"It's hard to think of another hatchback coupe that offers the combination of solid feel, safety, sporty performance, airy feel and distinctive looks."
Good: handling, spacious feel, safety
Bad: upholstery, placement of controls

 

The C230 Kompressor Sport Coupe is the smallest and least expensive Mercedes you can buy. It's also the nicest two-door hatchback on the market. It used to be that a fully loaded VW Golf was as upscale as you could go with a practical and sporty two-door hatchback. But this car is clearly the new king of that hill.

The C230 Coupe is a new model for Mercedes. It's well designed, beautifully made, fun to drive and nicely equipped at a cars.com target price of $24,950. The C230 is something of a departure for Mercedes, which has a reputation for making solid, conservative expensive sedans. No doubt the company hopes that its new, spunky hatchback will attract younger buyers who thought they couldn't afford a Mercedes, or buyers who want the nicest damn small car they can own. Mercedes also hopes these happy, young C230 owners will hop their way up the Mercedes line, from the C Class to the E Class, finally graduating to an S600 before bequeathing their worldly belongings to their future Mercedes-owning offspring. Well, that's the hope, anyway.

The C230 comes in only one body style and with just one engine choice: a 192 horsepower, 2.3-liter, 4-cylinder engine with a belt-driven supercharger (that's the Kompressor part). You do get a choice of transmissions: a 6-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic.


Driving Experience

Solid is a word that always comes to mind when driving a Mercedes. Spunky isn't. But the C230 is both. The supercharged engine is an ideal match for this 3,300-pound car, providing plenty of pep without being overpowering. The six-speed transmission is well suited to the car, too, with the top gear cutting the engine speed at 70 mph from 3,000 rpm to around 2,600 rpm -- for a noticeable improvement in noise, engine wear and gas mileage.

We loved the way this car handled. It's a well-balanced rear-wheel drive car on a very solid suspension system. It scooted around corners with very little lean, and it felt solid and controllable at all times. One note of caution: The C230 is rear-wheel drive, which means it's at a disadvantage in slippery weather. We noticed that the C230 slipped a bit on wet roads, which doesn't give us much confidence that it would keep you moving in the snow, even with its traction control.

Aside from being small and light enough to be fun to drive, the C230 also felt solid and substantial. It's a nice combination.


Interior

One of the best things about the C230 is the way the passengers are surrounded by glass. There's a big window in the rear hatch with yet another smaller window below the spoiler and between the taillights, to provide greater visibility out the back. (And it makes a big difference!)


 

Overhead, the roof is essentially two huge glass panels. But that doesn't mean you'll have to slather your bald spot with SPF-60 on sunny days -- a single push of a button extends shades across both panels. Very nice, Mercedes. It makes for a very airy and open feeling car, despite its size.

 


 

While the seats are firm, comfortable, and niceIy adjustable, the upholstery left something to be desired. It reminded us of the wild, color-flecked fabric Subaru is fond of using, which should not be taken as a compliment. It looks tacky in a Subaru, even more so in a Mercedes, in our humble opinion. The only cure, aside from calling JC Whitney for a $39.95 set of simulated tiger fur seat covers, is to pony up another 1,300 bucks for leather seats.

 

Our biggest complaint about the interior is the drawback that it shares with all two-door vehicles: It's a pain in the tuchus to get into and out of the back seat. Even though an electric motor pulls the front seats forward and out of the way at your command, you still have to fold yourself up to get in the back. That makes the C230, like all two-doors, a poor choice if you regularly carry more than one passenger. (Children may be less resistant to climbing in and out, but make sure they're big enough to buckle themselves in -- fastening a child into a child seat in the back of a two-door can be downright hazardous to your lumbar region.) On the plus side, folding the rear seats creates lots of flexible cargo space, and the hatch is always available for groceries or other cargo , enabling you to keep the back seats free if your mother-in-law and her Chihuahuas happen to be along for the ride.

The C230 has no fewer than eight airbags -- there are even side airbags for the back-seat passengers. Mercedes undoubtedly realizes that anyone buying a premium car expects premium safety. And it's even more important in a small car.

 

Even at $25,000, this is still a Mercedes, so there's dual-zone automatic climate control, height adjustable shoulder belts, cruise control, a trip computer, a tilt-telescope steering wheel and power windows with an express down feature. The C230 also comes with the TeleAid roadside assistance system, which is similar to GM's OnStar. (TeleAid is free for the first year, then costs $240 annually.) At the push of a button, you'll be talking to a real, live advisor -- who just might be able to get you a tow truck, or at least read to you in German while you wait.

 


Ergonomics

As nice as the interior is, Mercedes did slip up in a couple of places. First, there's the placement of the window switches -- way, way down on the doors, just barely within reach of a seated and buckled-in person.

Second, we'd like a word with the knucklehead who decided that the cruise control stalk should be right next to the turn signal switch. Because there's no main on/off button for the cruise, you stand a risk of sudden acceleration syndrome every time you signal a turn. Bad, bad idea. The C230 also inherited Mercedes' unduly complex stereo controls.

In fairness to Mercedes, we really liked the controls on the steering wheel for the stereo, and the eight-way adjustable seats (manual in the car we drove; 10-way power seats with memory are an extra $1,225).


Styling

We liked the bobtailed looks of the C230. It looks like a Mercedes from the front, and from the back ... well, it looks like a Mercedes from the front. In truth, we thought the back was just not terribly distinctive. There is a family resemblance in the taillights, but it's to a different branch of the Daimler/Chrysler family tree -- the lowly Dodge Neon. My guess is you'll see a different looking taillight package if this car sticks around for a few years.

If you think we're being unduly harsh on the Mercedes stylists, consider that our esteemed producer, Doug Berman, saw a dealer's ad in the newspaper in which the photo of the C230 was cut off right behind the rear windows. We suspect they deliberately cropped out the weakest feature -- the rear end -- kind of like when Ma used to take our picture from the neck down.


Reliability {C}

Like all Mercedes vehicles, we would expect the C230 to be very reliable -- at least initially. Over time, however, this car could require some very expensive repairs, especially as the supercharger starts to age. For this reason, we're always leery of vehicles with superchargers, turbos and other complicated engineering. Of course, if you plan to keep it only three or four years before trading up to an E-Class, who cares?


Maintenance

As with all Mercedes products, this is not one that you're going to trust to Big Ernie down at the corner garage. This car is not going to be easy to work on. The engine compartment is complicated and very crowded. On top of the usual, complex German engineering, there's the C230's supercharger that, no doubt, needs to be serviced by some German guy named Dieter with a PhD in particle physics. In other words, service and maintenance is best left to your local Mercedes dealer -- and don't expect to get out of his waiting room without paying a tidy sum.


Overall comments

All in all, the C230 is an extremely nice car. It's hard to think of another hatchback coupe that offers the combination of solid feel, safety, sporty performance, airy feel and distinctive looks -- all with a little cachet. The Volkswagen Golf, a vehicle we like a lot, isn't really in the same league -- it's smaller, less solid, less expensive and less exclusive. The same goes for the Volkswagen Beetle. In fact, most of the two-door hatchbacks on the market are entry-level vehicles -- the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Accent and Kia Spectra among them. The only premium hatchback that comes to mind is Saab's quirky 9-3, which is quite a bit bigger.

All of which leads us to conclude that the C230 will appeal to two groups of people: Those who are happy with a hatchback coupe and can afford the best one on the market, and those who really, really want a Mercedes -- even if it has to be the least expensive one on the showroom floor. Either way, these folks will be getting a very nice, little car.

 

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