Payne: Old world Mercedes C300 vs. new age Tesla Model 3

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
The front of the 2019 Mercedes C300, right, is an ornate sculpture of three-star grille and diamond-studded grille. The electric Tesla Model 3 doesn't even have a grille.

There are different luxury tastes. Some shoppers like ornate things, others prefer it simple.

Think of a diamond-encrusted necklace compared to a simple stone. A Rolex or an Apple watch. A Tudor home or the horizontal elegance of a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style.

Add Mercedes C-class vs. Tesla Model 3 to the list.

These two rear-wheel-drive based icons offer styling that is as dramatically different as their gas-powered turbo-4 and electric powertrains. My $63,000 Mercedes-Benz C300 tester is the old-money classic. The $57,500 Tesla is the new-money rebel. Tuxedo or jacket casual. Grosse Pointe meets Ann Arbor.

Credit Tesla with not just pushing the envelope, but establishing new class aspirations. But look a little closer and both cars want to take you to the same digital future.

After some stodgy years at the turn of the century, Mercedes' exterior design has emerged as the segment’s fashion plate. From its flowing lines to its diamond-studded grille, it’s palace sculpture.

The Model 3 is a different aesthetic. It’s iPhone simple from sleek shoulder lines to — well, it doesn’t even have a grille, much less one with diamond studs. It eschews badging. The Tesla announces itself from the front with a simple “T” logo. The Mercedes? An “M” would never do. This ship’s bow carries a giant three-pointed star.

Out back, the Mercedes provides more information with C300 and 4MATIC badging on the trunk announcing its unique class and drivetrain. The Tesla is naked. Not even a “3.”

Climb inside under their panoramic skylights and the differences are even more dramatic.

The Mercedes comes with a handsome, weighty doorknocker of a key. The Tesla’s key is a Visa-shaped card that fits in your wallet.

Push the start button and the dapper German’s turbo-4 shudders to life. Slide into the battery-powered Tesla and it’s already on, having recognized your key card (assuming you didn’t summon it from its parking space via Tesla’s phone app). Oh, these Silicon Valley engineers are clever.

The cabin of the Mercedes is like something out of Neuschwanstein Castle. The decoration is exquisite. Lush console wood, chromed oval vents, tanned leather. The steering wheel has more buttons than a Wurlitzer organ. The doors are laid out with so much silverware — seat controls, Burmester speakers — that it could be an ambassador’s dinner table. All that’s missing is a chandelier.

The Tesla is remarkably minimal. A polished plank of wood spans the dash with a giant 15-inch tablet hanging in the middle. The cabin is monochrome black. There are just two buttons on the steering wheel. No vent ornaments. No door-mounted controls. No ornate speakers.

It’s as if Rubens and Mondrian painted a car in the same year.

Behind the divergent designs, however, both automakers have labored to make high-tech, driver-centric products.

Those buttons on the Mercedes steering wheel mean you can thumb through multiple menus without taking your hands off the wheel. More information — navigation, speed limit — is available in a head-up display floating above the hood. Other commands are voice-operated — “Set the cabin temperature to 72 degrees." Navigating to a destination requires only a direct command — “Navigate to Detroit Metro Airport” — rather than having to enter a full address.

The Mercedes' commands can be hit-or-miss (this is not the latest MBUX system I recently experienced in the A220 sedan) and will get better with the next generation.

The Tesla is state of the art. Voice commands are as good as your phone. The big screen seems a distraction until you realize that almost everything is automatic — headlights, wipers, even music requests: “Play the Rolling Stones.”

Speaking of automatic, the C300 and Model 3 are desperate to drive themselves.

Don’t let them. These are Level 2 systems far removed from fully autonomous Level 4. But they are competent within limits.

The Mercedes is controlled via cockpit buttons in plain sight. Tesla settings are automatically configured in the screen. Engage the systems (C300 via the cruise-control button, Model 3 via a double pull on the shift stalk) and instrument icons light up letting you know the cars are in charge.

Both systems are true to the road with no ping-ponging between lines. Both can automatically change lanes with the pull of a turn signal (and both are smart enough not to if another car is present). Both will come to a stop behind another car — then start up again. Over time the Tesla’s system proves superior, in part because of over-the-air updates like the new Navigate on Autopilot.

Design is a powerful statement of self. But what will ultimately force your choice between these cars is their power source.

My friend Rick, an experienced luxury-car connoisseur, jumped into both cars and was instantly enamored with the 3’s performance. It’s a tiger. The steering is rooted to the ground, the 307 pound-feet of torque as instant as a lightning bolt. The hills of Oakland County were our playground.

“The Tesla is just so much fun to drive,” he said.

The Mercedes is tight enough, but handling has never been the brand’s forte. The steering is numb, the turbo-4 engine — smooth as it is with a dual-clutch, 9-speed automatic — seems coarse after the Tesla’s liquid torque.

But the Mercedes will go 574 miles (highway) on a fill-up. And when it runs out, it will fill up again at the nearest filling station in just five minutes.

The 325-mile range Tesla, by contrast, is a car for defined commutes. Install a 240-volt charger in your home and draw a driving radius as to where you need to drive. Lansing? OK. Pittsburgh? You’ll need to plan. Sure, the Tesla’s navigation is superb, telling you exactly where Tesla’s network of superchargers are along the way. But each stop requires at least half-hour to top up on electrons.

Speaking of planning, repairs to the Tesla will take a month via mobile service units, since Michigan bans Tesla dealers. There is no such ban on the German's service centers.

Given the Tesla’s range and service limitations, its strong sales numbers are testament to how different its design is. After last year’s flood of orders (to curious folks like me), sales have steadied at about 6,000 a month — similar to the beautifully decorated Mercedes.

One last detail about these very different masters. The C300 and Model 3 use the same transmission stalk. Just like Rubens and Mondrian used the same sable paint brush.

The 2019 Mercedes C300 boasts 255 horsepower from a 2.0-liter turbo-4 channeled through RWD.

2019 Mercedes-Benz C300

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Price: $42,395 base, including $995 destination fee ($63,325 AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 255 horsepower, 273 pound-feet of torque, 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder

Transmission: 9-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 5.5 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 131 mph top speed

Weight: 3,500-4,150 pounds 

Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/33 highway/26 combined (AWD)

Highs: Supermodel looks; interior by the gods

Lows: Not a toned athlete; MBUX infotainment not in this model yet

Overall: 4 stars

The 2019 Tesla Model 3 boasts 271 horsepower from an 80.5 kWh battery and single speed electric motor driving the rear wheels.

2019 Tesla Model 3

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, rear- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Price: $36,200 base, including $1,200 destination fee ($57,500 RWD as tested)

Powerplant: 271 horsepower, 307 pound-feet of torque, 80.5-kWh lithium-ion battery with electric motor drive

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 5.1 second zero-60 (Car and Driver); 141 mph top speed

Weight: 3,549-3,814 pounds (RWD, depending on battery size), 4,072 (AWD)

Fuel economy: 325-mile range (big battery as tested)

Highs: Unique driving experience; planted handling

Lows: Battery range; lack of Michigan service centers

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.