Mercedes-Benz has set the small-car world on fire with its new line of C-Class cars, including the C240 and C320 sedans, the C320 station wagon, the C32 AMG high-performance sedan, and the newest member of the family, the C230 Sports Coupe, a car designed to attract first-time Mercedes buyers with its combination of style, space, and a very complete equipment package.
With the exterior styling of the much larger and more expensive S-class, technology shared with the larger E-class, and an interior design all its own, the C-Class family in its first full year on the market has established new sales records around the world, but especially here in the United States, helped by the new price-leader C230 Coupe starting $24,950.
The volume sedan model is the C320 with its 3.2-liter V6 and automatic transmission. (A manual transmission is not available for the C320.)
A scant few months after the two sedans hit the showrooms, Mercedes showed the smallest station wagon it has ever exported to the United States, the C320 wagon, with an especially sporty three-window wagon body style with a forward-canted rear roof pillar. The wagon made to haul anything a family needs to haul, comes only with the larger 3.2-liter high-tech V6 because this engine has quite a bit more torque than the higher-revving but weaker 2.6-liter engine.
Barely was the ink dry on the wagon brochures when Mercedes announced the creation of the C32 AMG, a high-performance version of the four-door sedan that uses a supercharged version of the 3.2-liter V6. Rated at 350 horsepower, it comes with a 6-speed manual transmission. The C32 AMG has its own exterior décor, interior trim, special suspension, larger tires and wheels, and is one of the quickest and fastest four-door cars in the world. It is priced substantially out of this segment's normal $35,000-$40,000 price range at more than $50,000.
And then, to create serious buzz among the younger American buying public, Mercedes introduced the last model in the family only a few weeks ago, the C230 Coupe, with a supercharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine, a sportier chassis, a completely new front end appearance, and a radical roofline. What's more, the C230 Coupe is a hatchback, the first such design in the company's history, offering a nearly unbeatable combination of price ($24,950), utility (nearly 40 cubic feet of storage space with the rear seats folded down), and visual impact.
The C-Class is simply the boldest design of any of the small European cars, and the slickest in the entire Mercedes family with a coefficient of drag of only 0.27 for the sedan. While the sedan and wagon versions have a traditional Mercedes horizontal bar grille flanked by huge headlamp assemblies that are part of the new look at Mercedes, the C23 Coupe uses the star-grille front end instead of the bar-grille, with wild twin-oval headlamps, a swooping roofline, and a functional rear spoiler at the short rear end that adds downforce on the rear tires at high speeds. The coupe was shortened seven inches overall compared to the sedan.
Although the coupe is not as aerodynamic as the C-Class sedan, 0.29 to the sedan's 0.27 coefficient of drag, it's still one of the slickest cars in the industry, and it looks twice as mean and twice as slick as the sedan, with nothing there that doesn't need to be there. The long coupe doors make for easy ingress/egress, especially to the rear seats. Nice touches include the turn signal repeaters built into the outside mirrors, and the extra pane of glass underneath the spoiler that adds more rearward vision. The standard ten-spoke alloy wheels are especially sporty.
Options for the line include automatic transmission ($1300), leather interior trim ($1400), power seats ($1225), Bose audio system ($610), the COMAND dashboard system with navigation and telephone ($2080), headlamp washer and heated seats ($820), a CD player/telephone package ($1800), and on the Coupe, a panorama roof with rain-sensing wipers ($995).
The indoor parts of the C-Class family are at least as appealing as the outdoor parts. The instrument panel design, with its new graphics and deep hood, is shared among the coupe, sedan and wagon, with minor changes, and it's extremely easy to use and understand. The stalk controls all have a nice, beefy feel with positive detents. We like what they've done with the layout and the design of the center stack, where the vents, secondary controls, climate control system, and audio system are mounted, with its wood or aluminum trim and largish, easy-to-grab controls. The glovebox is quite a good size, too, unless you order the CD player, in which case you lose most of the glovebox storage (you'll have to use the center console and the big door pockets).
While the Coupe has standard cloth manual seats with individual adjusters for fore/aft, height, and seatback rake, the more expensive sedans use leather interior trim, and the C32 AMG has its own special sports seats and seat upholstery design, with special AMG gauges. The coupe seats feature a release system that automatically slides the seat forward when the seatback is pulled forward, opening up the rear compartment for entry. The sedan and wagon versions have conventional reclining seats that don't need to fold forward.
Rear seats in the C-Class are far more generous in space and comfort than the previous C-Class seats (we know; we owned two of them), and the interior in general has larger dimensions in almost every area. The seats in the hatchback coupe should be perfectly fine and comfortable for most of the population, but the rear roof slopes down quite a bit, restricting headroom 2.2 inches less than the front seats. That said, the 60/40 rear seat folds down effortlessly, either with the bottom sections folded forward or left in place, depending on how much cargo room you need, opening up from a 10 cubic-foot trunk to a 38 cubic-foot cargo bay that can hold some ridiculously large cargoes. The trunk/cargo bay is as nicely detailed as the rest of the interior.
The station wagon version has exactly the same interior and exterior dimensions save for that wonderful extra space behind the second seat, which opens out from 16.6 cubic feet of flat-floor load space to nearly 49 cubic feet, with tie-downs, cupholders and lights to ease cargo-carrying duty.
Although we have driven each and every permutation of the C-Class over the past few months, our focus for this test report is the new Coupe. The figures on the specifications page (192 horsepower and 3400 pounds-feet of torque) don't sound all that exciting, but the power put out by this tried, tested and improved supercharged engine is impressive; it starts producing peak torque at about 2000 rpm and stays at 200 foot-pounds all the way to 5000 rpm. With the adaptive five-speed automatic transmission, that means 0-60 mph times of just over 7 seconds, more than enough acceleration to please most entry-level luxury customers.
The supercharged, intercooled four-cylinder engine makes pleasantly mechanical sounds and exhaust sounds (as opposed to noises), and it looks like mechanical sculpture under the hood. The supercharger is nearly transparent in its operation. We really enjoyed using the Touch Shift automatic, which shifts instantly up or down with a single sideways flick of the shifter and, if held in the downshift position for more than one second, computer-selects the best gear for the driving situation, shifting down as many as three gears before you know it. It's adaptive, which means, if you drive it gently, it will upshift more quickly and reward you with excellent mileage (rated at 29 mph highway); if you're constantly on the throttle, it will learn that you like to drive quickly and will hold itself in each gear for quicker acceleration performance.
The substantial weight of the C230 Sports Coupe shows up in the handling, where it feels a little bit heavy on its feet, compared to a BMW, but certainly better than almost anything domestic. The rack-and-pinion power steering, the sports seats, and the beefy steering wheel make you feel like you're in command, and if you start to lose your command of the situation, the standard ESP stability control system will put things right in a trice. The standard tilt and telescope steering column provides an extra measure of adjustability that some cars in this class don't even offer. The tires are modestly sized Michelins, P205/55R-16, but they are relatively grippy and they are very quiet at highway speeds. A 17-inch wheel-and-tire package will be added to the option list later. All in all, really good fun to drive, and boy, did we get looks from other drivers. This thing really makes a fashion statement.
Mercedes-Benz puts as much effort into its braking systems as some makers put into their whole cars, and it shows immediately in the driving. The coupe uses large 11.8-inch front disc brakes and 11-inch rear brakes with electronic brake force distribution that senses when you are having a panic attack, provides extra braking, and then switches automatically into ABS mode if conditions warrant. The brakes are progressive in pedal feel, and enormously powerful in bad situations.
Once a driver learns how to use the steering-wheel-mounted controls for the driver information, audio and telephone systems, there's even more driving fun to be had, with up to 50 information and programming functions available at the touch of a couple of buttons.
It's almost impossible to believe that Mercedes-Benz can offer a high-style coupe with so much standard equipment and so much safety equipment at a starting price of $24,950 and still make money. Of course, a well-optioned version of the C230 Sports Coupe will run up over $30,000, and the lease or payment monthly will rise accordingly, but this looks like the entry-luxury coupe bargain of the year from our perspective.
The sedans have been deliberately and carefully equipped and priced to sell well against European and Japanese competition, but having driven it, we don't recommend the C240 sedan because the engine is weak. The C320 V6 is a much more satisfying ride. The C320 wagon weighs about 200 pounds more than the sedan with the same engine, so performance is less brisk, but the wagon is a high-style, high-function piece. And the C32 AMG? At $50,000, it's the high-performance bargain of the year, capable of absolutely amazing acceleration and handling. Your problem will be trying to find one that's not already spoken for.