For most folks, Mercedes-Benz automobiles represent the hallmark of prestige. Enthusiasts aren't always so easily impressed, however. Where genuine performance and luxury are concerned, a lofty image can be as much a liability as an inducement.
And so it seems that, just in the nick of time, Mercedes has buffed the image of two important models in its line-up of cars-the SLK-Class roadster and the C-Class sedans/coupes. Both were getting long in the tooth; and rivals found it increasingly easy to poach their respective turfs. For 2005 M-B has retaken the initiative with makeover models meant to restore Mercedes' reputation for style and sport-this time at the affordable end of the pricing spectrum.
Wouldn't you know: Just when the roadster ditches its supercharged four-cylinder, Mercedes discovers an ideal way to reassign it. By installing its 1.8-liter "Kompressor" motor into the C-Class sedan, Mercedes has come up with an entry-level four-door for a base price under $30,000-for $29,250, to be exact.
Sales of the C-Class are on a roll lately, after years of languishing as a virtual stepchild in the Mercedes line-up. Performance aficionados may still prefer such rivals as BMW's 3-Series or Audi's A4, but because of two significant adjustments to the C-Class persona, Mercedes is back in the hunt with a viable "near-luxury" sedan.
In the first instance is the C230 Kompressor's aforementioned affordability. For an as-tested price of $36,550-which includes sunroof, bi-Xenon headlamps and DVD-based satellite navigation-the C230 Kompressor hits a pricing bull's-eye. Even Acura's fabled TL sedan is hard-pressed to beat it; and even though the TL boasts more power, the Mercedes retains traditionally sporty rear-wheel-drive.
Then, there's Mercedes' shrewd restyling of the C-Class that welcomes this Baby Benz back into the family fold. Status is largely psychological when it comes to auto styling. Now, the prestige that accrues to "real" Mercedes like the E-Class and S-Class sedans is evident within the contours and sculptings of the C-Class exterior as well.
Inside, Mercedes' trademark approach to upholstery and switchgear reinforces the impression of genuine luxury. There's adequate, if not abundant, seating for five. With the addition of optional split-folding rear seatbacks, there's versatility as well, since the rear seating area can now open up into the 12-cubic-foot trunk space for toting large items.
Nominally, the power of this C230's supercharged four-cylinder motor is a potential weak spot. It produces but 189 hp and 192 foot-pounds. Yet this five-seater sedan weighs virtually the same as the two-seater SLK350-i.e., 3,240 pounds. As a result, zero-to-60 times are perfectly acceptable in the mid-seven-second range. Handling, moreover, is spirited; and with the combination of a six-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel-drive, the tools are certainly there for exhilarating barnstorming runs along the backroads. The optional five-speed automatic is arguably just as fun to drive, particularly in TouchShift mode.
Best of all, this small-displacement motor enjoys fuel mileage ratings of 23 miles-per-gallon/city, 32 miles-per-gallon/highway. These are not only commendable for a sedan with luxury pretensions, they further emphasize the fact that prestige and cost-consciousness need not mutually exclude one another.
4-door, 5-pass.; 1.8-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ supercharger & vvt; 6-sp. manual; 189 hp/192 ft.-lbs.; 23 mpg/city, 32 mpg/hwy w/ premium; trunk: 12.2-cubic feet; base price: $29,250; as-tested, with four-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, ESP stability control, AM/FM/in-dash CD audio, DVD navigation, front/side airbags, leather, 17-in. wheels: $36,550.