The Morning Call and's view

After having redone its entry-level line for 1998, you’d think the folks at Mercedes Benz would leave well enough alone for their most affordable sedan, the C230.

But with increasing competition in the near-luxury class — those cars with base prices from $30,000 to $40,000 — the folks at M-B addressed one of the C230s biggest deficits: power.

When it debuted last year, the underpowered C230 came with a mere 148 horsepower, less than a Nissan Altima.

Thankfully, this year the standard engine comes from Mercedes Benz’s SLK coupe. That translates into a 37 horsepower increase and 38 pound-feet of torque increase. The numbers: 185 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque from a 2.3-liter in-line four-cylinder engine. You’d expect double-overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, but it’s the Eaton supercharger with an intercooler that adds the oomph. Zero to 60 now takes a mere 8.1 seconds, two seconds quicker than last year and closer to other cars in this class. That’s only 0.1 second slower than the more expensive six-cylinder model.

It also makes this car a real alternative for someone looking for a car in the low 30s price range, something that couldn’t be said of its predescessor.

The engine initially seems every bit of four-cylinders, but the crankshaft-driven supercharger kicks in with a hearty whine and lots of power. While not the quietest engine ever encountered, it lends the car a sporty edge. Power is well-controlled, with full power available closer to highway speeds. Passing power is quite good. With the exception of the engine noise, you’ll forget you’re driving a four.

Power is fed theough a five-speed automatic transmission that adopts its shifts to suit the driver’s driving style. Traction control is standard as is four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. Braking was excellent in all kinds of weather, with short straight stops. Although the electronic stability program isn’t offered, the car never fishtailed, even in wet weather. A good performance for a rear-drive automobile.

The recirculating ball, power-assisted steering was responsive and direct, steering the car exactly where it was pointed. The system has good weight to it.

The ride was firm, revealing the pitiful state of most roads in Pennsylvania. The ride never became punishing, but this vehicle is not for those who like a soft ride. The upside is cornering was great — the car handled the twisties as if it was riding on rails. Road noise was a little high as was tire noise on concrete surfaces.

Although the test vehicle wasn’t equipped with it, enthusiasts will want their C230 with the optional $890 Sport Package. For that sum, your Mercedes will get larger 16-inch wheels, performance tires (205/55R16), leather front sport seats, an even firmer suspension and a telescoping steering wheel.

Of course, safety is always a high priority with Mercedes, so you’d expect front and side, door-mounted air bags, not to mention ABS and tract ion control. But the C230 also has a BabySmart seat. The front passenger-side air bags are deactivated when a BabySmart-compatible seat is detected. The car also features Brake Assist, a system that detects an emergency braking situation and applies the brakes more quickly and with more force than the driver.

New standard equipment on the C230 includes leather seat inserts (full leather is an option) and a new audio system that integrates radio and cellular phone controls into one unit.

The front bucket seats are firm and comfortable, although after a couple hours in the saddle, you’ll find them a little too firm.

The driver’s side seat is eight-way power adjustable; the passenger-side adjusts manually. Finding a comfortable position behind the wheel was easy, despite the fact that the wheel didn’t adjust.

Rear seat room was sufficient for two passengers, three if they’re really friendly. The rear seatbacks are nicely reclined and headrests ensure passen ger safety.

Other rear-seat amenities include an armrest with integrated cupholders and a first-aid kit.

Gauges were typical Mercedes — clear and easy to read. The headlights are activated with a simple twist knob. The stalks are also normal, with turn signals to the left, wipers to the right. A second, smaller left-hand stalk activates the cruise control. As in other Mercedes Benz models, it’s easy to hit the stalk accidentally.

The climate controls adjust manually. Two twist knobs control air-flow and fan speed. Temperature is adjusted by a thumb-wheel and is split for each side of the cabin. No indicator points to exactly where the temperature is activated. But the climate control worked quickly and effectively. The fan was quiet.

Mercedes Benz audio systems have never been my favorite, but this year’s seem to be a major improvement. The Bose system includes AM/FM/cassette with an optional trunk-mounted CD changer. The face of the system pops open to reveal the cassette deck. An integrated weather band keeps you appraised of changing conditions. Signal strength seems better, as does sound. The station preset buttons double as the keypad for an optional cell phone.

In typical German fashion, the cabin is well made without an ostentatious feeling. The burled walnut is handsome and helps warm the austere plastics.

Storage space is good with two compartment armrests. A two-cup holder and a couple of small storage nooks can be found up front. The glove compartment is small, too small to hold the owner’s manual.

The 12.9 cubic foot trunk seems bigger than its rating, with a useful shape and low liftover.

So this nifty little Mercedes seems to be a much better value than it was at its debut. The new supercharged engine brings it closer to its rivals in performance.

If you think you can’t afford it, guess again. This car starts at $31,200. The test car came with three options: special paint ($600), CD change ($750) and a sunroof ($1,100). Total with destination was $34,255. Most mid-sized cars don’t cost a whole lot less.

For the buyer who seeks prestige at an affordable price, few cars match the car beneath this three-pointed star.

1999 Mercedes C230 Kompressor

Engine: 2.3-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4 Transmission: 5-speed automatic Standard: P205/60-R15 tires, light alloy wheels, manual climate control with pollen filter, power drivers seat, remote locking, AM/ FM/WB/cassette radio, leather seat inserts, walnut trim, cupholders, power windows with auto up and down,vanity mirrors, cruise control, integrated garage door openers, floor mats, auto-dimming mirrors, front and side air-bags, traction control, anti-lock brakes, anti-theft alarm with engine disabler. Base price: $31,200 EPA rating: 21 mpg city, 29 mpg highway Test mileage: 24 mpg

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