Installing a sports car engine in a sedan often results in an unhappy combination, but when Mercedes-Benz took the engine from the SLK230 and dropped it in the C-Class, it added wings to the heels of its entry-level sedan. Stir in the Sport option package, and the solid but stolid C230 becomes a sport compact with a 0-60 mph acceleration time only a tick slower than its V6-powered C280 sibling.
Mercedes renames the C230 in honor of the sports car's engine, appending Kompressor - German for supercharger - to the alphanumeric, adding a shiny badge to the trunklid to make sure everyone knows. Anyone driving last year's C230 would quickly find out, however, as the 1999 C230 Kompressor scampers from rest to 60 mph in a factory-claimed 8.1 seconds, a full two seconds faster than the older model. That may not be as quick as the limited-production V8-powered C43 performance sedan that tops the C-Class line-up, but it is quick and the C230 Kompressor is much more accessible with a base price not far over 30 grand.
Our car was equipped with the Sport Package, a remarkable bargain at only $890. It not only sharpens the handling of the C230 Kompressor but also gives the junior Mercedes four-door a slightly naughty track-ready look. The only reason to pass on this package is its slightly firmer ride, but we found the optional sport-tuned suspension pleasantly firm. It's a matter of priorities.
C-Class sedans are the smallest of the three classes of Mercedes-Benz sedans, which includes the larger E-Class and patrician S-Class. There is no doubt the C-Class sedan is a Mercedes-Benz, from its unmistakable profile to its three-pointed hood ornament to the latest iteration of the traditional Mercedes grille.
Three C-Class models consist of the $31,795 C230 Kompressor reviewed here, the V6-powered $36,195 C280, and the limited-production, ultra-performance $53,595 C43. (All prices include $595 destination charge.)
The C230 Kompressor is powered by the same double overhead cam, 16-valve inline-4 that goes under the hood of the SLK roadster. The crankshaft-driven supercharger compresses intake air that is then cooled by an intercooler packing the engine with a dense charge. The 2.3-liter engine produces an impressive 185 horsepower at 5300 rpm. Maximum engine speed is only 5800 rpm, but the supercharger and 10.4:1 compression ratio yield a broad torque plateau, generating 200 foot-pounds of torque from 2500 rpm to 4800 rpm. That's more torque and at lower revs than the 2.8-liter V6 in the C280. The C280 is smoother and quieter, while the Kompressor rewards the driver with more mechanical sounds when pushed hard.
Rear-wheel drive combines with a double-wishbone front suspension and a patented five-member multi-link rear suspension. The double-wishbone setup is superior to a strut-type design. By not requiring the shock absorber to help locate the front suspension, it can be softer; the wide placement of the upper and lower wishbones contribute to sturdiness. The rear multi-link rear suspension is space efficient -- allowing a larger trunk. It also eliminates unwanted rear steering effects and incorporates anti-lift and anti-squat characteristics. That means the car tends to be more stable in corners, under hard braking and during hard acceleration.
Brake Assist, standard on all C-Class models, goes one step beyond the standard anti-lock braking system. Mercedes-Benz research determined that many drivers don't brake hard enough for emergency situations. Brake Assist detects panic braking by how quickly the brake pedal is pushed and applies full braking force faster than the driver could.
All C-Class models have a driver-adaptive 5-speed automatic transmission. The computer modifies shifting to match how and where the car is being driven at the moment. By sensing through throttle position and speed, for example, it can determine the car is going downhill and will hold the car in gear rather than upshifting to provide engine braking. Press the pedal quickly and the computer will assume the driver wants to downshift for quicker acceleration. The system reduces hunting between gears by discerning uphill grades. It also uses data from the cruise control system and engine temperature to control shifting.
The C230 Kompressor seats five passengers, but is more comfortable for four. The two front buckets are firm and supportive. The rear seat is a bit too narrow for three adult males to ride shoulder to shoulder for long distances. Rear legroom is less than an E-Class sedan because the C-Class is a smaller car. Leather seating inserts are standard; full leather, which covers the seats entirely and is used on the door panels is an option.
The Sport model has special sport seats, upholstered in leather, that have more side bolstering for better lateral retention. You don't slide off the seat when cornering hard. These seats are in the firm German tradition and provide excellent support for long drives.
BabySmart is the automatic child seat recognition system that deactivates the passenger-side airbag whenever a BabySmart compatible child seat, available from Mercedes-Benz dealers, is used in the front seat. It's standard on all Mercedes automobiles for 1999. Child seats designed specifically for different cars seems like a great idea to us as it reduces the chance of an improper installation.
Mercedes-Benz has a way of making an ordinary gauge panel look like a precision instrument. There's no doubt you're going exactly the rate shown on the speedometer. Mercedes dresses up the Sport models with faux carbon fiber trim on the dash, doors and center console. It's a bit over the top, perhaps, but looks as good as the common gratuitous wood inserts and makes more sense.
Unlike the automatic climate control systems on the upscale C-Class cars, the C230 Kompressor has manual heating and air conditioning. The system works well and is easy to operate and comes with dual-zone left and right controls. Hay fever sufferers will like the dust and pollen filters. Owners living in the snow belt will appreciate how the system can recirculate residual warm air for up to 30 minutes while the car is parked -- great for quick dashes into the store.
A new-generation radio unit features fiber-optic technology and integrates controls for the sound system and optional CD changer and cellular telephone in a single unit. It may require some study of the owners manual to fully appreciate. A power driver's seat is standard. Power windows with auto-up and auto-down are standard with a highly sensitive anti-pinch feature to protect small heads and fingers. Every C-Class gets an integrated three-channel garage door opener, outside temperature gauge, auto-dimming mirror, cruise control and heated power side-view mirrors. A single wiper with an articulated mechanism clears the entire windshield.
The C-Class comes with the Mercedes-Benz SmartKey system -- the latest word on high-tech keys. Although the key fob uses a radio unit for remote locking, the ignition key is a miniature infrared unit that exchanges a code with the key slot. The code to open and start the car changes every time the car is used. For added theft resistance, the engine is disabled and an alarm sounds if thieves use a tow truck or roll-back to take the car.
The trunk is adequate for a car this size, and makes the most of its capacity with a practical shape and no intrusion by the struts, which are hidden behind the trunk liner.
We tested the Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor in one of our favorite driving locations, the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. The roads still wander up, down and around the hills as if laid out by drunken deer and it's a great place to wring out a car with Sport in its name. If we were limited to two words to describe the C230 Kompressor on these roads, they would be balance and competence. Balance because no one part of the car dominates. The added power of the supercharged engine provides the gumption that was lacking in the old C230, allowing the Kompressor to climb hills with authority and a growl. The engine was not so overpowering, however, that the traction control system, which Mercedes-Benz calls Anti-Slip Regulation, was put into play by anything but a loose surface.
The Sport suspension lived up to its name. Roads through the Poconos can be narrow and often have odd camber changes; they curve left and right, up and down, all within a matter of feet. Even when driven at speed, the Kompressor Sport could not be caught out. Its suspension could not be fooled by the trickiest road. Just steer where you want to go and the Kompressor Sport goes there. Of course, the car has its limits, but the Kompressor Sport approaches them with aplomb. Shock damping is superb, and even over crests, the Mercedes sedan seems stuck to the pavement. So balance, competence -- and nimbleness. The C230 Kompressor Sport feels more like a sports car than a sedan.
On Interstate 80 heading west, halfway across Pennsylvania, the C230 Kompressor Sport proved itself an able cruiser. Its speed control passed the superslab grade test. Even over the uphill and downhill sections of I-80, it never varied from the selected speed unless prompted by the driver. There was little wind noise though enough of the tire rumble came up through to remind us that we weren't in a tomb. The C230 Kompressor Sport needed a steady hand on the helm, however, because its responsiveness and readiness to turn in on winding roads translated into a need to pay attention. It is, after all, a driver's car.
In around-town driving the automatic transmission was utterly flawless, with smooth shifts detectable only on the tachometer. At full throttle, the transmission and engine computers talk to each other to briefly cut back on power while the automatic slips into the next higher gear without so much as a jiggle. If desired, the driver can choose gears manually; the zigzag shift gate facilitates one-gear-at-a-time shifts, but the shifts are slow.
For $31,795, the Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor offers much more than just a three-pointed star on the hood. It's fun to drive. But it's also practical and comes with that legendary Mercedes-Benz durability. Add the optional sport package and the C230 Kompressor rates a solid A among sports sedans.