If you're in the market for a luxury compact sedan, two German models probably spring to mind immediately. These two heavy hitters have been dominating this segment of the market for decades because they basically invented it.
But does that mean that they always deserve the reputation? Let's put the industry gold standard Mercedes-Benz C-Class against one the popular luxury upstarts, the Lexus ES 350.
The C-Class has undergone a fair amount of change in recent years, but many older versions look like entirely different models rather than older versions of the current model mainly because they age so gracefully. The 2017 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is probably more conservative than some recent predecessors, but that means it looks a lot like a smaller S-Class--not a bad thing at all. A recent update gave the ES 350 a more aggressive look than previous ES models, but even the larger version of the signature spindle grille and LED headlights don't make this an exciting looking car. It's handsome and purposeful, but pretty mundane parked alongside a new C-Class.
Engines & Performance
There's pretty much an engine for everyone in the current C-Class lineup, which range from a 2.0-liter turbo-four in the C 300 to a 503 horsepower 4.0-liter V-8 in the C 63 S and even a plug-in hybrid in the C 350e. The 362 horsepower V-6 in the C 43 is a great unit, but the 241 horses of the base 2.0-liter are not bad either. By way of complete contrast, the ES 350 only has a single engine to tempt buyers with, which is an old-school 3.5-liter V-6 that sends 268 horsepower to the front wheels through an equally ordinary six-speed manual transmission. It's a solid but conservative powerplant that does a very capable job, but it's no match for what's on offer with the C-Class.
Features & Equipment
Don't think you have to shell out for lots of options and extras to get the C-Class you want. Standard equipment will be more than enough for all but the most discerning buyer in most cases. Even the C 300 comes standard with a full set of power features, a power driver seat, cruise control, keyless ignition, a rearview camera, climate control, and the COMAND® interface with capacitive touch pad and a 7.0-inch display. Lexus is renowned for equipping its vehicles generously, and the ES 350 is no exception with a moonroof, a 7.0-inch infotainment system with eight speakers and Siri Eyes Free capability, dual-zone automatic climate control, and leatherette upholstery all coming standard. The infotainment system isn't great, though--and you ought to expect great from a luxury sedan.
As there are so many engine options, you'll find plenty of different fuel economy ratings to consider in the C-Class. If fuel economy is important to you though, the C 300 in two-wheel drive form is the one to choose with EPA ratings of 24 mpg in the city, 34 mpg on the highway and 28 mpg combined. The V-6 in the ES 350 might not be the most high tech engine in the segment, but this pretty powerful unit gets better gas mileage than you might expect. The ES 350 gets ratings of 21 mpg in the city, 30 mpg on the highway and 24 mpg combined, but that still isn't good enough to beat out the Mercedes.
Maybe the Lexus ES 350 doesn't greatly impress in this head-to-head comparison because the 2017 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is just so good, and because the German auto giant has been at the top of this particular game for so long now. Either way, the C-Class is a much better car the ES 350, and that's without even considering the coupe and convertible versions of the Mercedes.