Behind the Wheel: 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300

A look at Mercedes’ former entry level sedan, and a lesson in “all Mercedes are not the same.”

Recently my car was in the shop again (more electrical problems with the various exhaust sensors) so I had a chance to spend a bit of time with a loaner car – in this case, a brand-new 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300 4MATIC sedan.

First off, the C300 is a fairly handsome looking car – I do like the way this car looks, which I can’t say for very many cars these days.

Needless to say the interior is very nice and very comfortable – at least for the front passengers. Rear passengers don’t get a lot of leg room if you have your front seats pushed back a bit. The center seat in the rear is also mainly for show – there’s no way anyone over the age of 8 could sit there comfortably.

With all the possible power adjustments you can make to the seats, there’s no way you won’t find a comfortable driving position – though at first my preferred position had my head touching the roof! As someone who normally drives an SUV, adjusting to a lower seating position took some getting used to. I also don’t like the tendency of cars to force you into a “lean back” position – I prefer to sit upright. However, after some fiddling I was able to find a comfortable position that didn’t have my head brushing the roof.

And speaking of that roof, there is a pretty darn big sunroof in this thing – a dual sunroof, in fact. The front section is enormous, while the back section is fairly small, but still it is a lot of glass. However, the sunroof does not open all the way – it goes back about 80% of the way. Presumably there just isn’t enough roof space for it to open all the way. Still very nice, however.

touch pad thingThe media controls in this car take some getting used to, and I’m not sure how I feel about this touch pad thing that’s becoming common in these types of cars. I kind of prefer just having the wheel, to be honest.

And speaking of interfaces – the interface on this car seems awfully sluggish, especially compared to my 2014 GLK. Menu movements just seem slightly delayed, like a computer with an under-powered graphics card.

I also don’t like that there’s no dedicated next/back track buttons – if you’re not in the media screen (either on the center screen or the screen on the dash) there’s no quick and easy way to change volume or tracks. (There is a pop-up menu button on that touch-pad control, but that still involves multiple clicks.)

HVAC controls and ventsAs for the climate controls, everything is very nicely done – I love the vents on this thing, but I do have a soft spot for round vents. There’s no dials for temperature or anything else climate related, just rocker switches – and you have to look at the middle screen to see what you’re changing it to.

Now, as for the engine – this particular model has the 2.0 liter turbocharged inline 4 cylinder putting out 241 HP and 273 lb-ft of torque, and I have absolutely no complaints with those numbers. It isn’t neck-snapping fast, but once that turbo kicks in you will notice exactly how plush the seats are as you’re shoved back into them. This car isn’t terribly heavy either, so all that power gets you up and moving very quickly – and it also has 4MATIC all-wheel-drive, so it has no problem putting that power down to the ground.

There is more than a bit of hesitation right off the line, though – that 2.0L I-4 really doesn’t have a lot of grunt on its own without the turbo, and the somewhat mushy accelerator doesn’t help (though switching to one of the “Sport” modes does vastly improve things). Before the turbo spools up you are reminded that there is a very small engine under the hood.

However one thing I did notice was how differently the transmission on this car is programmed compared to mine – it’s the same 7-speed automatic, but it jumps gears much more quickly (2nd gear in particular might as well not exist). This seems to be done in order to keep the engine in its power band and keep the turbo spooled up – but it can occasionally get a bit annoying as the car lurches a bit as it jumps gears, and sometimes the shifts just didn’t feel as smooth as on my car.

I also have to comment on the auto start/stop feature that’s becoming common on cars these days. Although the car starts up again very quickly, it does shake the whole car enough to be noticeable, and it gets annoying after a while.

Additionally, when you’re making small movements forward (as you might when in mostly-stopped traffic, or when pulling those last few inches forward into a parking spot or garage) the engine starts & stops so much that it gets downright infuriating. Thankfully of course you can turn this feature off at any time – but it always comes back on the next time you start the car.

And speaking of starting the car, I’m still not exactly sold on the idea of push-button start on cars. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I prefer to use a key – there’s no ambiguity as to whether the car is “on” or not when using a key.

Handling is excellent, but not exactly “sporty” – you can dive into corners with confidence, but this car isn’t quite “toss-able” the way lighter, sportier cars are… but then again it isn’t really meant to be. That’s not to say it isn’t fun to toss around – because it is – but it’s not something you’d spend all day doing. It’s fun for a bit, but eventually you get the feeling that this car just wants to go back to being “comfortable” – which is, unsurprisingly, where it excels.

Like a lot of cars these days, the C300 has multiple driving “modes” – and not just “economy” and “sport.” In particular, it has:

  • Economy
  • Comfort
  • Sport
  • Sport+
  • Individual (basically, user-set options)

All of these modes adjust 5 different things: throttle response, steering tightness, shift points, enabling or disabling the auto start/stop feature, and climate control restrictions.

The economy mode is what you’d expect – the engine turns off whenever you stop, throttle response is very muted, and the transmission tries to keep it in as high a gear as possible all the time. It also dials back the climate control (mainly air conditioning) to help save a little bit more fuel.

Comfort mode should really be called “normal” because that’s what it is – throttle response is light (bordering on mushy), steering is average, shifting is fairly normal, the auto start/stop is enabled (but isn’t quite as aggressive as in economy mode) and all climate controls are left alone.

Sport mode is also what you’d expect – the throttle response becomes nice and crisp, the steering tightens up a bit, and the transmission stays in lower gears longer. However, the auto start/stop is still enabled, and climate controls remain unchanged.

Sport+ mode is basically sport mode, but more so – and to be honest I don’t really like it or see why they have it on a car like this. The throttle response is great in Sport+ mode, and so is the steering, but the shifting is just awful – it really clunks when changing gears in this mode, especially under full throttle (which you’d expect to be using in this mode) – to the point where I almost wondered if something was broken. For a car of this type, I just don’t see why you’d have such an aggressive mode. (Sport+ is also the only mode that disables the auto start/stop feature – though you can turn it off manually using a dedicated button in any mode.)

All in all though the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C300 is a thoroughly nice car, if a little misguided in the Sport+ mode. It’s not a car I’d buy (the transmission and auto start/stop would drive me nuts before too long), but if you’re looking for a luxurious (but relatively small) 4-door sedan that can also be a lot of fun, you could certainly do much worse than the C300.

The Quest for the Perfect Alarm Clock

How hard is it to find a good alarm clock these days?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little bit picky when it comes to alarm clocks. Not very picky, mind you, but I do have some standards. And in the last 5 or 6 years or so, it’s been increasingly difficult to find a reasonably good alarm clock.

Let me explain.

My requirements for a good alarm clock are:

  1. Has a decently large display (I’m nearsighted so unless the digits are fairly large I can’t read them at night when I’m not wearing my glasses)
  2. Can be dimmed (bright lights at night are not good for sleeping)
  3. Doesn’t use blue lights (these appear much brighter than any other color – the best would be red because it doesn’t destroy your night vision)
  4. Has 2 (or more) alarms
  5. Can plug in to an iPod or something to play music instead of just beeping
My old alarm clock was a variant of this.
My old alarm clock was a variant of this.

Years ago, I used to use an alarm clock with a huge red LCD display and 2 alarms, and it was perfect (except for the iPod thing). I could put it across the room and I’d still be able to read the time at night when I didn’t have my glasses on, and the red display was dimmable so it didn’t disturb my sleep.

However, eventually that clock died and I went to replace it with something newer. Unfortunately, about that time was when most alarm clocks switched to using blue lights instead of red – it was almost impossible to find anything that didn’t use blue (and often quite a bright blue).

In the end, I went with a small Sony alarm clock – the display was not quite as big, and it was still blue, though it could be dimmed. And it had a dock for my ipod – sweet!

The "DreamMachine." The face of the clock is actually blue in real life.
The “DreamMachine.” The face of the clock is actually blue in real life – for some reason the only photos I could find of it all have the colors very faded.

However, after a few years, when I moved to my new house, this clock started to show its faults as well.

My new bedroom was bigger than my old one, which meant the clock was further away – and I was having trouble reading it. Also, the alarms were not easy to change and the blue light was starting to bother me.

So I started looking for a better alarm clock.

Sadly, what I found is that the idea of a small bedside LCD display alarm clock is basically a dead item nowadays – nobody seems to really be making anything beyond the most basic, simple of models. Additionally, anything that has any sort of iPod/iPhone dock in it tends to be:

  1. Very large
  2. Very expensive
  3. Small display
  4. Blue display

The reason, I think, that small bedside alarm clocks have gone the way of the dodo is because everyone has a smartphone these days which they tend to keep by the bedside, and they just use that as an alarm clock instead. “Need an alarm clock? There’s an app for that!”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either – I mean, after all, it’s one less item to have plugged in, and one less thing cluttering up your bedroom. So once I accepted that I couldn’t find a physical clock, I started looking for the perfect alarm clock app.

Now, you might be asking why I didn’t just use the built-in alarm feature found in most phones. The reason for this is that although perfectly functional as an alarm, the built-in alarm feature is (in my opinion) very clunky to use and of course does not display the current time unless you press the home button to wake up your phone… and what I wanted was an app I could run while my phone is plugged in to charge on my bedside table that made it look at least somewhat like an actual bedside clock.

So I started looking at alarm clock apps and almost immediately found that despite there being dozens and dozens of them, most of them are absolute crap.

Free alarm clock apps that emulate the look of an old LCD display are all over the app store, but most of them are poorly thought out and just cheap cash grabs (many of which are ad-supported to boot). They might look neat, but they fail to perform in the ways I actually need them to. Either they aren’t dimmable (strike 1), don’t offer music playback (strike 2), or don’t allow multiple alarms (strike 3).

There were a few apps that showed promise, but they always seemed to have one last niggling issue or shortcoming that was just annoying enough to keep me from using it. Sadly, it almost seems to me like the glut of crappy free alarm clock apps has discouraged anyone else from trying to develop an actual good app. Non-free apps didn’t fare much better, either – probably because they are so crowded out by the free ones – which is a shame because I was more than willing to pay for a decent app (if I could find one!).

In the end though I did find one app that suited my needs. It’s called “Rise” and it hit all the important features for an alarm clock for me:

  1. Large display
  2. Can be dimmed
  3. Doesn’t use blue
  4. Has multiple alarms
  5. Plays music instead of beeping

That said, it doesn’t hit all of these points perfectly. The large display is limited of course by the size of my phone screen – but that’s not much of a concern anymore since I keep it beside my bed. The display can be dimmed – almost to the point where you can’t see the time anymore – but the screen itself still gives off a slight glow, even though it’s glowing “black.” I think this is an oddity of the iPhone hardware itself though.

The "Rise" app, from SimpleBots
The “Rise” app, from SimpleBots

The display for the time doesn’t use blue – but it does use white, with no option to change the color. I’d rather it use red, but since it can be dimmed quite low this isn’t too bad. The background for the display can be switched to black as well.

The number of alarms it can have is virtually unlimited – as you’d expect; it’s software after all and not limited by physical switches. The alarms are also super-easy to change as needed, which is nice – all my old alarm clocks were a pain to change the alarm time, usually requiring pressing & holding multiple buttons.

Finally, the music playback is great – it even slowly turns up the volume so it doesn’t startle you and wakes you up gently. Though it can only play 1 song – I’d like it more if it could pick randomly from a playlist. Still, it works.

Rise also has a very, very minimal UI – almost to the point where it’s a bit obscure and hard to figure out. But once you get it, it makes sense, and I have to admit it does look pretty neat.

Now, in my case I had to stick to iOS apps – it is entirely possible that there’s an even better alarm clock app out there for Android devices. Sadly though, I don’t own one, so I’m out of luck if that’s the case.

Still, although I never thought I’d end up using an app as my alarm clock, in a way it makes a lot of sense. I never have to adjust the time for Daylight Saving Time or when I travel – I’ve always got my phone with me, which means I’ve always got my alarm clock with me. (And it is nice to not have a big clunky clock cluttering up my bedside table.)

So although it took me quite a while and also probably more effort that most people would consider reasonable, in the end I did find a nearly-perfect alarm clock that I think will serve me well for the foreseeable future.

Behind the Wheel: 2014 Mercedes-Benz GLK 250 (Diesel)

The little SUV from Mercedes that won the right to carry on the name “Keithmobile.”

When my venerable old 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander’s repair costs started exceeding the value of the vehicle itself, it meant that it was finally time to start thinking about a replacement – something to take on the designation of “the Keithmobile-E.”

I had an idea of what sort of car I wanted – basically, something similar to my Outlander, but newer (and maybe a bit nicer). This is basically the “compact SUV/crossover” category, and these days that encompasses a LOT of cars.

I looked at countless vehicles across several model years – I didn’t want anything brand-new, but at the same time I didn’t want anything more than a few years old. It was a long list of vehicles, but I eventually narrowed it down to two – one of which I’ve already reviewed.

The other vehicle – and obviously the one that won out in the end – was a 2014 Mercedes-Benz GLK 250.

GLK 250 badgeIt almost goes without saying that the GLK is a very nice car in all respects – the interior is a very comfortable place to be, and everything is just very well put together and nicely arranged. The particular model I ended up with has all the nice little touches that you’d expect, and though many are becoming fairly standard on new cars these days, they all feel very new & exciting to me since my old car had none of them!

Visibility out of the GLK is also very good (especially for this type of SUV) – certainly no worse than in my old car. Although there is a rear camera, it’s entirely possible to reverse this car without it and not have it be a dangerous guessing game of “what might be hiding in my blind spots.”

Size-wise, the GLK is almost identical to my Outlander – which is surprising since it looks bigger. But it’s the same length, almost the same height, and only 1 inch wider – so it fits exactly into the same spot in my garage. Very handy!

As for technology, the GLK has an easy to use media system with nice easy-to-reach buttons for switching modes (a feature I really like and which some cars don’t have). The built-in navigation is perfectly serviceable – though nothing spectacular.

But now let’s get to the real reason I chose this car – the engine. The are two types of GLK class vehicles – the 350 and the 250. The former has a 3.5 liter V6 gasoline engine, while the latter has a diesel. Specifically, a 2.1 liter twin-turbo inline-4, putting out an even 200 HP and an incredible 369 lb-ft of torque.

This is the reason I went with the GLK 250.

I drove both vehicles before settling on the 250, and while the 350’s engine was plenty powerful, I found that power to be a bit difficult to control. The throttle in the 350 was very fiddly – seemingly dead at first, and then it kicked in with a surge of power that was quite difficult to modulate, especially at slower speeds.

The 250’s diesel on the other hand delivers its power smoothly and without any fuss or bother. Additionally, most of that power is available at lower RPMs – as is typical of diesel engines – and which is similar to where the power in my old Outlander was available.

All that low-end power from the diesel also helps with towing, and the GLK is no slouch there either with a maximum trailer weight of 3,500 lbs – quite a bit more than my Outlander could tow!

Even with the relatively low horsepower for a vehicle of this weight (some 4,246 lbs), the GLK 250 gets up and going like nobody’s business – there is a slight delay right off the line, but the smaller of the two turbos spools up very quickly and power delivery after that is very even. It’s not the quickest thing in the world – in many ways it feels faster than it is – but it’s no slouch, either. Acceleration is steady – one might even say relentless.

Even at highway speeds the power is always there should you need it – just put your foot down and you just ADVANCE and suddenly you’ll find yourself going a lot faster than you meant to be.

All that power gets to the ground via a 7-speed auto which I would describe as “buttery smooth” – in normal driving I can hardly even tell when it’s making the shifts. It also helps that it makes those shifts very quickly, and unlike a lot of cars these days it doesn’t mind moving up & down through those gears at your command. (As a nifty trick, it will even downshift to help control your speed while going downhill – something I’ve never seen any other automatic gearbox do.)

Of course, it also has AWD – Mercedes’ 4MATIC system – so even when conditions get slippery there’s no problem getting all that power to work.

The engine does have variable valve control but there’s no sudden “surge” of power at any point – it is always very smooth and controlled, and (once the turbo has spooled up) very linear.

Even with a heavy AWD system and a rather chunky aerodynamic profile, the GLK 250 still manages to get a very decent 24 city/33 highway MPG – and in practice it does even better. Combine this with a 17.4 gallon fuel tank and the GLK 250 has an incredible cruising range.

On top of this, the GLK is a tremendously comfortable place to be for long periods of time, making it the perfect choice for long-distance road trips. The suspension just soaks up the bumps, but without feeling floaty or disconnected as can happen with too-soft suspension systems. It’s soft enough to make rough roads comfortable, but tight enough to let you attack corners in this heavy SUV with confidence.

As for that diesel engine – I’ve driven several diesel vehicles now (an Audi A4 wagon, a Fiat 500L, and now this GLK 250) and I have to say, they do take some getting used to. With diesels, all the power is generally down low in the rev range – no high revving needed – and the addition of turbos makes things even stranger if you’re only used to naturally aspirated engines. But of course the upside is torque, torque, torque! None of these cars is particularly fast per se, but they are definitely quick!

When used in an SUV application though, I think a diesel is a perfect fit – power to get a bulkier SUV moving, but small enough to be fuel efficient. It’s a shame they aren’t more common (at least here in the US).

The GLK does have a few downsides, though – none serious enough to turn me off, obviously, but your opinion might differ.

Foremost is that rear seat legroom is… not that great. As I said, this GLK is the same length as my Outlander – but the GLK has a bigger engine compartment, so that extra space has to some from somewhere. In this case, that space came from the rear seats (the front seats and cargo area are virtually identical to my old Outlander). It’s not exactly bad, but it’s not great – especially if you put the front seats all the way back. Now, I rarely have passengers (and I don’t put my seat that far back) so this wasn’t a big deal for me – but this might be a major drawback for people who regularly carry more than 2 people.

In addition to the slightly restrictive rear legroom, the rear wheel arches intrude into the rear door openings a bit more than I’d like, which makes getting in & out of those back seats a little tricky at times. It’s not terribly difficult by any means, but it is noticeable. If you have passengers with any sort of mobility restrictions, they won’t be happy in the back of a GLK.

Another minor downside with the GLK is that later model years moved the transmission lever to the steering wheel column. It’s not like the old steering wheel systems of yesteryear by any means, but it does take some getting used to. More than once I found myself reaching down to change gears before remembering it’s now just a tiny little stalk on the steering column.

All-in-all though I think the GLK 250 is a fantastic SUV – the diesel makes it a blast to drive, and although very comfortable it’s still got plenty of “utility” going for it as well. If you’re after a small-ish SUV with some style and comfort, you might want to give a GLK a look!

Behind the Wheel: 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited

2015 Subaru OutbackRecently, the repair costs on my faithful old 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander started to exceed the value of the car – so it was time to start looking for a replacement.

One of the cars I looked at rather extensively was a 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited. I wanted something similar to my old car – at least in the same general size & style; not too big or tall – but maybe also a bit nicer. Since Mitsubishi doesn’t make anything like that anymore, Subaru’s offering seemed like the natural choice.

The Subaru Outback has a lot going for it – right off the bat I can say this is a very nice car. It looks quite nice from the outside – not too garish, as many cars are these days – and the inside is equally nice. Subaru has really improved their interior design, even compared to just a year or two ago.

The Outback has plenty of power for a car of its size: 175 HP and 174 lb-ft of torque from it’s 2.5 liter 4-cylinder (horizontally opposed of course – that famous Subaru “boxer” configuration). It’s no race car or anything, but it gets up and moving more than quickly enough.

The Outback also has incredible visibility – especially compared to many SUVs – even the side mirrors were moved down onto the door so you could have just that last little bit under the A-pillar for better forward/side visibility. Rear visibility is fantastic too – no massive blind spots on this thing.

There’s also a fantastic amount of room, both front and back – rear leg room is almost as good as the front – and there’s also a generous cargo area behind the rear seats which gets even bigger once the seats are folded down. As a bonus, the rear seats can be folded down from within the rear hatch area – without having to open the side doors. (Why don’t more SUVs have this? It’s a great idea!)

The Outback is a big car on the inside, but it doesn’t look big on the outside – it’s like the TARDIS of cars.

It’s a surprisingly nimble for a car its size, with a very tight turning radius making it very good as a city car. It’s also very planted on the road (thanks to its low center of gravity), handling tight corners with ease.

The roof rails also have the cross beams built into them (they fold away when not in use) which is a very clever feature – most other vehicles of this type just have the rails and the cross beams are an extra cost.

All that said, there are some downsides to the Outback.

It’s got lots of room, because it’s a LONG car – a full 11 inches longer than my old car – which wasn’t exactly short, either. I had to actually measure my garage to see if this would fit in it – and it turns out it would, but only just, with no room to walk in front of or behind. You also feel that size when you’re driving – especially when changing lanes.

The Outback also comes with paddle shifters, which I just find very… strange. This car only comes with a CVT, and having paddle shifters on a CVT just seems… wrong. They create fake shift points where none exist… why? (I know it’s because people expect that “shifting” feeling, but c’mon…)

Overall, the Subaru Outback is a very nice car, especially for the price. In my mind it competes with much more upscale luxury SUVs in terms of interior. But, the size is a problem – if you’re looking for something “compact” then this is not it. But if the size doesn’t bother you, then the you could do much worse than the latest Subaru Outback.

Behind the Wheel: 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD

Behind the Wheel of Toyota’s latest RAV4 – the most “meh” of SUVs I’ve ever driven.

2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWDRecently I found myself with the chance to drive the latest Toyota RAV4 for an extended period of time (it was a loaner while my car was in the shop) – and I have to say, I kind of regret it.

The RAV4 I was driving was the very latest 2016 model, but even with all the nice options on this particular car, it just rubs me the wrong way – in all the wrong ways, in fact.

First and foremost, the seating position in the RAV4 is just awful. Maybe it’s meant for shorter people than me, but I’m not particularly tall, so I don’t know. The seat is quite high up, but the roof is (relatively) low, which means getting into the car requires me to duck my head even to get in & out of the seat.

Then, once I’m in the seat, the steering wheel doesn’t come out far enough, and so I have to sit with my legs kind of scrunched up in order to hit the pedals properly, which is not at all comfortable. Then, once I’ve found my seating position, it turns out the steering wheel doesn’t come up high enough – it blocks the top of the gauges.

On top of all that, the roof is very low and my head brushes against it while I’m driving.

As for the engine, the 176 HP 2.5L inline-4 (the only available engine) is plenty powerful enough to get this (relatively) lightweight SUV moving, but the transmission doesn’t seem to want you to get anywhere near that power. As soon as you get moving, it surges up through all 6 of the gears and then stays there – you have to drag it kicking and screaming to get it to go down into 5th or 4th.

That said, it does have one of those “Sport” buttons (with a corresponding “Eco” button, in case you forget that the two are mutually exclusive). However, I wouldn’t ever touch that button because it turns this car from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde – it’s absolutely insane. The throttle instantly becomes very touchy, the transmission suddenly realizes that 3rd and 4th are gears that exist, and the steering gets very tight. It sounds like it might be a fun mode to be in, but trust me – it’s not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s borderline undriveable in this mode.

On top of that, this car has Toyota’s variable valve timing (VVT-i) which kicks in around 5000RPM and it is INSANE when it does – the whole car just SURGES forward; it is more than a little scary.

And as if that wasn’t enough, even when in “Eco” mode this car gets really lousy gas mileage. I swear, when driving you can actually see the gas gauge moving.

As for the rest of the car, everything else is just… OK. The radio is… OK. The media system touchscreen is… OK. If this car was an ice cream flavor, it’d be plain vanilla.

There are lots of plastic-y bits, though some weirdly placed softer materials on the dash which strike me as rather incongruous, but I suppose it helps make things feel a bit softer and adds padding (both physical and for sound-deadening purposes).

There is a lot of thoughtful storage (typical Toyota style). In fact there’s so much that it almost make this feel vaguely minivan-ish.

Handling is decent – body roll is very controlled – and it feels planted, and of course it turns very well.

The looks are just boring – there’s no two ways about it. It looks like any other compact SUV on the market, with really nothing to distinguish it.

All in all the RAV4 is an unassuming, docile, practical people mover (if you’re not too tall) that doesn’t do much wrong but also doesn’t really do anything right, either. In a sense it is an SUV for people who want an SUV but don’t really care about SUVs.