Watch out BMW; the new C-Class flagship range has a Sport saloon among its variants. By Sean O'Grady

It's nice to know that Mercedes-Benz can still make boring saloons. I mean that in a nice way. Boring, as we all know, can be good; safe, reliable, durable. Nice boring. These are the sort of virtues that tend to reveal themselves with time. That, traditionally, was why why people bought Mercedes-Benz over the years and often with great loyalty.

In more recent times, those old-fashioned attributes weren't always in evidence, and the company has invaded almost every niche in the market, with 14 model lines where there were once two. Loyalty has been tested. With all those people carriers and SUVs and MPV crossovers Mercedes-Benz has been concentrating on, and some of the quality problems it has had to solve, you might be forgiven for thinking that the company has quite forgotten about its bread-and-butter saloons.

Well, it hasn't - and Mercedes flew the world's motoring hacks into its home in Stuttgart to show us the new C-Class.

Now, this car is really important, because it's Mercedes's best-selling model line. It's also important because Mercedes-Benz doesn't want to lose any more ground to the BMW 3-series, the leader in the "compact premium" market and revamped not so long ago.

Part of the BMW's enormous success comes from its youthful, sporty image. Mercedes must have been envious of that, but at the same time it didn't want to alienate its more established customer base - self-made men and the like. The company says the C-Class has the most heterogenous group of customers of all its cars, so satisfying everyone has always been a bit of a challenge. So now it has decided to make not one but two C-Class saloons.

Where there used to be just different trim levels, and sometimes distinct driving characteristics as well, we now have more differentiation in the range. The SE and Elegance versions will appeal to those who favour luxury and comfort. These types wear the traditional Mercedes sedan grille with the famous three-pointed star perched as always on the bonnet. But the Sport version now gets the grille treatment normally reserved at Mercedes for its sporty coupés, with a big, bold Mercedes star staring you in the face. You might not think that amounts to much, but for this conservative company it marks something of a revolution.

Less revolutionary but a welcome change is the car's overall styling. It's a bit like a shrunk-down S-Class, so that the C-Class now has much more pronounced wheel arches and a dynamic swage line running up the bodywork, a theme in Mercedes styling these days.

This gives the new C-Class a much more characterful look; one which, you would imagine, will attract younger, more fashion-conscious types, or at least those who think of themselves as such. In a way, what Mercedes has done, (and I'm indebted to my colleague David Wilkins, long-time fan of the cars, for this insight) is to bring in-house the sort of "rude Merc" treatment the cars occasionally get from the customisers. There's more bling about Mercedes cars these days, and that's clearly what the buyers want.

Will buyers be impressed when they take their new C-Class out on the road? Well, the press weren't given the chance to drive the cars in Stuttgart, but the indications are that the new saloon, especially in its Sport persona, will be pretty good fun. Although the car is bigger all round than its predecessor, the engineers at the launch were very proud that they had, in their words, "put a stop to the weight spiral" - for example, by using lighter materials in the revised suspension. That relative lightness will help the car's agility, an explicit aim of the designers. Also, the front/rear weight distribution is a near-optimal 52/48. The body is also quite a bit stiffer than the outgoing C-Class, which is good news.

The new car inherits some of its larger siblings' safety features, such as the "pre safe" system that helps to prepare you for a crash, although I was disappointed that they have not taken the opportunity to install the excellent adaptive cruise-control system that you'll find on the E-Class, CLS and S-Class lines. This system brakes automatically when the car senses danger ahead, which I would have thought would at least have been an option on the C-Class, albeit an expensive one. They really would have had something to sell there but, as ever, I guess car-buyers are more interested in looks and performance than safety.

Like the old car, there'll be the usual range of engine options available in due course, but when the C-Class arrives in the summer there will be three petrol engines and a diesel to choose from. Later, we'll see the entry-level 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol models at one end and the AMG-tweaked V8 at the other. We can expect an estate version too, maybe next year. Intriguingly, bosses hinted that the new C-Class might feature many more variants - a proper coupé, perhaps, just like the 3-series.

Mercedes sold 1.4 million of the old C-Class after its introduction in 2000, and about two million of the model that preceded it, the first proper C-Class, launched in 1993. The new car has a good deal to live up to and, being up against the BMW 3-series, the Audi A4 and indeed the Lexus IS, it has its work cut out. However, like some of its illustrious forebears, this car looks like being a class act.

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