Solid Mercedes at a more approachable price.

by John Matras

Base Price $31,750
As Tested $36,170

The C-Class line is the smallest of the Mercedes-Benz sedans available in the U.S. It's also the least expensive. Though it doesn't boast the power, ride quality, handling prowess, interior roominess and modern design found in the more expensive E-Class cars, the C-Class is solid Mercedes-Benz.

Last year, Mercedes took the supercharged engine from its SLK230 sports car, dropped it into the C230 and renamed the sedan the C230 Kompressor. Stir in the Sport option package, and the solid but stolid C230 becomes a sports sedan with acceleration performance just a tick slower than the V6-powered C280.

Model Lineup

Two models comprise the C-Class: the C230 Kompressor and the C280.

The 2000 C230 Kompressor offers a base price of just $31,750. But the C230 Kompressor hardly warrants the term "base model."

Moving up to the C280 raises the price to $35,950, but brings a 194-horsepower 2.8-liter V6 engine.

The mighty C43, a 302-horsepower sports sedan prepared by German tuner AMG, has been discontinued.

Walkaround

No one will mistake a C-Class sedan as anything other than a Mercedes-Benz. It has that traditional Mercedes look. That look has become a bit dated. However, it comes loaded with technology designed to enhance safety. Side-impact airbags, an electronic anti-skid system and an electronic brake system designed to aid drivers in panic stops are all part of the package.

Mercedes renamed the C230 in honor of the sports car's engine, appending "Kompressor" - German for supercharger - to the alphanumeric. A shiny badge was added to the trunk lid to make sure everyone knows.

Interior Features

The C-Class offers comfortable seating for four. New to the list of standard equipment for 2000 is a tilt/telescopic adjustable steering column that makes the C-Class more comfortable to drive.

The front bucket seats are firm and supportive. Leather seating inserts are standard. Full leather, which covers the seats entirely and is used on the door panels, is an option for both models ($1,345). The rear seat in the C-Class is a bit too narrow for three adult males to ride shoulder to shoulder for long distances.

A C6 Sport package ($900) is available for either model that adds leather sport seats (in addition to suspension hardware covered below). The sport seats offer more side bolstering for better lateral support. You don't slide off the seat when cornering hard. These seats are in the firm German tradition and provide excellent support for long drives.

Mercedes-Benz has a way of making an ordinary gauge panel look like a precision instrument. Faux carbon fiber trim dresses up the dash, doors and center console on the Sport models.

Unlike the automatic climate control system found on the C-280, the C230 Kompressor uses manual heating and air conditioning controls. The system works well and is easy to operate and comes with dual-zone left and right controls. Hay fever sufferers will find relief from the dust and pollen filters. Owners living in northern climes will warm up to the system's ability to recirculate residual heated air for up to 30 minutes while the car is parked -- great for quick dashes into the store.

The audio system integrates controls for the radio, CD changer and cellular telephone. A power driver's seat is standard. Power windows with auto-up and auto-down are standard with a sensitive anti-pinch feature to protect small heads and fingers. Every C-Class sedan gets an integrated three-channel garage door opener, outside temperature gauge, auto-dimming mirror, cruise control and heated power side-view mirrors.

C-Class comes with the Mercedes-Benz SmartKey system. The key fob uses a radio unit for remote locking, while the ignition key is a miniature infrared unit that exchanges a code with the key slot. The code changes every time the car is used, making it more difficult to steal the car. For added theft resistance, the engine is disabled and an alarm sounds if thieves try to tow the car.

The trunk is adequate for a car this size. It makes the most of its capacity with a practical shape and trunk-lid struts that are hidden behind the trunk liner.

BabySmart, a system that reduces the chance of an improperly installed child safety seat, has been standard on all Mercedes automobiles since last year. The system automatically deactivates the passenger-side airbag whenever a BabySmart-compatible child seat, available from Mercedes-Benz dealers, is used in the front seat to reduce the chance of injury to a child.

Driving Impressions

Anyone who had driven the 1998 C230 would quickly discover the performance advantage of the C230 Kompressor. With its supercharged engine, the C230 Kompressor scampers from 0 to 60 mph in about 8.1 seconds. That is quick - a full 2 seconds quicker than the older model.

Pop the bonnet on the C230 Kompressor and you'll find it is powered by the same double overhead-cam, 16-valve inline-4 that goes under the hood of the SLK roadster. The crankshaft-driven supercharger compresses intake air that is then cooled by an intercooler packing the engine with a dense charge. The 2.3-liter engine produces an impressive 185 horsepower at 5300 rpm. Maximum engine speed is only 5800 rpm, but the supercharger and a 10.4:1 compression ratio yield a broad torque plateau, generating 200 foot-pounds of torque from 2500 rpm to 4800 rpm. That's more torque at lower revs than the 2.8-liter V6 in the C280.

The C280 is smoother and quieter, while the C230 Kompressor rewards the driver with more mechanical sounds when pushed hard.

Our C230 was equipped with the C6 Sport Package, a bargain at $900 that is available for both models. This option sharpens the handling of the C-Class sedans and gives them a track-ready look. The sports suspension makes the ride firmer, but we appreciated the improved handling response. It's a matter of priorities.

Rear-wheel drive combines with a double-wishbone front suspension and a five-member multi-link rear suspension. The double-wishbone setup is superior to a strut-type design. By not requiring the shock absorber to help locate the front suspension, it can be softer; the wide placement of the upper and lower wishbones contributes to sturdiness. The multi-link rear suspension is space efficient -- allowing a larger trunk. It also eliminates unwanted rear-steering effects and incorporates anti-lift and anti-squat characteristics. That means the car tends to be more stable in corners, under hard braking and during hard acceleration.

Brake Assist, standard on both C-Class models, goes one step beyond the standard anti-lock braking system. Many drivers don't brake hard enough for emergency situations. Brake Assist detects panic braking by how quickly the brake pedal is pushed and applies full braking force.

ESP or Electronic Stability Program is now standard on both C-Class models. It combines wheel speed and yaw sensors with a computer program that detects impending slides or spins and helps prevent either by braking a single wheel.

In the event of a collision, the new TeleAid system automatically summons emergency aid and tells rescuers where to find you, thanks to its Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system. TeleAid can also be used for non-emergency roadside mechanical assistance or information about the car.

All C-Class models have a driver-adaptive 5-speed automatic transmission. The computer modifies shifting to match how and where the car is being driven at the moment. By sensing throttle position and speed, for example, it can determine the car is going downhill and will hold the car in gear, rather than upshifting, to provide engine braking. Press the pedal quickly and the computer will assume the driver wants to downshift for quicker acceleration. The system reduces hunting between gears by discerning uphill grades. It also uses data from the cruise control system and engine temperature to control shifting.

The Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor offered excellent balance and competence in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. The added power of the supercharged engine provides the gumption that was lacking in the old C230, allowing the Kompressor to climb hills with authority and a growl. Traction control only came into play over loose surfaces, and since we never overdrove the roadway, we never experienced the ESP.

The Sport suspension lived up to its name. Roads through the Poconos are narrow and winding with odd camber changes. Our Kompressor Sport maintained its composure even when driven at speed. The trickiest road could not fool its suspension. Just steer where you want to go and the C-Class Sport goes there. Shock damping is superb. Even over sharp crests, this car seems stuck to the pavement. In short, the C230 Kompressor Sport feels more like a sports car than a sedan.

On Interstate 80 heading west, halfway across Pennsylvania, the C230 Kompressor Sport proved itself an able cruiser. Even over long uphill and downhill grades, its speed control never varied from the selected speed. There is little wind noise, but there is enough tire rumble to keep it from feeling like a tomb. The responsive steering calls for a steady hand on the helm, however. It is, after all, a driver's car.

The automatic transmission was utterly flawless driving around town with smooth shifts detectable only on the tachometer. At full throttle, the transmission and engine computers talk to each other for silky smooth shifting. If desired, the driver can choose gears manually.

Final Word

For $31,795, the Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor offers much more than just a three-pointed star on the hood. It is fun to drive. But it's also practical. And it comes with that legendary Mercedes-Benz durability with free full maintenance for the length of the warranty period.

Add the optional sport package and the C-Class becomes a true sports sedan.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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