2002 Mercedes-Benz C230 Sports Coupe Road Test

2002 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe

(2.3L 4-cyl. Supercharger 6-speed Manual)

Amidst the bowels of the Xanadu known as the Edmunds.com editorial offices, an intense philosophical debate arose, developing factions and sides whose chasms were precipitous enough to threaten the deep ties contrived by executive-mandated fun days and "Quit touching me!" ride-alongs with five fragrant editors squished into a compact coupe.

On one side of the fence glowered those who believed that the only appeal of the Mercedes C230 Kompressor was its brand-name association. Then there were those indignant in the belief that it was a good car and a fair deal in and of itself.

While plenty of debates have risen in the past about the appeal of Benzes, this particular model adds a new twist to the argument. It was not designed for the gentrified, moneyed classes whose concerns include osteoporosis and prostate glands, but for those who can still feel the putrid, hot breath of student loans on their backs.

Yes, they're marketing it toward Generation X, a too-oft-used but accurate enough moniker, to lure this heretofore unmolested segment into viewing a Mercedes as an accessible, possible first-car purchase. If you've seen the advertisement, you'd note a somewhat shady Russell Crowe look-alike fellow (except that this guy was in a good mood), driving, just driving the C-Class with an alternative band-type song thumping in the background. No annoying announcer blathering on about the engine or its sure-fire appeal.

The C230 does break the traditional Mercedes mold; this is not a true coupe, as its name suggests, with a separate trunk. Rather, it's a hatchback, the first sporting that famous three-pointed star to land on American shores. MB's Bavarian countrymen have previously cast a hatchback, the 318ti (1995-1998) to dismal failure. Hatchbacks have historically garnered an association with the economy-minded masses; reconciling them to a luxury brand could prove challenging. What makes Mercedes think that it can succeed where its compatriots have failed? Can the cache of its brand name overcome the stigma wrought by years of public perception?

If station wagons can make a comeback, we think that hatchbacks can, too.

In order to provide the only sub-30-grand Benz in its lineup, DaimlerChrysler obviously had to cut some corners. Gone are the wood and leather that grace most Mercedes interiors. We were split on the patterned aluminum trim around the dashboard and door panels; some thought it looked cheap, others liked it for its sporty modernism. But the patterned cloth; oy. "Looks like a grunion run," groused one editor. It's nice that Mercedes is offering a cheaper alternative; leather upholstery will run you $1,410, but something simpler and more elegant would likely quell dissenters. Moreover, a CD player is not standard (you didn't think we'd do a review of a Benz without this omnipresent complaint, did you?); hey, Mercedes, the other German makers have succumbed to the ubiquity of the shiny disc. Why don't you?

The exterior has been likened to various hatchbacks, from Saabs to Volkswagen Corrados. Mercedes claims that it evokes a "crouching athlete ready to spring into action." With a high rear end and a spoiler, its tear-shaped profile again split asunder editors' opinions. All did agree that it was edgy, which is preferable to bland or boring for any car with a pretense at sportiness.

If its skin seems like it went shopping at JCPenny rather than Barneys New York, at least you realize that its bones are pure Mercedes. Built on the C-Class sedan platform, it shares most of its componentry, but loses 7 inches in length and 0.8 inches in height. Already tuned to sport suspension specifications, the coupe rides on coil springs and shock absorbers in front and a multilink rear suspension, holding aloft the C-Coupe during our kamikaze canyon run, maintaining balance and composure throughout.

The trade-off is that you lose some around-town ride comfort, as it rides harshly over bumps. We were impressed with its vivacity, however; most Benz sedans, while supremely confident, don't inspire you to take the long winding way home. Of course, Benz sports cars are the exception, and the C230 definitely leans toward the athletic.

At the heart of the Sports Coupe beats a 2.3-liter supercharged Kompressor inline four engine, the same as in the kittenish SLK230 roadster. Forced induction of air to make 192 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque is delivered via a supercharger, eliminating most of the negatives that turbochargers traditionally experience, most notably turbo lag.

Although several of our editors felt that it could still use more punch in the low range, once power is gleaned, it is delivered smoothly and is plentiful throughout the powerband, especially in the upper ranges. Its idle is a rough rumble that sounds, amusingly enough, like a diesel engine, and in the upper ranges it emits a pleasant deep-throated growl. While we weren't able to duplicate Mercedes' claim to a 7.2-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration run, its 7.8-second measurement is perfectly acceptable considering its weight-to-power ratio of 17.2 pounds-per-horsepower.

Mated to the engine is a light-touch six-speed transmission, allowing for easy shifts in traffic, although gear activation was too rubbery and vague for a sporty vehicle. Clutch action could also be more refined, as engagement was too close to the floor for a stiff pedal with so much travel. Reverse gear is selected by lifting up the lever and pushing it all the way to the left, as one of our frustrated editors figured out after a bout of head-scratching.

Our road test coordinator characterized brake quality as excellent, achieving consistent braking distances of around 124 feet for the 60-to-0 deceleration run. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and Brake Assist, electronic stability program (ESP) and anti-slip regulation (ASR — a traction control system) stand guard to correct understeer and oversteer situations. Anti-dive geometry is baked right in, and it really paid off dividends during our braking tests; there was virtually no dive or squat. We don't like Mercedes' choice of a cumbersome foot-operated brake over a hand-operated one, though.

Steering is direct, linear and precise, although it retains the Mercedes trademark of being heavy and rather numb for a car of this nature. Overall, the C230 has that special blend of suspension, brakes and power to allow you to garner enough confidence to make that curvy road tantalizing.

Viewed within a pure performance aspect, the Mercedes falls a little behind its agile and nimble competitors such as the Acura RSX or the Toyota Celica. What is returned is a slightly heavier car that transmits a feeling of solidity and stability. On call to ensure your safety are side airbags for front and rear occupants, side curtains to protect your head and the security of 24-hour roadside assistance for as long as you own your car. This is in conjunction with the 4-year/50,000-mile free scheduled maintenance that comes with every Benz.

The C230 is definitely lacking in the overt-luxo department, but much of its premium-brand identity is built into the car. Both windows are one-touch up and down. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes to allow you to find the perfect driving position; our various-sized editors found the manually adjusted seats very comfortable. The climate control is dual-zone with a charcoal-activated filter. The stereo may be controlled by steering wheel-mounted buttons, which also let you access a screen in the instrument cluster with a scroll-down driver's information center with a trip computer and diagnostic features. Other upscale touches include a doorsill plate and turn-signal lights mounted on the side mirrors. Our test vehicle came equipped with TeleAid, Mercedes' telematics system.

Also standing out as a unique feature is a rear hatch with a glass lower panel as is found in the Honda Insight and the dearly departed Honda CRX, ostensibly to improve rear view. Sure, it could have done so had the glass not been warped beyond vision. Another innovation, but one that wasn't on our tester, is a panoramic sunroof that is a third larger than a conventional sunroof. Most of the roof is glass, but power roller shades will protect you from the sun.

Further differentiating the C230 from other hatchbacks are functional back seats. Rear room is actually quite remarkable, with a generous 33 inches of legroom and 51.7 inches of shoulder space. The headrests are height-adjustable, and each passenger gets a small storage tray on the side. Watch those shins, though, because a metal bar in the seatback waits to assault them. Entry is facilitated by front seats that tilt forward and away, then lock back into their original position, as well as long, wide-opening doors. Make sure you open them carefully so as not to nick the car next to you. The hatchback area provides 15.8 cubic feet of space with the rear seats in use and 24.7 cubic feet when they are folded; the seats are split-folding.

Plus, you get your share of Mercedes-induced idiosyncrasies, such as the window controls that are difficult to reach (they're located in the lower part of the door) and a door lock button located on the center stack. There's no rear hatch release button inside the cabin. The cabin is fraught with buttons that relate solely to the telephone system; as with other Mercedes, they've designed the center stack around the assumption that their consumers will opt for the pricey Telephone package.

A couple of fit-and-finish missteps concerned us, especially since it has been our experience as of late that Benzes, especially the C-Class, categorically suffer from un-Benz-like flaws. In this particular instance, the driver's door hinge was popping off, and an A-pillar trim piece was egregiously misaligned; so much so that had we the inclination, we could have pulled the piece off with our hands. The textures of some of the buttons on the dashboard don't match one another, with some being as glossy as Jerry Lewis' shellacked hair while others sport a more demure matte look. There were a few minor variances in the exterior panels, especially around the rear hatch area.

Our tester was festively wrapped in Paprika Metallic paint (which looked suspiciously similar to the Autumn Orange paint on our $14,000 Ford Focus long-termer), a $670 option. Otherwise it's a stripper. Without this added expense, the C230 would be $25,595. This is on the higher end of the price spectrum for a four-cylinder hatchback, but its safety and comfort features are assets that can't be purchased in most of the other vehicles within the sport coupe category. Coming the closest would be a 2002 Volkswagen GTI VR6, but then you still wouldn't get stability control, dual-zone climate control, rear seat side airbags or the bragging rights that come with Benz ownership. Heeding the wants of a younger audience, Mercedes has crafted a likable, affordable, functional, fun-to-drive vehicle. It will appeal to brand-conscious and budget-minded (yet affluent) consumers. Keep in mind, however, that almost 17-grand worth of options tempts the buyer. Included among them are a navigation system, leather upholstery, the panoramic sunroof and 17-inch wheels, at which point the car kind of becomes pointless as compared to its competition. Topping out at around $41,000, the C230 would look pretty paltry next to its big brother, the CLK 320 or a BMW 330Ci.

Consumer Commentary

"The C230 is definitely a sport coupe in comparison to [my] Audi TT. Very sporty feeling but also very comfortable with many more luxury touches. The C230 handles very well around the curvy roads up in the mountains north of Scottsdale. Much quieter interior with less road noise than the TT. The Bose stereo is more enjoyable since it is not competing with engine/exhaust noise as in the TT. The manual transmission on the C230 is very smooth and easy to use. Acceleration felt smoother but maybe a little slower (did not want to stress the new engine) even though the official ratings are 7.3 sec for the C230 and 7.5 sec for the TT. There were no rattles or squeaks detectable whether the sunroof was open or closed, even when going over bumpy roads…. Even with the Arizona heat (110 degrees this weekend), the C230's A/C was able to keep the interior comfortable. The sunroof tinting was not dark enough to have the rolling screen open during midday, but the rolling screen blocked virtually all the radiant heat when closed. Having the moonroof over the back seat and front is unique and enjoyable before 10 AM and after 4 PM. My son enjoys watching the stars overhead at night. The dash layout on the C230 is nice. I like the 3-hump cowling with the center being larger than the two sides. I shift by sound and feel rather than by tachometer readout, so I do not need it to be so big as to compete with the speedometer for attention…. Regarding the parking brake on the floor rather than in the center console, I like the C230 layout better. I normally do not park on steep hills and normally just leave the car in gear rather than use the parking brake. Most of the time, having the parking brake in the center console uses up too much valuable space. The primary downside of the on-the-floor layout is that there is no angled footrest for the left foot between clutch usage. The leather seats are very firm and supportive. The perforated leather on the main seating surface is much cooler than solid leather. As compared to the sedans, the leather in the doors is taut rather than loose with folds. In my opinion, the taut leather gives a sportier look rather than pure luxury…. I have only noticed one minor item that apparently is normal for Mercedes. The steering wheel is not aligned perfectly. The tire alignment is fine but the wheel is rotated off-center by about 5 degrees when traveling down a straight road." — billytt, "Mercedes-Benz C230 (2002)," #159 of 368, July 17, 2001

"I've been driving the C230K for a couple of days now, and I have to say I'm quite impressed. This is a lot of car for the money. Things I noticed right away were: good power, quiet, and fit and finish are top quality, lots of attention (three people have stopped me as I was parking and asked what it was). There is a little bit of an acceleration hole from about 2000-3000 rpm, with the automatic anyway, but above 3000, it pulls strongly (the torque makes it feel like there are a couple more cylinders than there actually are). Two complaints: The seats (I managed to get leather before the embargo) seem to 'bottom out' sometimes if you go over a bump or hit a pothole. There is definitely some shock absorption going on with the seats, but it feels like there needs to be a little more bolstering between the bottom of the seat cushion and the seat frame (at least for big people like me over 200 pounds)…. Rearward visibility is limited — I didn't realize how big those C pillars were! The mirrors are good, but could be a bit more aspherical (even on driver's side) to help with blind spots…. Overall, I'm ecstatic. Everybody at work seems to think I won the lottery or something. When I tell them the car only cost about $4K more than a Jetta GLX, they can't believe it." — vmixer, "Mercedes-Benz C230 (2002)," #233 of 368, Aug. 3, 2001

"I drove home in an intermittent rainstorm and really like the rain sensor that comes with the C2 package. It seems to work just right. I just discovered the sunglasses holder in the glove box, and it was a nice surprise…. The car seems fast (not quick), quiet, smooth and taut. I notice a little random noise over very rough roads, but not much else. The controls in the dash are complex and not very intuitive. The tach is out of the line-of-sight and not very useful. I can shift by sound, but would trade the tach and speedo positions if I could. I got the optional $920 CD player for $800 and found it uses the same cartridges as the one I saved from my '97 Volvo. That's the good news, the bad news is [that there is] no single play unit, it takes up a lot of the glove box and is the same unit I paid $700 for with a Volvo emblem four years ago. The storage shelf for the two extra cartridges is a nice touch…. My wife and I are thrilled with [our C230]. It looks good in black, as it blends with the sunroof and other black trim. In summary, we love getting the sport package options in an entry-level car. We can't believe we are driving a MB for $30,100! It seats four, stores 39 cubic feet, feels like a convertible, looks great and you get the same service and goodies as if we had bought a $90,000 S-Class. How can you lose?" — crvols, "Mercedes-Benz C230 (2002)," #236 of 368, Aug. 5, 2001 — Edited by Erin Riches

Second Opinions

Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says:
So, Mercedes thinks it can play in the sport coupe field alongside such stalwarts as the Volkswagen GTI, Toyota Celica and Acura Integra (make that the RSX for 2002). Some may think that offering a car with a Mercedes hood emblem for less than $26,000 is all it takes to ensure sales, regardless of the car's strengths or weaknesses.

I'm happy to report that quite the opposite is true. If you yanked the badge from this car and hid its origins, thus neutralizing the "look how successful I am" value that so many buyers attribute to owning a Mercedes vehicle, it'd still be a great sport coupe. This is obvious even before driving the car. Just look at the numbers. An Acura RSX Type-S will cost you $23,650, including destination charge. A Toyota Celica GT-S goes $21,935, but if you want antilock brakes and side airbags the price jumps to $22,645. Our C230 test vehicle rang in at $26,235, but $640 of that was for paint that I could easily live without, bringing the price down to $25,595 for a "stripper" C230, including destination charge.

What you need to realize is that even a "stripped" C230 coupe comes with steering wheel audio controls, an exterior temperature display, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a tilt-down passenger mirror when in reverse, brake assist, traction control, stability control, front and rear side-mounted airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags, easy-entry rear-seat access, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and exterior mirror-mounted turn signals. The RSX and Celica offer none of these items at any price. They also don't offer real-world seating for four adults, seamless power delivery above 2,500 rpm and the option of steering with the throttle pedal. Now, does paying an extra $2,000 to $3,000 for this bevy of luxury and safety features, plus rear-wheel drive, really seem like a bad deal?

I'd like to see Mercedes come up with an in-dash CD changer (or even just a single CD player), and I wish the six-speed shifter was more fun to operate. But even with these problems, the C230 is a certified bargain for less than $26,000.

Oh, and…uh, if you're the type that gets caught up in what badge your car wears, you do get a three-pointed star for that money, too.

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
Mercedes typically aren't much fun. They're solid, reassuring, safe, but rarely playful. Driving the new C230 coupe is definitely fun. The supercharged four-cylinder that feels only mediocre in the SLK feels downright zippy in this car. The broad powerband serves up plenty of power at nearly any speed, dishing out both quick launches and fast freeway lane changes.

The six-speed shifter was a little vague in its placement, but most drivers will probably find its light feel perfect for the chores of city driving. The steering and the brakes were also a bit on the dull side. Neither had the precise control typical of most Mercedes, but they were hardly deficient. The brakes have plenty of power and the steering delivers adequate feedback, but there's definitely room for improvement here.

The suspension tuning is a bit harsh on the freeway, transmitting every bump and dip straight to your backside, but hey, this is a sport coupe. Fling it down your favorite back-road test track and you'll be rewarded with an easily controllable chassis that provides ample grip and little noticeable understeer. The pedals could use some realigning for easier heel-and-toe action, but overall this little two-door was a blast to drive hard.

It looks as though Mercedes might have finally turned up the fun factor enough to get younger buyers to consider the three-pointed star. Of course, the low sticker price is a big factor, as well, but the balance between mere affordability and a car that's fun to drive is a precarious one. BMW didn't do very well in its initial attempt, but Mercedes seems to have done its homework on this car.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Tooling down Tuna Canyon Road near Topanga Canyon, I developed an appreciation for the new Mercedes-Benz C230 Sports Coupe. Lighter than a C-Class sedan and equipped with a powerful but gruff supercharged four, the C230 steered, braked and handled the tortuous twists with surprising grace. It was fun, more fun than I expected.

But most buyers of the C230 Sports Coupe won't drive it in this fashion, and that's a shame. Around town, the C230's clutch is sprung too stiffly, making it hard to shift the vague stick through the six gears. The brake pedal doesn't offer the feel or progressive engagement you might expect of a German car. And when you park it, what's this? A foot brake?

Inside, the cabin offers soft-touch surfaces and aluminum trim, but overall the control layout is an ergonomic nightmare, and many of the controls have a decidedly cheap feel. Our test vehicle had squeaks and rattles, and the driver's door hinge was popping because the bolts that held one of the hinges to the car had become so loose that they could be tightened with a finger. Not what one expects of a Mercedes, though sadly commonplace in the products from Stuttgart as of late.

Compared to the BMW 318ti that was sold on our shores between 1995 and 1999, the C230 Sports Coupe is a huge improvement on the Euro-hatch concept. It can actually perform, it has comfortable seats, and from some angles it looks good. But compared to other inexpensive performance vehicles in the segment, like the Volkswagen GTI and Ford SVT Focus, the Benz lacks bang for the buck. Which means that the only reason for someone to buy a C230 Sports Coupe is for the three-pointed star on the grille, and that's really no reason at all.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 7.0

Components: The MB C230 Sports Coupe is the cheapest Mercedes available — but it should still come with a CD player. The standard head unit is nothing to sneeze at, though. It has a large display that folds down for access to the tape player, weather information reception and controls for an optional integrated cell phone. Along with those features are steering wheel-mounted controls for stereo and phone and an easy-to-find display mounted below the speedometer arc. Six speakers are standard, with tweeters in the side mirror patches and two mid-bass speakers in the front and rear of each door panel.

Performance: As usual, high-mounted tweeters are a pleasant surprise. These drivers provide good separation of the left and right channels, but the soundstage seems to have a dead spot in the middle of the dash (the $600-plus optional Bose speaker system includes a dash-mounted center channel that should eliminate that problem along with a 9-inch subwoofer). High notes from flutes and violins come through clear, but chimes and cymbals develop split ends at high volumes. Vocals and other mid-range tones are strong, but the speakers at the front and rear of each door (partially blocked by the front seats for folks in back) must try to produce other tones at the same time. Bass often loses this tug-of-war, with the medium-sized speakers unable to produce very low frequencies when they aren't standing alone. While a test vehicle can't be expected to be perfect, one problem experienced with this stereo system cannot be overlooked: The volume control on the steering wheel often caused the horn to honk. Granted, this unexpected feature can make a cynical editor smile, but the other folks at the stoplight didn't find it amusing at all.

Best Feature: Instrument cluster display.

Worst Feature: Volume button honk.

Conclusion: A nice sound system, but a 2002 Mercedes should come standard with a CD player.

Trevor Reed

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