Saturday, November 8, 2003

Sporty little number with zip

Mercedes-Benz C230 excels at everything but cup holders

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Mercedes-Benz C230

The 2004 Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan has a 190-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine.
Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels
Affordable German luxury sedan with an added splash of sport

Vital Statistics

What I drove: Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan: four-door, five-seat, 6-speed manual transmission

Base price: $27,990

Price as tested: $30,710 (with options and destination)

Options on test vehicle: 6-disc CD player, autodimming driver and rearview mirrors, rain sensors, sunroof, power rear-window sunshade

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine: 1.8-liter, inline 4-cylinder generating 189 hp and 192 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic with manual shifter

Wheelbase: 106.9 inches

Length: 178.3 inches

Width: 68.0 inches

Height: 55.2 inches

Weight: 3,250 pounds

EPA mpg, city/hwy: 21/30

Warranty: Basic: 4 years/50,000 miles; drivetrain: 4 years/50,000 miles; roadside assist: unlimited years/unlimited miles

Safety: Dual front airbags, front and rear side-impact and head-protection curtain airbags, BabySmart child-seat recognition system, LATCH child seat anchors, antilock brakes with brake assist, traction control and stability control

Cool: Youthful styling, top-quality interior, calm and composed handling, sound dampening, moderate price

Uncool: No standard CD player, shift-obstructing cup holders, envelope-flap trunk

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Car Talk
When it comes to understanding Mercedes-Benz's alpha-numeric model designations, I am clueless.

I've really tried, but every time I think I've found the key to unlocking M-B's secret naming code, I hit another roadblock. I've concluded there are as many exceptions to M-B's naming rules as there are to the English language.

Here's what I've learned so far: C is for "cheap," E is for "expensive," and S is for "super expensive." Add another letter to the first letter, as in CL, and it becomes a completely different class. Add AMG to the end of any name and the performance and price skyrocket. (At $52,120, a C32 AMG ain't cheap.)

K means Kompressor, which is German for "supercharger." Sometimes a model's name includes the word Kompressor instead of the letter K, and sometimes the name of a supercharged model has no K or Kompressor reference at all. It depends. Numbers after a letter refer to the engine's displacement, but not always. That depends, too.

Take the C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan, for example. It has a 190-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. So what the heck does the "230" stand for? Oh, never mind.

On with the review.

The C-Class sport family, which is aimed squarely at the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4, is comprised of the 190-horsepower C230 Kompressor sport sedan and sport coupe, the 215-horsepower C320 sport sedan and sport coupe, and the 350-horsepower C32 AMG. These sport models feature all of the technology and refinements of the C-Class, but have added performance features to appeal to the driving enthusiast.

I test drove the C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan. When my test car arrived, I had to avert my eyes - its "Magma Red" body paint was so bright, it nearly seared my retinas. A surprising departure from the usual silver or beige, this orangey-red hue actually made the Benz look snappy.

I jumped inside, relished the satisfying "clunk" of the solid German door, and looked around. Here was a real Mercedes-Benz, complete with impeccable leather trim, stern and shallow cup holders and that famous three-pointed-star on the hood - all for only $30,000. Yes, the automotive good life is within the reach of mere mortals, after all.

The C-class sedan communicates all the wealth and luxury that is Mercedes-Benz, only in a smaller, more simplified package. Its cost-consciousness is evident in the manual head restraints and fore-aft seat adjusters, but all the other goodies are here: comfy seats, one-touch express power windows, an electric rear sunshade, and the finest fit and finish this side of an Audi.

On the outside, the C230 wears the C-Class's signature headlights, which look like two snowballs melting together. The sloping hood and arched roofline hint at windswept sportiness, but the squared-off trunk lid looks conservative and staid - like the flap on a business envelope.

This car has plenty of zip, but requires a heavy foot to get it zipping. My test model had the six-speed manual transmission, and shifting was smooth and easy, but the gears are so short (especially first), they take some getting used to. My first few times out, I kept bumping into the rev limiter (which kicks in at 6,000 rpm) in first gear. In addition, the front cup holders are located right behind the shift lever, and any cups or bottles placed there interfere with shifting. On several occasions I had to choose between mis-shifting or spilling my drink. I alternately chose both.

On the road, the C230 Sport Sedan feels sportier than most Benzes, but it lacks the athleticism of a BMW 3-Series. It feels more like a Lexus or Audi than a BMW.

The over-riding sensation is one of luxury, not sport. The steering is perfect, the ride and handling are solid and refined, and the passenger compartment is as tightly sealed as an Apollo space capsule. Road noise is non-existent, and the engine sounds as content as a maid humming happily at the far end of the house.

Luxury is meaningless unless it's backed up by safety, and here the Mercedes excels. In addition to antilock brakes, brake assist, traction control and stability control, the C230 boasts eight airbags, including side-impact and head curtain airbags. In government crash tests, the C-Class scored four out of five stars for front-seat occupants in frontal impacts, and five stars for front and rear occupants in side impacts. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the C-Class its highest rating and named it "Best Pick" overall for its performance in the 40-mph frontal offset crash test.

Mercedes-Benz has shown a decline in quality ratings recently, specifically in J.D. Power and Associates' long-term Vehicle Dependability Study. However, these declines had more to do with the E- and M-classes than with the cheap-and-easy-to-build C-Class. (To learn more, visit

I loved driving this car; it felt solid, comfortable and composed. My passengers enjoyed it too. The back seat is a little tight for grownups, but it's spacious enough to carry three 8-year-old girls around town. I enjoyed approaching the car in parking lots, proudly pressing the key fob, and having the trunk lid swing open so forcefully it nearly broke my nose. (Note: stand back when remotely opening trunk.) Speaking of trunks, the C230's has 12 cubic feet of space - enough for a week's worth of groceries or a lucky day's haul from the mall.

This being early fall, my tester was a 2003 model. For 2004, all C-Class sport sedans receive new front brakes with four-piston calipers and drilled rotors, five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, a lowered sport suspension and a new free-flow exhaust. Prices rise a tad, too. My 2003 test car, with options and destination charge, came to $30,710. For 2004, this same car would cost $31,260.

With the recent introductions of the Infiniti G35 and Mazda RX-8, competition is heating up in the $30,000 near-luxury sedan segment. Whereas most competitors in this segment (save for the Audi A4) emphasize sport over luxury, the Mercedes leans heavily in favor of luxury. Think of the C230 Sport Sedan as a luxury car with a dash of sport thrown in, a competent sedan that's happier cruising than speeding.

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