Does the "cheap" Mercedes-Benz C230 hatchback sports coupe, with a sticker price of about $25,000, drive like a real Benz?
I found the answer while chasing a motorcycle on a side road high up into the Santa Monica Mountains. The cyclist was attacking the S-curves so hard he almost scraped the leather off his pants at the knee, but I kept pace with him in the C230 for about a mile and the race sold me on the car.
The rear-wheel-drive model is Mercedes' effort to squeeze the essential design, handling and comfort features of the legendary luxury brand into a relatively affordable package, one priced at the top end of a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.
I spent a week driving the 2003 C230, and the only major flaw I found is that its styling doesn't nearly measure up to its performance. This is a car to admire from behind the wheel and not from a distance.
The front half of the exterior looks fine -- with the double-teardrop headlights common to the C-Series and the signature broad Mercedes grillwork punctuated with the distinctive round Benz ornament.
But the back of the car comes straight out of the ugly-duckling school of design. Under the rear windows, the designers cut the sheet metal so it rises at a rakish 25 degrees to the hatchback. The rear wheel wells are cut very low and give the illusion of metal touching the tires; in the front, the wheel wells rise almost to hood level. All this creates a disjointed geometry -- part of the design soars toward the back, while another portion dips -- so the eyes can't really fix on any one point.
A Mercedes marketing executive told me, a bit defensively, that the C230 does look like a Benz from the front. The problem is the rest of the car doesn't -- and the styling really hurts the eyes. Perhaps the flawed design is because a hatchback is a rarity for Mercedes: Other than its sport utility vehicles and the occasional station wagon in the lineup, all Benzes have trunks.
Inside the C230, though, things look better.
There's plenty of technology packed into the car, starting with the ignition fob. It's not a conventional metal key, but a plastic remote-control gadget with buttons to pop open doors, trunk and gas flap, check the battery and trigger the alarm. The device also has a plastic nub loaded with a computer chip "key," and this end is slipped into a wide slot on the dashboard to start the car. (Hidden inside the plastic piece is a small foldout metal valet key.)
More gadgetry is built onto the steering wheel. By tapping buttons on the wheel, the driver can adjust the volume or skip songs on six CDs or change radio stations.
Other buttons prompt digital dashboard displays of engine oil, coolant and temperature levels, trip mileage, the time, the outside temperature, plus warnings to replace brake pads or replenish the oil and power steering and windshield washer fluids.
In all, eight knobs covered the steering wheel, which cut down on the real estate left for a horn. I discovered this while on the Ventura Freeway and a driver cut across two lanes to make an exit ramp. When I stabbed at the horn, I mistakenly hit a button and changed the song on my Ry Cooder CD.
The C230's base sticker price is $24,950, and that means cloth -- not leather -- seats; they come with eight-way manual adjustments, though I yearned for extra lower-lumbar support for the driver's seat. Also included are electric windows, front and side-door airbags, anti-lock brakes, a security alarm with a siren that goes off if the car is towed, an electronic stability program for surer footing and dual-zone climate controls inside the cabin.
The car's supercharged 1.8-liter inline-4 engine was lifted from the more expensive SLK roadster. It delivers 189 horsepower and plenty of pep, covering zero to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds with the standard six-speed manual transmission or 7.5 seconds with the optional five-speed automatic I tested. Gas mileage is a government-rated 23 miles per gallon in city driving, and 32 mpg on the highway for the automatic, though I found it thirstier. The C230 also requires upscale 91-octane fuel.
Options can quickly pad the car's price. The model I drove cost $31,205, including $655 for a blue paint job and $1,995 for a Motorola phone -- I would skip both -- plus $400 for the CD player. The automatic transmission added $1,325 to the tab.
I liked the automatic's winter- summer drive mode switch; in "winter" the car starts in second gear to minimize skidding when accelerating on wet roads. I found the automatic buttery smooth as it sped through the gears, save for a slight pause in the engine whenever I floored it, and a noticeable down-shifting sensation whenever I took my foot off the gas. All in all, I would give the manual transmission a try.