Versus the competiton:
With its C-Class sports coupe models, Mercedes-Benz seeks to attract a younger buyer.
That is, younger buyers who want to pay less for their Mercedes and have it come with a bit more style.
The first hint of something different comes when you look at the window sticker. The four-cylinder C230 sports coupe starts at $25,615, including destination, making it the cheapest Mercedes sold in the United States. A second version of this coupe, the V-6 C320, was added to the lineup a few months ago. It retails for $27,965, including destination.
The second thing that’s apparent is that Mercedes is now willing to let its designers take a bit of a risk.
How else to explain this coupe with its controversial rear end? There’s a clear panel between the tail lights and under the rear spoiler. Mercedes says it helps a driver’s rear visibility, but it gives the C coupe something of an oddball look. Pontiac’s Aztek, this generation’s Edsel, does something similar, although Mercedes’ treatment is thankfully handled more deftly.
While we’re throwing around insults, the side of the C coupe is a bit swoopy, reminding me of its American cousin, the Dodge Neon. (DaimlerChrysler owns both Germany’s Mercedes-Benz and America’s Chrysler brands, including Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler.)
However, the car’s front end is all Mercedes-Benz, with its snowman-shaped lights and pronounced grille complete with the three-point star.
Overall, I find the look sporty if not altogether appealing. It’s not as formal as other Mercedes models, but it’s more fun.
While the C230 model gets the super-charged 1.8-liter four-cylinder that also appears in the SLK230, the C320 gets the 3.2-liter V-6 that appears in other Mercedes models as well as the new Chrysler Crossfire coupe.
Our test car was the C320 equipped with the five-speed automatic transmission. Buyers also can select a six-speed manual. With 215 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, this V-6-equipped coupe was fast, if not speedy.
On the road, the C320 coupe has a solid feel that’s more sort-of sporty than serious sports car. The automatic transmission is excellent, although the six-speed manual would be my preferred choice based on both my driving style (I like shifting) and my wallet (it’s $1,325 cheaper).
To keep the price down, Mercedes offers cloth seats on the C coupe. Our test model had the optional ($1,440) leather chairs. The stereo offers AM/FM and a cassette player, but not a CD player.
Much safety equipment is standard, including front and side air bags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes as well as Mercedes’ electronic stability program (ESP) that relies on sensors and brakes to keep the car on its path, especially when making turns on ice, snow and gravel.
Inside, the C320 felt much like other C-Class models, including the sedans and wagons. Aluminum trim gives the cabin a bit of a luxury feel. The dash board was laid out so that a driver could find things intuitively without resorting to the confusing array of buttons found in the more expensive S-Class vehicles.
The front seats were stiff but comfortable. This is a great car for two people as the back seat, while not difficult to enter or exit, just isn’t roomy enough for most adults. I’m 6-foot-1, and my head brushed the ceiling.
With everyone from Toyota and Honda to Dodge and Ford looking for younger buyers, it’s not surprising that Mercedes-Benz is making an effort, too, with more affordable models like the C coupes.
And, both versions of the C-Class coupe have a more true-to-the-marque feel than BMW’s 318ti that arrived in the United States in 1995 and didn’t last long on the market.
The Mercedes C coupes compete against the more-expensive BMW 3-Series coupes, the very-nice Infiniti G35 coupe and Acura’s soon-to-depart CL.
TEN-SECOND TEST DRIVE
2003 Mercedes-Benz C32 Sports Coupe
Why we’d buy it: Affordable German technology; nice V-6
Why we wouldn’t: Odd rear-end styling