- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

Riding a wave of success with every new model it introduces, Mercedes-Benz dives into uncharted waters with its latest edition, the 2002 C230 sport coupe.

Well, it's called a coupe, but it really is a two-door hatchback with a four cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive and surprising interior space for two back-seat passengers.

The problem is that American buyers have never warmed up to hatchbacks of any sort, even at the economy level. In the entry-level luxury field, BMW had a flop on its hands in the 1990s when, over a five-year period, it sold fewer than 23,000 copies of its four-cylinder hatchback, the 318ti.

But the Mercedes folks believe BMW likely was out of sync with what buyers wanted or were willing to pay at the time. They're confident they can, over a year's time, persuade 16,000 or so mostly younger, and mostly female, Americans to pay up to $30,000 — or more — for one of these fleet little four-bangers.

Mercedes buyers now average about age 52, according to the company's research. The expectation is that sport coupe buyers will be in the 30 to 35 range, about 60 percent female and 70 percent single, with median incomes of about $75,000.

That's the sort of profile that bodes well for a company that sells expensive cars but wants to attract the ladder climbers of the world.

The sport coupe's base price, including the destination charge, is $25,595. That's for a decently equipped car with such amenities as anti-lock brakes, traction control, eight air bags (including side curtain bags to prevent head injuries), a tilt and telescope steering wheel, alloy wheels and performance tires.

But it doesn't include a lot of stuff younger buyers likely will want, such as a sunroof, a CD changer, leather upholstery, an automatic transmission and power seats.

And, as with the C-Class sedans, Mercedes charges $600 extra for metallic paint. So a loaded sport coupe could easily wind up well over $30,000.

The C230 coupe shares its basic chassis with the C-Class sedans, both of which are powered by V-6 engines. (A new station wagon comes only with the larger V-6). But the coupe is 7.3 inches shorter than the sedans, and it gets its motivation from a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with a supercharger.

It delivers a solid 192 horsepower and is virtually the same engine that powered the previous-generation C-Class sedans and SLKs. But it now is more refined, with little of the harshness that characterized those earlier power plants.

With the standard six-speed manual transmission, the engine has the capability to power the 3,307-pound C coupe to 60 miles an hour in a tick under eight seconds, according to the manufacturer. In real-world driving, it feels even faster.

Even with the five-speed automatic, which features a manual-shift mode, the zero-to-60 time is rated at eight seconds flat.

Both transmissions give the C230 coupe a sporting flair, but the automatic model was quieter and felt a bit more refined overall. The linkage on the six-speed manual had a slightly sloppy feel, but shifted with ease and precision.

Interestingly, the fuel consumption on the Environmental Protection Agency's city cycle was better for the automatic 20 miles to the gallon — than for the six-speed — 18 miles to gallon. Both had a 26 miles per gallon highway rating.

At just over 14 feet long, the sport coupe has a nimble handling feel, despite the fact that its wheelbase — the distance between the front and rear axles — is the same as that on the C-Class sedans.

It also has a more tightly snubbed suspension system, but it's supple enough to handle fairly pockmarked road surfaces with composure. The front to rear weight distribution, combined with slightly heavy but precise steering, provides handling that is nearly neutral — that is, it doesn't have a tendency to either plow forward or wag its tail in corners.

Two-door cars are inherently inconvenient for back-seat passengers, but the Mercedes engineers have managed to minimize the difficulties. Both front seats tilt forward and up to facilitate access to the back seat, which has enough knee and hip room even for large adults. The only place it gets restrictive is in headroom.

Cargo space out back is limited to just over 10 cubic feet. But the rear seats fold cleverly, leaving a flat floor and an expanded area of more than 38 cubic feet.

Despite its price, the lowest in the Mercedes-Benz lineup, the C230 doesn't stint on quality. There's no wood-grain trim inside, and the basic sport seats are cloth-covered with manual adjustments. But the interior has the quality look and feel you expect from a Mercedes. It also has the complicated buttons and controls that can be frustrating to a tyro.

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