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Long-term Update: 2003 Mercedes-Benz C230K Sport

Qualifies as Sunday best in almost any crowd

Dan Barnes
Mar 4, 2004

I remember being surprised how much more fun a C240 six-speed was to drive than a C320 with its automatic. The shorter-stroke V6 revved smoothly and freely, and I simply spun it up high and shifted, wherever I went. I used a surprising amount of fuel, but I enjoyed myself and got there quickly.

This C230K isn't like that. For reasons I have yet to fathom, the transmission doesn't shift as crisply as I remember, even though it is the same unit in the same chassis. Related ergonomic details are troubling: The shift knob is the same shape as used for Mercedes' automatics, where it works very well, but is far off when attached to the manual. Anything resembling a "driving shoe" is too narrow to span the gap between accelerator and brake, so rev-matched downshifts are a challenge. Wearing wider shoes, as I usually do, solves that problem. Unfortunately, the combination of throttled volume and electronic controls so dulls throttle response that the concept of "blipping" the throttle is alien. Instinct and reflex honed over many years crumble to dust. Give me one of Mercedes' automatics, generally the best-tuned in the world, over this.

The new 1.8L C230K's supercharged engine doesn't spin freely. It redlines at 6000 rpm. I initially imagined this was because it was some cut-price, punched-out derivative of an A160 engine with an absurdly long stroke. Then I reviewed Ian Kuah's initial look at the new Mercedes four-cylinder range on our web site.

It's an all-new design, with bore and stroke identical to the Toyota 2ZZ that will be used in the U.S.-spec Lotus Elise. That engine is my personal pick for smoothest, best-sounding four-cylinder ever to reach production. It makes peak power at 7600 rpm and has left the factory with fuel cut as high as 8400 rpm. Perhaps the Mercedes' balance shafts account for its personality, as they turn at twice crankshaft speed. Experience with other balance-shafted fours shows they absorb significant power, and can lead to reduced reliability, at higher performance levels.

None of that is really the point. Does the C230K have enough power? If the C240 has enough to be enjoyable, then the C230K certainly does. It's the way it makes its power that has failed to please most of this car's drivers.

Whoever signed off on this car's suspension being the "sport" calibration is due a surprise nut trampling one morning. The ride is fine on most surfaces, but at 10,000 miles, the dampers are ready for the trash bin, their low-speed control nearly nonexistent. The Michelin Pilot Sport tires salvage some driving fun, offering solid, predictable grip as always. If the road is smooth, the turn wide and one's line can be planned from turn-in to exit, allowing perfectly smooth and gradual transitions, then the car can please. However, any significant bump, transition, or adjustment to steering or throttle position sends the chassis into gyrations. The dampers take so long to settle the oscillations that one should have had the opportunity to make another correction or two before being notified how the initial change is working. Suffice it to say confidence is not inspired, and I have actually chosen to take the freeway around the mountains, rather than the fun road through them.

The foregoing is frustrating because I know how right Mercedes can get it (with the same chassis, even), and this car is so far from its own mark. Luxury is another question. It could be argued that luxury is a car's ability to be ignored from the inside. A luxury car should be comfortable, ask little of the driver and deliver its occupants to their destination sufficiently quickly, in good spirits and well rested. This, the C230K does well, because it is a Mercedes. It is spacious, well proportioned, and comfortable. Money could be well spent on stereo speakers, but the CD changer is in the glovebox, so it is accessible without pulling over and getting out of the car. Our car does not have a navigation system installed, significantly reducing its ability to annoy.

The best thing about the C230K is probably what the neighbors will think. Mercedes' entire line currently consists of nothing but beautiful cars. This one is among them, enhanced in worthwhile ways by the sport package's body trim and 17-in. alloy wheels. This car may be the compact of the lineup, but it looks every bit a Mercedes. It would be difficult to settle for anything less, having once seen this. Put it next to an E and an S, and what comes to mind is small, medium and large, rather than cheap, expensive and more expensive. While it may not work as play clothes as well as one might want, the C230K qualifies as Sunday best in almost any crowd.

By Dan Barnes
78 Articles

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