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Over the past six to eight years, we’ve seen Mercedes-Benz go through a radical transition, reaching down the market with cheaper, higher-volume products and a new emphasis on niche products and mainstream luxury appeal.
Now, the automaker is continuing to branch out to even smaller niches in the market. For several years, high-performance versions of most of the model lineup from the company’s AMG performance house have been available through dealerships. But there’s no doubt the AMG lineup sacrifices some comfort for its extreme performance. And it carries a price tag (in the case of the C32 AMG, $53k-plus) that’s just out of the budget of many shoppers.
If the C32 is just too edgy or extravagant, the normal C-Class models are now also available in several Sport models. For around the same sticker price, you get a firmer, sport-tuned suspension, special body cladding, aluminum interior trim, seven-spoke, 17-inch EVO alloy wheels with performance rubber, and — perhaps most importantly — a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission.
The past couple of model years have seen the introduction of several new sport-oriented sedans — including the new Infiniti G35 and the Cadillac CTS, both more performance-oriented than the standard C-Class — so the new Sport model will keep the C-Class competitive in this segment. During a weeklong test drive of a C230 Sport, we concluded that most TCC readers will appreciate the agility of the Sport without noticing any real change in ride comfort.
The nomenclature is confusing. While the alpha portion of a Mercedes-Benz usually refers to the model (C-Class, in this case), the numeric portion usually refers to the displacement (for instance, G500 has a 5.0-liter engine). But for the C230 (1.8-liter) and the C240 (2.6-liter), this is not the case.
While the C320 (actually 3.2-liter) Sport is the obvious model to compete with the CTS and G35, the C230 makes an interesting value proposition, and the difference between the two models isn’t as significant as you might think. After several extended drives with the V-6, we can say the throttle feels just a little more responsive with the C230’s four-cylinder (the spec sheet says it has a different engine-management system), so that helps make up for the difference in power. M-B claims a zero-to-sixty time of 7.6 seconds for the C230 Sports Sedan, with the six-speed manual. With the same gearbox, the C320 Sport is only 0.8 seconds faster in the dash. Both models are limited to a top speed of 130 mph. Yet the C230 goes three miles farther per gallon in the city and four better on the highway.
The C230’s 1.8-liter in-line four makes 189 hp and an impressive 192 lb-ft of torque, with a DOHC design and variable intake and exhaust valve timing. Up against the C240’s 168-hp V-6, it makes only 15 lb-ft more torque but it feels significantly more powerful in the real world. And it’s a surprisingly versatile and robust powerplant in combination with the six-speed manual. Peak torque is reached at 3500 rpm, and it’s perkiest in that range, but there’s no sense revving it really high: between 5000 rpm and the 6000-rpm redline the engine produces noticeably more noise without much of a build in power.
The five-speed manual transmission previously used on the SLK and C-Class was almost universally panned for its notchy linkage and long throws. A new six-speed manual replaces it, with closer ratios and a new multiple-cone system to aid shifts from second to third and fourth to fifth.
The gearbox isn’t especially smooth, but the light clutch action makes it livable for daily use and a lot more fun for those who like more control when they drive. Throttle/clutch coordination was sometimes awkward during gentle acceleration, when the electronic throttle seemed to become touchy. But in hard driving, a blip of the right foot will bring the revs up for a quick downshift, and the revs drop quickly for snappy upshifts, though the pedal heights aren’t quite right for heel-and-toeing. If you’re not in the mood to shift all the time, you don’t really need to with this engine, as it’s so flexible and doesn’t at all mind turning gently just above idle.
Reverse is in an odd location, to the left and back, and the entire shift lever must be lifted to access it. The motion was difficult to make quickly in parking, and it seemed to us that a trigger below the knob might be much easier to use.
As is the case for nearly all sporty sedans, the brakes are great. They’re not grabby and noisy like those in some serious performance cars, but the pedal has a firm, progressive feel. Four-channel anti-lock is standard, along with Brake Assist and electronic brake proportioning.
The rack-and-pinion steering gear is precise, but the ratio seems a bit slow for a sporty car and — as can be said about the steering in much of the M-B stable — it is artificially heavy and unwilling to unwind itself in tight hairpin corners or just in the parking lot (almost as if it was tuned to feel like the old recirculating-ball setup). It’s the most significant on-the-road difference when comparing the C-Class to cars with instantly intuitive steering, like the Infiniti G35 and BMW 3-Series. Curiously, the C feels agile at higher speeds but cumbersome in low-speed situations. The speed-sensitive power assist works nicely when up to speed — and seems to allow just as much if not more feedback at higher speeds — but the artificially heavy feeling at low speeds can cut confidence in quick maneuvers and make the car feel larger than it is.
On a favorite steep road of tight hairpin turns and uneven surfaces — which reveals a lot about the car’s suspension and body control without having to drive extremely fast — the C230 showed sharp reflexes, though the car’s tail seemed a little twitchy and uneasy as weight shifted, triggering the stability control system a few times when it definitely wasn’t needed. The system is still one of the more aggressive stability control calibrations and does not seem to be calibrated any differently for the Sport model; when it comes on you lose all momentum for a moment.
The Sport boasts a suspension calibration that’s firmer overall, but the ride isn’t at as hard as might be expected. It’s as smooth as any of its near-luxury competitors — adequately controlled for sudden changes in direction, but still well damped and comfortable enough for all but the roughest pavement surfaces.
The front seats are comfortable, but not quite as comfortable and supportive as those that come standard on the Audi A4 or BMW 3-Series. The back seat is surprisingly comfortable, a bit short on legroom when tall front-seat occupants have the seats back all the way.
We can’t help but be slightly disappointed with the feel and appearance of the interior. The type of plastics used is pretty consistent, but consistently unexciting. And after the first tall latte tips over in the shallow, flimsy cupholder that retracts like a Transformer from the center console, most owners will be left to find their own solution. The bin for the center console also lacks positive action and feels cheap. The major switchgear feels nice, but there’s a certain tactility lacking in the way that the doors unlock and open, the way that bins are opened, and the feel of some of the minor controls.
Our test car had the optional premium sound system and CD changer mounted in the glove compartment. The system has a good, balanced sound at low or high volume, without the increasingly common overboosted bass and treble that make anything but mainstream pop sound odd and hollow. The CD changer is in-dash and much harder to load than the newer in-dash units that many of the competitors now have.
A $1640 package on our car included auto-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, a moon roof, and a power rear sunshade. The rain-sensing wipers are extremely useful, as you can just leave them on and when a shower starts they cycle on automatically, eliminating the need to fumble for the switch.
A younger owner of an old but well-kept 190E paused in a parking lot and gave the C230 Sport the thumbs-up, but we couldn’t help but notice, in comparison, how classy and well detailed his Merc was. But of course, M-B was in an entirely different market then; the 190E probably sold for more money in the late ’80s than the C230 Sport does today.
While the C230 Sport sedan doesn’t have the exclusive feel that M-Bs of the past had, it really delivers in terms of performance, functionality, and character. Fussy cross shoppers who aren’t enchanted by the three-pointed star alone might find a better match with some of the competitors. But we could see buyers moving up to this car from a Jetta or Volvo S40.
Several mid-year ’04 changes to the standard-equipment list will help spice up this package even more. In Sport model cars soon arriving to dealerships, four-piston front brake calipers and cross-drilled rotors are now standard, as are larger 17-inch wheels (wider in the back than in the front, with 245- and 225-width tires, respectively). Also, the suspension has been lowered slightly with even firmer shock tuning. A leather-covered shift knob, polished exhaust tip, stainless steel pedals with rubber grip pads, and new three-spoke steering wheel are now included.
Beware that C230s might be hard to find in the lot. I continue to hear rumblings that some local M-B dealers are being stubborn about abundantly stocking the low-priced models because of their relatively low profit margins, and that they may be having a slightly detrimental effect on the prestige factor for uppity shoppers.
The verdict is that if you’re already a Benz owner wanting a second car or expecting gobs of classic M-B character, you might be at least a little disappointed. But if you’re looking for a small sedan that mixes part sport, luxury, and upscale pretenses in a very affordable package, the C230 strikes a good balance.
Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan
Base price/as equipped: $28,490/$31,900
Engine: 1.8-liter in-line four, 189 hp
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 178.3 x 68.0 x 55.2 in
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Curb weight: 3250 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 22/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front and rear side airbags, side-curtain airbags, stability control, Brake Assist, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone automatic climate control; power windows, locks, and mirrors; 17-inch EVO wheels; tilt/telescope steering wheel; leather-trimmed seats, steering wheel, and shift knob
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles