Car snobs, look away. High-end buyers, hold your breath.
This is the Mercedes-Benz sedan for the rest of us.
You know, those of us who can't afford to valet at the grocery store or buy our staplers at Neiman Marcus (if they sold staplers, of course).
An affordable Mercedes? Actually, for those who weren't aware, the idea is not at all new.
The "Baby Benz," as it has been called, is not such a baby anymore. First hatched as the rather uninteresting 190 Series, the entry-level Benz is now 20 years old and is rather comfortable being called the C-Class.
The theory is simple: Hook buyers early with plenty of entry-level options, and hopefully they'll come back.
Mercedes offers a hatchback tandem (C230 and C320 Sport Coupe), a threesome of sedans (C230, C240, C320) and a pair of wagons (C240 and C320).
All combined, they tout the virtues of a solid ride, safety and comfort. With a few noticeable exceptions, the C230 sedan, our tester for a week, satisfies all of the above.
Hold your wallet on this one, but for $28,170, it is actually a great "value proposition."
Every C-Class arrives with stability control and enough air bags (8) to float a boat, including head-protecting side curtain bags.
The C230's 1.8-liter supercharged in-line four-cylinder engine makes a rather emphatic 189 horsepower and a rather impressive 192 pounds-feet of torque (that rush of initial acceleration). It is a deceiving four cylinders. Versatile, smooth yet pretty aggressive, it fared well when put up against some of the competition in its class.
Two transmission choices - a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic - are available on just about every C-Class.
Mostly, though, you are buying Mercedes' DNA. And, mostly, that was there.
The rack-and-pinion steering was precise and felt extremely agile at high speeds. At low, parking lot speeds, the steering on the C230 felt heavier, or more methodical than it needed to be.
Inside the C230 was a different story.
The front seats were firm and comfortable over a long haul, but lagged behind BMW, Audi and Volvo for overall support. The rear seat could have used more legroom.
Our biggest gripe was with the appearance of the interior package. When it came to radio and ventilation controls, Mercedes used to be notoriously confusing. A manual was required to find the air-conditioning knob. This is much simpler but, in a way, more disappointing.
The center cluster felt cheap and un-Mercedes like. The radio and climate control buttons looked borrowed from another era.
The cup holder felt flimsy as it popped out of the center of the dashboard, and the storage bins suffered from a sense of excess plastic.
The exterior was remarkably better.
With the signature Benz quad ovoid headlights and smooth lines from the curvy front to the shortened rear, the C230 is an attractive, entry-level luxury vehicle. It carries a nice sense of sophistication.
Mercedes has also lowered the suspension and added firmer shocks.
All in all, it's a nice package of performance, function and style. We might like to see an upgraded interior and more rear legroom, but those aren't sticking points that would deter you from cross-shopping it with a BMW, Cadillac or Lexus.
Frankly, for the price, it's a good ride.
A better Baby Benz.
A Benz for the rest of us.
2004 Mercedes-Benz C230
Vehicle type: Rear-wheel-drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger sedan
Key competition: Volvo S40, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac CTS, Audi A4
Base engine: 189 horsepower, 1.8-liter supercharged inline four cylinder
Transmission: Five-speed automatic or six-speed manual
Standard safety equipment: Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes; front and side, head-curtain air bags; stability control
MPG rating: 22 city/30 highway
Warranty: Basic warranty is four years/50,000 miles with roadside assistance.
Base price: $28,170
Price as tested (including destination and delivery): $31,900