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2003 Mercedes-Benz C230K Sport

Making a stand by sitting on a fence

Greg N. Brown
Mar 2, 2004
0401_01z+2003_Mercedes_Benz_C230K_Sport+Rear_Side_View Photo 1/2   |   2003 Mercedes-Benz C230K Sport

It must be tough for a car to wear the three-pointed star. It's like being Serena Williams, Barry Bonds or David Beckham. Perform in any way short of perfection, and all hell breaks loose. The barbs fly: You've lost it. You've allowed the complacency of success to suffocate the pursuit of excellence.

If a Mercedes-Benz automobile fails to measure up to the highest expectations, it not only disappoints an owner who spent more money to get the best, it also betrays a century-long legacy of automotive brilliance.

0401_02z+2003_Mercedes_Benz_C230K_Sport+Front_View Photo 2/2   |   "If a Mercedes-Benz automobile fails to measure up to the highest expectations, it not only disappoints an owner who spent more money to get the best, it also betrays a century-long legacy of automotive brilliance."

Okay, that's a mite hyperbolic. But, there are a few commercial enterprises--and Mercedes-Benz is one of them--which have successfully accepted the burden of high expectations, using this pressure as both a goad to its own ambitions and as an effective message to a particularly prickly part of the marketplace. Herein lies the danger of microscopic, sometimes unfair, scrutiny and a backlash reaction: If it ain't the best, by far, it doesn't deserve that iconic badge on the hood.

Of course, the debate about what "best" means could last until Mercedes celebrates its second centenary, but even if we can't always say what "best" is exactly, we usually know it when we experience it. And for some of us, this Mercedes-Benz C230 compact sports sedan would be the best car we'd ever own. For others, though, it might seem more of a tepid thrust into a market segment teeming with worthier cars. After a few months of getting to know our long-term C230 Kompressor, my stand on this question is simple: I'm still sitting on the fence. My opinion teeters first one way and then another, alternately swayed by the driving experience, by expectations prompted by badging and price, and by my good fortune to drive a slew of other cars.

Here's one of my recent internal dialogs about the C230 K: Is it quick enough? No. Does it have to be quicker? Not really. Does it handle well? Not as well as I'd expect from the equipment. Would the average owner find the C230 to be an entertaining, sporty automobile? Without a doubt. Is it worth the money? Maybe...but I'd do a lot of shopping around before committing my money in that direction. Would I recommend it to a friend as a good buy? Sure; it's a fine automobile, with a lot of content and a sticker not all that shocking: $27,990 to start, though our test car's retail jumped to $33,515 with $4,805 woth of options--every one, I might add, worth the price.

See how that fence rail is securely between my legs?

I like the C230's solid feel; there's no obvious evidence that Mercedes' entry-level platform (until next generation's A-Class reaches the U.S.) received less attention from the engineers and stylists than the rest of the line. It's tangibly a quality car.

At the same time, I dislike its heavy feel. This is supposed to be a "sports" sedan; its specs certainly create that expectation. Who wouldn't be excited about driving a car with a supercharged engine, six-speed manual gearbox, sport-tuned suspension and low-profile high-performance rubber wrapped around big alloys? In practice, though, the C230 feels like a car with a poor power-to-weight ratio.

Some of that "feel" problem is due to a short 1st gear, which has you whacking the rev needle against the 6000-rpm redline (a rather wimpy cut-off for a 16-valve 1.8-liter engine) before you're wanting to shift up. And then, if you're less than efficient with that shift, the revs quickly fall off, the supercharger stops huffing, and you're left with a bog in forward progress and a frowning opinion of the car's performance. Proper attention to the procedure, however, provokes satisfying take-off and passing power, leaving you content, though not especially overwhelmed, with the 189 bhp and 192 lb-ft of torque.

Clutch pedal and shifter actions would be improved by being shorter and quicker (a Mercedes spokesman said engineering is on this), but the major obstacle to working the C230 K like a pursang sports sedan is the spacing between brake and accelerator pedals. It's simply impossible, even with my wide feet, to play the heel-and-toe game. Admittedly, with a modern transmission it's not necessary, but smoothly matching engine speed to the proper gear, and thus eliciting optimum power delivery from the engine, is a major reason why the enthusiast opts for a manual over an automatic. Moreover, given the quality of Mercedes' automatics, you have to ask whether having three pedals instead of two is worth the extra activity. Just as there's a conflict between the car's solid and heavy feel, there's a disagreeable compromise in road manners between a comfortable ride and suspension control around corners. The car's got that gravity-is-my-friend connection to earth characteristic of all Mercedes vehicles, yet I ache to swap out the shocks and springs. Roll, squat and dive are all short of my sport-sedan expectations, and the rear end is especially ill-served by the underdamped suspension. Constant-radius turns on smooth pavement are of no concern, but throw a bad surface and undulations into the mix, and the Merc feels less assured, as though it's wanting to gyrate around the chassis' polar moment than stay squarely above it.

All that aside, I quite like the car. I wish we had the freedom to tinker with the blower and the chassis; with a little fine tuning, the "sport" in this sedan's name would be well deserved.

By Greg N. Brown
57 Articles

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