Mercedes-Benz, which performed a complete makeover of its C-Class for 2008, has unveiled its fresh new C230 to join the already released C300 and C350.
Not only is it new, but it's ours: the C230 is sold only in Canada. A rear-wheel-drive version starts at $35,800 with six-speed manual transmission, while my 4Matic all-wheel-drive tester, which comes only with a seven-speed automatic, starts at $39,500.
Special entry-level models usually do well with frugal Canadians, although it also might be that American buyers don't need as much of a price incentive: their C300, the next step up for us, starts at a mere $32,425 in practically-at-par U.S. dollars.
Once you swallow the price difference, the C230 stands on its own merits: this is an exceptionally nice automobile, offering the comfort and great driving experience of its siblings at a lower buy-in.
All of the C-Class models use V6 engines: while the C300 is a 3.0-litre and the C350 a 3.5-litre, the C230 breaks with the naming tradition, powered by a 2.5-litre V6 that makes 201 horsepower. One drawback is that it calls for premium fuel, which isn't a very pleasant surprise at the pumps these days.
It doesn't have as much power off the line as the other C-Class models — ask for acceleration at highway speeds, and you've got to wait for it to downshift before it takes off — but it's more than enough for city driving, and once it's up to speed, it's an exceptionally sweet highway performer.
The seven-speed transmission is well mated to the engine; a button switches it to Comfort, where it takes off in second gear for smoother starts or better traction on slippery roads, or to Sport, for snappier operation.
The 4Matic is a true all-wheel system, distributing torque 45 per cent and 55 per cent front to rear. It hugs curves tightly, cornering around them almost flat, and with nicely weighted steering that isn't appreciably heavier than the rear-wheel-drive versions.
The brakes bring it down from speed quickly and straight, and the whole package has a luxurious heft: this is the full Mercedes-Benz treatment, at a relatively reasonable price.
The 2008 redesign brings a new, AMG-inspired front-end treatment with massive three-pointed star, which Mercedes has introduced gradually: standard on the C350, it's part of a Sport package that's a no-charge option on the C300.
On the C230, the package is $800, which also includes 17-inch alloy wheels (up from the base 16-inch), performance all-season tires, sport suspension, side skirts, upgraded brake calipers, sport wheel and aluminum pedals. If you don't order it, you get the traditional unadorned three-bar grille with upright hood ornament.
A $2,200 Premium Package on the C230 also adds items that are standard on the other two models: heated seats, sunroof and auto-dimming, power-folding mirrors.
Inside are very comfortable "man-made leather" eight-way power seats, excellent dash fit and finish, and a handsome instrument cluster. The speedo needle floats around the outside of the speedometer, with the vehicle information centre in the middle. Press a button to open the cover that hides the stereo display, and it automatically turns it on — an upgraded music system with satellite radio is available, but not the navigation system that's optional on other models.
Other standard items on the C230 include dual-zone automatic climate control and automatic headlamps. At night, all controls are backlit, along with soft lighting in the footwells and door handles; a nice touch is that if you turn the stereo off, all of its backlit controls turn off as well, making the centre stack look much sleeker.
It's all very well done, save for the plastic on the heater control dials and shifter knob, which feels thin and cheap.
The standard windshield wipers are rain sensing, which I also don't like. As with similar systems from virtually every manufacturer, they're not sure how to handle drizzly weather. I wish automakers would just put variable intermittent wipers on everything: if you're smart enough to drive, you should be smart enough to figure out that it's raining.
Rear-seat legroom is generous, given the car's size, and the trunk is a spacious 104 cm in length; a folding rear seat was an option.
Everything's relative, of course, and the essential question with any vehicle isn't just what it costs, but whether it's worth the price. With premium brands, I find many can be overpriced by virtue of their name or their luxury touches. With the C230, the performance, handling and interior creature comforts live up to the sticker on the windshield.
If I found myself in the market for a car of this category, there's no question I would seriously consider buying it. The C-Class really is that nice.Freelance auto reviewer Jil McIntosh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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