Small-car owners may associate the words "hatchback" and "1.8-liter" with doggy performance. This was true in my case. I once owned a 1.8-liter Toyota that was rugged and dependable. But push the accelerator and that car might hit 80-mph tomorrow morning.
I shouldn't have worried. The C230 is no wussy econobox. (And Mercedes calls the 230 a sports coupe, not a hatchback, despite its sizable liftgate and rear shelf.) The C230's 1.8-liter in-line four is a DOHC, 16-valve aluminum engine that is supercharged to a decent 189 hp at 5,800 rpm. It has a lot of zip and a fast second gear in the six-speed manual shifter. Tests have pegged the car's 0-to-60-mph speed at a respectable 8-sec range. It features sporty handling and a ride quality that is surprisingly good for a small vehicle. Indeed, the C230 smoothes out bumps like a much larger vehicle but without losing the road-connected feel of a sporty coupe. It gets our nomination for the best-riding small car we have driven in recent memory.
A look at the suspension reveals why. Many cars the size of the C230 today use MacPherson struts front and back for economy and to save space. The ride qualities this configuration brings are generally okay but not superlative. The C230, on the other hand, goes with a multilink arrangement in back that is more common on larger luxury sedans. There are struts in the front but they use beefy springs that are pushed out so far to the corners of the car that their bases overhang the tires by an inch or two. It's not clear what this setup would do on superrough surfaces where there is a lot of wheel travel, but off-road-sized potholes are an unlikely scenario for a small performance car like this one. Suffice it to say the wide base formed by the suspension system probably goes a long way in making the car well behaved.
There are other additional features to recommend the C230. Our test vehicle carried a $750 big wheel/low-profile tire package and a $1,440 leather interior, both of which made the car look sharp. We had no complaints with the six-speed manual transmission, which shifted smoothly and with short throws. The cupholder also flips over to the side and out of the way of the driver's shifting arm, something many other carmakers haven't thought of. Visibility out the back was excellent and is worth noting because it is subpar in many current-generation sporty cars. There's a glass panel insert in the lower part of the liftgate that comes in handy when parallel parking. Steering is tight and responsive. The passenger compartment isn't overly cozy and most tall drivers will probably find the headroom is decent. Though the car is rear-wheel drive, an electronic stability system is standard to help keep it going straight on slippery surfaces. For safety sake, side air bags mount in the front doors and above the rear armrests. Four-wheel ABS discs with brake assist are standard.
The model we tried was a 2003, but '04s differ only in cosmetic changes and offer a few new options. The car is said to be due for a redesign in 2006.
There are very few bones to pick with the little Mercedes. The split fold-down rear seats are probably fine for kids and dogs but cramped for normal-sized adults. A windshield wiper would help with visibility out the hatchback in rain. Some reviewers question its $24,950 base price as being aggressive for a small sport coupe. But the C230 has been selling well probably because it gives refined features in a Mercedes package that won't break the bank.
-- Lee Teschler