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Review: Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor

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2002 C230 Kompressor

SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

By Derek Price

If ever a brand had cachet, it would be Mercedes-Benz. Just mentioning the name conjures up images of supreme luxury -- palatial houses, courteous servants, fine wine -- the best of everything.

But the Mercedes vernacular is changing from "please pass the caviar" to "yo, wassup" as the carmaker courts younger buyers who don't have deep pockets. The 2002 C230 Kompressor starts at an affordable $24,950, a price perfect for young professionals more interested in the big game than in big stock portfolios.

This emphasis on youth goes beyond price, as the C230 feels much livelier than its big cousins. The expensive Benzes sometimes feel like they're riding atop a giant marshmallow, but the little hatchback version has a much more intimate feel on the road. Its suspension is fairly soft, but it still injects confidence for spirited driving or emergency lane changes. In a word, it feels light.

The 192-horsepower, supercharged four-cylinder engine sends plenty of force to the rear wheels, with power coming smooth and even throughout the rev range. But if the engine's feel is French cuisine, its sound is more like Mickey D's. A noisy, metallic clicking sound during acceleration seems very undignified for a car with such a luxurious nameplate.

Two transmissions are offered, both of which lean toward the sporty side. A five-speed automatic, which adds $1,300 to the sticker price, is capable of monitoring the driver's habits and shifting accordingly. Aggressive thrusts on the accelerator bring aggressive shifts that let the engine wind up, while more lethargic driving is met with earlier shifts that save fuel. A slick six-speed manual gearbox is available to please purist drivers.

Mercedes-Benz obviously had to cut some corners to keep the price so low, but it retains the vault-like feel and top-of-the-line safety features expected in a high-end hatchback. A total of eight air bags protect front- and rear-seat passengers - two front air bags, two side air curtains and four side air bags.

So where did Mercedes cut corners? The most obvious answer is in the interior, where cheap-looking plastics cover the dash and manually adjusted cloth seats are standard. Leather seats, which still don't feel as supple as the cowhide on high-end models, add $1,410 to the price. It also retains some of the big Benzes' idiosyncrasies, like a door lock switch on the center console and power window switches low on the door. Worst of all, especially considering that the C230 is aimed at a younger crowd, it doesn't come with a standard CD player. Even the paltry Ford Focus hatchback comes with a six-disc changer.

Another cost cutter is the C230's back end, which was chopped seven inches shorter than the C-class sedan that costs $5,000 more. And, although the brilliant Mercedes marketing department named the C230 a "sports coupe," don't be fooled - it's not a coupe. In fact, it's a hatchback, just like the cheap economy cars that were so popular in the 1980s and early '90s. Its only redeeming quality is a clear panel to improve rear visibility below the integrated spoiler.

Front-end styling is just the opposite, however. A long, sloping hood gives the C230 an aggressive demeanor that looks shockingly similar to the S- and CL-class models that carry price tags in the triple-digit range. Mercedes connoisseurs can't be fooled, but some drivers won't know the difference between the $25,000 C230 and the $120,000 CL600 in their rear-view mirrors.

The only question left to answer is whether or not the C230 is a "real" Mercedes. In the sense of high luxury and no-holds-barred comfort features, the little hatchback falls woefully short. But top-notch engineering, class-leading safety devices and a solid feel mean the C230 has a lot more going for it than that three-pointed star on its hood.