C230 paves the way for Mercedes in the entry luxury segment

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

 When Mercedes completely made over its C-Class sedan for the 2001 model year, it styled it after the new flagship S-Class. That makes the C-Class sedan look like a seven-eighths rendition of the largest and most expensive Mercedes. To give its smallest and least expensive car that kind of persona proved to be an instant winner for the German automaker.

Sales of the C-Class have been running more than 65,000 units a year, about one-third of Mercedes’ total sales in the United States. Even more impressive, Mercedes says it has sold 1.26 million C-Class models worldwide since its 2001 introduction.

But these big sales numbers aren’t predicated just on good looks. What’s under the skin is inherently more important. And in the case of the C-Class, there’s a lot of Mercedes to give owners a sense of pride in their Euro sedan selection.

There are some excellent powertrains to pick from in the sedan and the coupe version. And to make things really interesting, Mercedes is cramming a V-8 into an AMG-tuned C55 for 2005. It will generate 362 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque and is expected to break into the 4-second mark in 0 to 60 time trials. The downside is that the C55 will not carry the entry-level luxury car price of its siblings. The price of admission for the super C will be well over 50 grand.

But let us talk about the standard lineup that starts around $30,000 and a range of vehicles that include a coupe, sedan and wagon.

For 2005, the C-Class sedan will come with three engine configurations. The C230 Kompressor Sport is hands down the most fun of the bunch with a 2.3-liter supercharged 4 cylinder generating 189 horsepower. The C240 inexplicably carries a 2.6-liter V-6 generating 168 horsepower and the C320 has a 3.2-liter V-6 under hood that generates 215 horsepower.

The coupe comes with either the 168 or 189 horsepower engines.

Purchase the supercharged 4-cylinder and you have a choice of a slick-shifting 6-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic. The 6-cylinder models all come with automatic transmissions.

Rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive (called 4Matic) configurations are available.

We spent a week in a 2005 C230 Sport with a 6-speed manual. It made the hot-looking wedge-shaped sedan a blast to drive, especially on the rural-road twists and turns where it stays planted like it has super glue affixed to the tires.

The current generation C-Class has received numerous improvements and upgrades for the 2005 model year.

Subtle changes have been made to the exterior including a sports car-like lower intake, a redesigned front bumper, a redesigned radiator grille and a new, more scratch resistant paint. Mercedes says the new paint technology triples its resistance to scratches. We didn’t test this feature for obvious reasons so we will take Mercedes’ word on it.

Interior materials have been upgraded and mostly subtle changes have been made to the instrumentation and interior design. The most obvious is an all-new chrome-ringed instrument panel. A large speedometer and tachometer flank a vertical central display that clearly imparts such useful information as time, temperature and mileage. It’s a very attractive setup.

The center stack switchgear remains basically intact from 2004. That’s good because it’s mostly intuitive and easy to use. Buttons are clearly marked ‘audio,’ ‘navigation,’ ‘phone,’ ‘map,’ etc., that take the user logically to the next step.

Also upgraded, according to Mercedes, is the seating. We can’t remember back to an earlier model C-Class for comparison, but suffice it to say that the chairs in the 2005 model are well bolstered and comfortable.

Rear-seat legroom is adequate. Compromise may be needed if a long-legged driver or passenger resides up front. The outboard rear seats are very comfortable and supportive. The center armrest with drink holders folds down for easy use.

Mercedes says it has tweaked the suspension, developed new front and rear axle bearings for more agile cornering, created a more direct steering system and upgraded the manual transmission.

We believe them because they have created one of the most fun sedans we’ve driven in recent months. The steering is so accurate it feels like you can thread a needle with the C230. We pushed and pushed through corner after corner never reaching anything close to the limit, and we pride ourselves on being pretty good pushers.

With “only” 189 horsepower the C230 has to be kept at a boiling point to get really outstanding performance, but it’s there for the taking. And running the revs up through the gears is a blast. Keep the shifter working at redline and a 0 to 60 time of about 7.5 seconds is possible.

Our test car came well equipped for a base price of $29,970.

Standard equipment on the C230 includes great-looking 17-inch alloy wheels, high-performance tires, dual-zone climate control, leather seating surfaces, 10-way semi-power sports seats (there’s a manual fore and aft control), power windows and locks, cruise control, front and rear side-mounted airbags as well as a head-protection system, Electronic Stability Program, 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, stereo with single disc player and the LATCH anchors and tethers for child car or booster seats.

Options brought the bottom line to $36,550. The most costly extra was a DVD-based navigation system at $2,210.  A sunroof package, which includes garage door opener, rain sensor wipes and rear window shade, was $1,790.

And there’s a big bonus with the C230 6-speed – a gas mileage rating of 23 city and 32 highway.

Mercedes has created a car worthy of the name for $30,000. That should be an exciting prospect for people on a budget who don’t want to wait until the kids are out of college to move into a prestigious nameplate.