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Mercedes-Benz engineers, marketers and public relations staff can barely contain themselves, so voraciously are they chomping at the bit with the prospect of attacking the meat of BMW's lineup, the 3 Series.
For years, the Munich-based purveyor of sporty sedans has bested Mercedes in the entry-level luxury segment by having both sportier models and a wider selection. Over the years, there have been sedan versions of the Three, two-door coupes, a high-performance M3 and even the hatchback 318ti. Meanwhile, Benz dealers have had to content themselves selling 190s and C-Classes, both available only with four doors and only lately with a performance massage administered by in-house tuner AMG.
That's about to change. With the advent of the redesigned 2001 C-Class comes an entire gamut of new product. Besides the new C240 and C320 sedans, there's the recently announced supercharged C32 AMG-tuned super-sled, a handsome wagon, and the subject of this test, the sleek new C230 Sports Coupe.
You can understand the company's glee. In the U.S., the entry-level segment is the fastest-growing portion of the luxury category (up from 623,000 vehicles in 1991 to 875,000 in 1999), representing over 70 percent of all premium automobile sales. It's also the most competitive segment, in both price and number of competitors.
Joining the fray, Mercedes promises that this new coupe will be the cheapest car in its lineup, retailing for under $30,000. The Coupe's relatively minuscule MSRP is meant to attract an entirely new clientele to the brand, and if that happens to include young, professional women, Mercedes will be pleased indeed.
The Coupe is certainly shorter and spunkier than everything else wearing the three-pointed star. And in an effort to keep that sticker attractively low, the supercharged, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that powers the base version of the SLK roadster rather than the V6s currently available in the C240 and C320 sedans is beating under the hood of the new C230.
Before dismissing the small four, consider that Mercedes claims that the four-banger pumps out 190 horsepower, thanks to its belt-driven supercharger. Compare that with the C240's 168 normally aspirated ponies. The supercharged mill also produces a substantial 200 foot-pounds of torque starting at a low 2,500 rpm and continuing all the way to 4,800. The one detriment of the C230's Kompressor engine is that it is neither as smooth nor as melodious as the sophisticated V6.
Mercedes says the supercharged engine is good enough to propel the 3,300-pound C230 to 60 mph in less than eight seconds when equipped with the new six-speed manual transmission. With the optional five-speed automatic, the car requires barely any additional time to sprint to 60. That's almost as fast as the C320 with its 3.2-liter V6.
Yes, the Sports Coupe is plenty quick in either guise. We actually preferred the automatic, however. Unlike the small six that's standard in the C240 sedan, the Coupe's supercharged four has plenty of low-down grunt to overcome the lethargy imposed by the torque converter. Besides, it's smoother shifting than the six-speed manual, and, according to Mercedes, the automatic also achieves better fuel economy.
Mercedes' new Coupe handles smartly. It may ride on the same wheelbase and 205/55-16 all-season radials as the C320 sedan, but it weighs 143 pounds less, is lowered about half an inch at the rear and has slightly firmer suspension tuning. The result is a little less body roll during cornering and sharper turn-in. In a complete departure for Mercedes, though, the steering is quite light, feeling more Acura-like than Teutonic. It's not overboosted, but those expecting the weighty feel endemic to Stuttgart products are going to be surprised. It's yet another concession to the young female audience that Mercedes desperately wants to attract.
There's more inside to make the young, and young at heart, feel at home. Center-stage is the optional "panoramic" sunroof. Nearly the entire roof from the front windshield to the rear spoiler is glass, ensuring that both front and rear passengers can be exposed to the sun's warning rays. It's power-operated and, best of all, doesn't seriously diminish headroom because it slides along the top of the roof rather than into it. In fact, other than the rear seat headroom, precious little interior space has been sacrificed in the C-Class' remake into a coupe. Indeed, Mercedes says the Coupe has a tad more knee room than the sedan. Whatever the case, seating for four is particularly generous for a car of this size. Like most coupes, the door openings are huge and the front seat adjustment range so wide that even the largest drivers will find more than enough room.
Being lowest on the Mercedes totem pole means that power seat adjustments are optional, as are seat heaters. Ditto for a Bose audio system, CD changer and navigation system. In its base guise, the Coupe's cloth interior is both cheerful and sturdy. Our favorite, however, is the optional monochromatic black leather upholstery. What does come standard is air conditioning, a dust and pollen micro-filter, power windows and locks, cruise control, a trip computer and an AM/FM/cassette audio system.
Like other hatchbacks, the Coupe's rear seats fold to create an enormous cargo area. The two rear seats can be folded individually or together and Mercedes rates the Coupe's maximum cargo capacity at a capacious 39 cubic feet. Like other Mercedes, there's also an ASSYST (Active Service Assist but there's a joke waiting to happen with that dumb acronym) engine scheduling system that alerts the driver to the need for an upcoming oil change by monitoring oil level, temperature, road speed, engine load and other variables.
When it comes to safety, the C-Class Coupe is fully equipped. Dual-stage front airbags make the menu along with side airbags. A side "window-bag" air curtain protects the heads of all passengers in the outboard seats. Of course, antilock brakes make the grade, as does Mercedes' ESP vehicle stability system. Parktronic, an ultrasonic system that alerts the driver to objects behind the rear bumper when reversing, is optional.
But safety doesn't sell coupes. Styling does. And in this department, the new C-Class version gets a mixed reaction. Its silhouette is markedly different from the C-Class sedan, thanks to a shorter rear overhang and a roofline nearly an inch lower. Details that make the Coupe attractive are headlights derivative of the S-Class and some unique, and highly complex, rear taillights. Hatchback styling on a Mercedes is a new experience for American buyers, though some might find more than a passing resemblance to that other European purveyor of premium hatchbacks Saab.
It's a package that will likely give Mercedes at least a trace of the hip and trendy image that BMW has and Mercedes so covets. But are Americans ready to pony up 30 grand for a fancy Chevette? They didn't for BMW's old 318ti notice the Bavarians appeared to be in no hurry to get a hatch version of the Three produced when that vehicle was redesigned two years ago. And those aforementioned Saabs aren't exactly tearing up the sales charts. Time, and sales of the C230, will tell. Hatchbacks are, after all, coming back, you know.