Open hatch shines on Sports Coupe Two-door hatchback looks and drives like a traditional Benz, does so with elan

ST-JEAN-CAP-FERRAT, France – Honda has been selling hatchbacks almost since it started selling cars in North America. Now, it has decided there is no market for them.

In September 2001, Mercedes-Benz will introduce the first hatchback in its history.

Who said market research was an exact science? The Mercedes-Benz Sports Coupe is a variation of the new-last-year C-Class sedan, although the only exterior components they share are windshield wipers, door handles and side-view mirrors.

The front end is immediately recognizable as a Mercedes, with nested oval. Mercedes coupes generally sport a big three-pointed star. The C-Class is no exception. The steeply rising, wedgy belt line gives the car a taut, ready-to-roll stance, terminating in a tail with a built-in spoiler and large, uniquely shaped (for Mercedes-Benz) taillights.

There's a hint of the old BMW 3 Series ti hatchback in there.

And yes, the Sports Coupe is a hatchback.

The Honda connection extends as far as a vestigial rear window panel in the back, for added visibility.

A pretty, pretty car.

As the name suggests, the Sports Coupe is intended to be the most youthful, most entertaining version of the C-Class to drive.

And it is.

It begins by being considerably shorter than the sedan, mostly due to reduced rear overhang, even if the wheelbase is the same.

The car looks much shorter though, just avoiding the "stubby" tag by a few millimetres.

Despite this shortening, the rear seat is usable, if not entirely welcoming for larger people.

I'm 5-foot-10, and my hair just brushed the headliner.

Legroom is ample for a coupe, and the rear seatback split-folds to augment the smallish trunk.

Much of the interior is borrowed from the sedan, although the instrument panel is more sculpted in the coupe.

Apart from the continuing use of its cross-like controls for HVAC and sound system, the cockpit is a functional place to be.

(I guess they have a boxcar full of these things, and the accountants won't let the designers come up with something more intelligent until they use them all up.) A wide variety of engines will be available in the Sports Coupe in Europe; North America will get only one: the 2.3-litre, supercharged four-cylinder formerly used in the SLK, now producing 197 Pferdestarke (Deutsche for horsepower; that'll be about 192 in our measure).

Once the CLK coupe has run its course at the end of the 2002 model year (it is based on the old C-Class platform), you can imagine them fitting the lovely 3.2-litre V6 under this comely hood, too.

Six-speed manual and five-speed automatic will be our transmission choices, both lifted from the C-Class parts bin.

Other markets will get something called SEQUENTRONIC, the same six-speed gearbox with hydraulic actuation, rather like the transmission used on the little Smart car.

You tap the lever to shift up or down, or let the gearbox do it all automatically. But it's slow, especially in automatic mode.

And in the more powerful car, the gaps between shifts are magnified.

This is probably why Mercedes-Benz North America won't bring it in – good job, too.

I drove both transmissions we will get.

As in other Benzes, the manual doesn't have the slick, tactile feel of a BMW gearbox, but the shifts are short and direct, and you're never at a loss for a gear.

Except reverse; several of my colleagues had problems lifting the up high enough to overcome the lock-out on the linkage. The five-speed automatic shifts somewhat lazily, if very smoothly – even when you use the manual shift function.

Tap it left to downshift, right to upshift, just like other Benzes.

The suspension is all C-Class, which is all good. The steering is light but quick and direct.

The ride is very good, and the car corners in a very stable fashion, with heroic grip levels.

Mind you, one of my two test cars had the "Evolution" sport package, the other the AMG package, both of which introduce firmer suspension settings and fatter 17-inch wheels shod with Pirelli tires.

Neither package will be available in Canada, at least not initially. The Sports Coupe will hit Canadian showrooms in November.

Prices have yet to be announced, but in Germany the Sports Coupe will be the least expensive car in the C-Class line.

The current C-Class sedan starts at $37,450 in Canada, so figure a Sports Coupe to start in the mid-$30s and run to more than $40, 000.

Our cars will have cloth upholstery and the usual Mercedes standard fitment of safety features, including four-wheel disc brakes, ABS, eight air bags (two front, four side and two head curtains) and ESP – Mercedes' directional stability control system.

Leather will be an option, as will the neat panoramic sunroof.

The entire roof is glass; the front half slides up and over the rear portion.

A dual fabric sunshade can be closed or opened separately.

Coupes have long been a staple of Mercedes-Benz's lineup, but this is the first time they've done a coupe on the small C-Class.

In a sense, they are following BMW's successful strategy in bringing in as many variations on a given platform as is possible. On a global basis, Mercedes is expecting something like 50 per cent conquest sales with this car.

JoAnne Caza, director of marketing and public relations for Mercedes-Benz Canada, suggests that they might do even better than that.

"The response at the Montreal auto show, where it had its first Canadian public appearance, was tremendous," she said.

The company hopes for 600 to 700 sales per year.

It looks so good, it drives so well, and is so well priced, that that's a decidedly modest target.

Okay, Honda, now, can we have the CRX back please?

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