 months
- 9 698 km
- 5,7 L/100 km
“Nice car. How did you get it down here?”
Good question. The town was Leipoldtville, known for potatoes, an Art Deco petrol station and an insatiable curiosity. The tar ends just down the road from the village entrance, on the R365.
Ordinarily, as I have done countless times in the past six months in the low-riding C220d W206, I would three-point turn my way back up the macadam and shoot a rueful glance back, but this time my curiosity got the better of me. Slowly, I edged down the rutted dirt, hoping the dorp was as close as I’d been told.
Bingo, well worth the snail’s progress I needed to endure. A hidden, beautifully kept village busting with Victorian, Georgian and mid-century frontages and a dog that climbed a tree to announce my arrival. It ticked all of the boxes. And when the couple came strolling down the “main” street, the conversation was always going to flow.
I learnt that a tarred road – much like Nieu-Bethesda in the far-off Eastern Cape – had been pooh-poohed by the residents; they were happy to put up with the dust if it meant keeping the worst of the kyk-daars away.
I smiled nervously, me in my million-rand saloon looking for all the world like a … well, somewhat unprepared kyk-daar. Catching my look, Curious 1 fell over herself to suggest it was the long-haul trucks they were keen to avoid; heavens no, not the city folk.
Ten minutes later, headed north by way of nowhere, there was time to reflect. This had, in essence, been life with the C-Class: a mixture of envy, respect, ability and limitations. Few cars are as capable of hauling lengthy distances as the C220d saloon. It has an uncanny ability to shorten distances and make dull stretches anything but. Yet reach the end of that long road, turn left and seek out the road less travelled and inevitably, the adventure ended there. Usually at the beginning of an enticing dirt road, snaking off into an inviting landscape. My least favourite South African signpost had become the so-called “smoked stompie”, the end-of-the-tar, beginning-of-the-dirt sign. Ours is a country of two halves; pick a low-profile city car and the second is lost to you entirely.
North was Loeriesfontein in the Northern Cape by way of the Knersvlakte and the Hantam Karoo. I chose this route – up from Cape Town along a maze of West Coast backroads, one hiding Leipoldtville – for the surface and engineering. It meant excellent tar, rarely trafficked. A 3 000 km trip to stress-test the best and worst of the mid-sized German. Returning to the N7 from the R365, it was late enough for the Namibian traffic to be hell-raising in an attempt to make the border by nightfall. There are few things a trucker won’t do these days and a peloton of them tried all the moves on Piekenierskloof Pass, just outside Citrusdal. There is nothing like an 18-wheeler careening towards you on the wrong side of a mountain pass to concentrate the senses. And, if the worst comes to the worst, it’s good to know you have six airbags and a multitude of crumple zones to limit the carnage. Fortunately, the Grim Reaper wasn’t punching tickets that afternoon, so I went gratefully northwards.
As the temperature fell, it again highlighted a peculiar Mercedes idiosyncrasy. Its current generation of car interiors seems particularly prone to temperature expansion and contraction. The morning creak-and-squeak as temperatures rise is often echoed in the evening. We are convinced it has to do with a few different materials warming and cooling at different rates. Notable is the A-pillar–dashboard contact. We’ve noticed it across the Mercedes range. More temperature woes … as we have been documenting throughout the test period, the outside temperature gauge had developed a mind of its own. At the beginning of the test, it regularly showed 14 degrees, all day. As time went on, it added 22 degrees to its favourites list.
We mentioned the sticking sensor to Culemborg Mercedes, but to no avail. Not being able to rely on its accuracy proved unexpectedly annoying. This is because modern vehicles have quietly introduced two enormously useful tools: a distance-to-empty monitor (more on this later) and the outside temperature sensor. Being without one, especially in far-off places, felt like being without Google maps on your phone. Just irritating.
Beyond Citrusdal, the N7 broadens into one of the finest driving stretches in the country, a testament to good planning and even better engineering. It is the kind of well-cambered, gleeful road which makes any spirited driver want to turn around and do it all over again. At Vanrhynsdorp, the driving gets even better. Turn right, cross the Knersvlakte, ascend Vanrhyns Pass and enter Nieuwoudtville as the sun sets.
On this epic leg, the C220d was in its element, the alchemy of a low-stressed turbo mill turning over nicely at just under 2 000 rpm in ninth gear, little road or wind noise to speak of at the national limit, and a supple suspension setup making for a satisfying, relaxed experience. It is thanks to the C220d’s abilities that, come Vanrhyns Pass, the sedate intercontinental saloon morphed into something altogether less benign. Select Sport as a drive mode and marvel as the 2 400-kg car scales the escarpment, little troubled. Much of the journalism around the new C-Class’s steering has suggested it lacks feel, but I found its directness and weighting close to ideal. The brakes are another matter, lacking feel and gradation, spongy until they bite, which is sudden, too abrupt. The problem appears to be over-boosting, which makes the action feel electronic rather than mechanical.
At Nieuwoudtville, on top of the escarpment, the R357 separates from the main R27 and disappears off into the distance. Thank the multi-biome bounty of the region for this stretch of tarred wonder. Not too far out of town are the wildflower fields, the quiver-tree forest and the Nieuwoudtville waterfall, a triumvirate attracting thousands through August and September. But carry on beyond all three and the tar continues for 70 km through the Gannabos Hills, a ribbon of almost deserted tar, leading to the tiny town of Loeriesfontein with its white horses and windmill museum.
There are few better roads in the country to test a car’s abilities and the Merc was not found wanting; “fast and effortless” are this executive’s raison d’être and it covered the ground in next to no time. Waiting, of course, was that dreaded smoked-stompie sign. Loeriesfontein is the nexus of two spectacular dirt routes: one north to the vast salt pans of the Dwagga region and the other to Brandvlei. Both are sharp, slashing shale roads, neither a fit for the C220d’s low-profile 255/35 R19 tyres.
Still, turning around was no great tragedy. The Gannabos road begs to be driven, again and again and again, and I was happy to oblige. Five hours later, late evening, we rolled back into Cape Town. Despite the lengthy time behind the wheel, I felt clear and awake, thanks to the relaxed cabin, excellent high-performance LED headlamps and ergonomically impressive seats. The imposing infotainment screen in the centre console, as well as the screen ahead of the driver, can be colour curated and dimmed, meaning the ambient light inside the cabin does not contribute to fatigue, and reflections are minimal. It was a characteristically adventurous end to a six-month guardianship, a trip that again underlined the C-Class’s depth of ability and made the prospect of parting just that much more unpleasant. The fuel figures were excellent, just a shade over 5,0 litres/100 km, which is remarkable given the C220d’s multiple abilities. It will be sorely missed.
One of the 220d’s most satisfying features is its distance-to-empty monitor. Much fun was had with it, trying to beat previous records. The highlight of the six months was filling up outside Malmesbury after the final Northern Cape trip. Peter Frost
Fuel & top-up cost
Cost per kilometre
Purchase price now
R1 008 749
+ comfortable, well-appointed cabin, endlessly configurable
— spongy brake feel