EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

When my brother-in-law and sister piled into the Mercedes-Benz C230 for a shopping trip, I was pleasantly surprised at how lively it felt.

In past years, its predecessor, the C220, had to be driven with a heavy foot to get decent performance. The C230 gets a larger engine, with greater torque, and a lower rear axle ratio that makes it far from lethargic. Its highway mileage even increases from 29 to 30 mpg.

The C-Class, with a 105.9-inch wheelbase, is the smallest Mercedes sedan imported to this country, and it compares in size to a Ford Contour, Nissan Altima or Honda Accord. The C230 has a base price of $30,450.

The new engine, a 2.3-liter, dual-overhead-cam, four-cylinder, has 148 horsepower, but more importantly, 162 lbs. ft. of torque. Torque is the force that actually moves the vehicle, and in many ways is felt more readily than horsepower. A five-speed automatic transmission and a 3.27 axle ratio gives it stronger off-the-mark acceleration and allows it to pull up hills easier, especially when loaded with four adults.

The transmission adjusts to driving conditions and even learns the habits of the driver. If you drive hard, it stays in each gear longer and shifts more firmly. If you drive easily, it adjusts accordingly. A “winter” program tells the transmission to start off in second gear to lessen the chance of wheelspin.

Anti-lock brakes are standard, and traction control, heated front seats and headlamp washers are included in an option package for $950, which is $250 cheaper than the package was last year.

Folks who want more performance should look to the C280. Its 194-horsepower, six-cylinder engine sprints to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds versus 10.1 for the C230.

The C230, however, appeals to those who appreciate the rock-solid build quality of a Mercedes but don’t care about getting to the next light at the head of the pack.

Settle behind the wheel and you are faced with an interior design that is similar to every other Mercedes. Large, black-faced dials with white numerals are arrayed behind the wheel in a clear and concise order, covered by a hood that keeps out glare.

Secondary controls for radio and heating are stacked down the center of the dash in a flat panel trimmed in elegant wood. These controls are not the easiest to decipher, but they can be figured out quickly. That fact that they are essentially the same from Benz to Benz makes drivers will feel at home regardless of which model they are in.

Window switches are on the console, which is not as handy as having them on the door but it simplifies production of right-hand-drive models.

The gearshift lever for the automatic transmission slides through a grated slot that seems overly complex at first, but with familiarity it allows the driver to shift down a gear by feel without taking her eyes off the road. This is helpful when an extra surge of power is needed for passing or hill climbing.

The sea ts are firm but comfortable, again just like the bigger Mercedes. A sensor in the passenger seat turns off the airbag if it detects the presence of less than 26 pounds.

In terms of legroom, the back seat is not overly generous but adults will find it adequate. The trunk is quite spacious given the overall size of the vehicle.

Also new for this year is an infrared remote locking system that uses light waves instead of radio signals to lock or unlock the vehicle. This system is not susceptible to having its code grabbed by thieves.

If you stayed away from the four-cylinder C-Class in the past because of a lack of power and performance, give the new model a look because it feels stronger.

Price

The base price of our test car was $30,450. Its only option was a power sunroof for $1,090, and that brought the sticker price to $32,135.

Warranty

The standard warranty is for four years or 50,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star’s week-long test d ves are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The marginally larger engine pulls stronger due an increase in torque and a lower axle ratio, thus making the C230 more responsive in city driving.

Counterpoint: I would like to see the window switches moved from the console to the doors and a little more legroom added to the back seat.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 2.3-liter, 4-cyl.

TRANSMISSION: automatic

WHEELBASE: 105.9 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,195 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $30,450

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $32,135

MPG RATING: 23 city, 30 hwy.

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