2005 Mercedes C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan

Smaller Mercedes sedan serves up ample style

It's interesting how manufacturers have different cars that symbolize the brand. Take Mazda. Even though they provide a full-range of vehicles, thanks to the runaway success, and deservedly so, of both the RX-7 and Miata MX-5, they're known as a sports car company.

The legacy carries through to today, where the 3 Series is arguably BMW's most important vehicle. So vital in fact, that the Bavarian automaker has made sure to tone down the "adventurous" styling of the new 5 and 7 Series to a less polarizing level on the all-new '06 3 Series.

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With Mercedes-Benz, the star has always been the E-Class, the midsize sport luxury sedan that has come to epitomize quality, status and dignified style. The smaller C-Class is inevitably left in the wings. Often termed the "baby" E, it's a fine entry into the Mercedes-Benz family, but not a destination in itself.

Much of that has changed in recent years. While there is still a family resemblance, the C has developed into its own demeanor, with a much stronger emphasis on sport than in previous years. For 2005, the new C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan is the most exciting and affordable C-Class for the enthusiast yet, as well as an able competitor to BMW's much acclaimed 3 Series.

So leave good enough alone, right? Well, the once-conservative automaker is no longer. Take a look at the snarling SLK and the exquisite CLS sedan and you know Mercedes-Benz is intent on showing a new side to their passion. For 2005, the C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan (and the C320 Sport) gets the muscular body kit that was standard on last year's C32 AMG model. A deeper front air dam with mesh grilles, more curvaceous side sills, clear lens head and tail lamps and very attractive 5-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels give this particular C-Class a lot of panache for its price.

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If you're wondering if those who plunk down the $50k-plus for the AMG model will be disappointed having to share the high-end styling, don't. For 2005, an all-new C55 AMG model enjoys a monstrous 5.5-liter V-8 that pumps out 362 hp-replacing the C32's 349 hp supercharged V-6-and now features a unique front fascia inspired by the sleek CLK coupe.

And while the vertebrae-compressing big V-8 is nice, no enthusiast will be disappointed with the driving experience of the C230. Power continues to be supplied by a supercharged (Kompressor, auf Deutsch) and intercooled 1.8-liter 4-cylinder that cranks out a very respectable 189 horsepower. This is a sweetheart of an engine, with turbine-like smoothness, a very sweet rasp from the exhaust and a real willingness to rev.

For those of us who love to shift, a revised 6-speed manual transmission is a massive improvement. In the past, Mercedes manual transmissions have been more vague than precise, but using a new direct shift-rod instead of the old cable design brings a newfound directness. A 20-percent shorter lever throw than last year makes shifting quicker and cleaner as well. We've also driven the optional 5-speed automatic transmission, and with Mercedes' Touch Shift manual-style control, you'll still have quite a sporting experience.

The C230 Sport also has a new enthusiasm for the corners-and the previous model wasn't even that bad. A re-tuned sport suspension provides firmer settings-much closer to what European models receive. The difference is noticeable, with a significantly more precise feel at the steering wheel and a controlled ride that is still supple without being floaty. A wider track also gives added grip and a more roadworthy feel. In sum, the 2004 model was extremely competent, but the added crispness of the '05 makes you really want to seek out some twisty roads.

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A completely revised cockpit is a fine ally in your enthusiastic pursuits. The emphasis is definitely on sport, with the driver greeted by a fat, three-spoke leather wheel with silver multifunction control buttons for everything from the trip computer and audio settings to the navigation system, if you pony up the extra dough. A matching black leather-and-chrome trim shift lever enhances the athletic image. Behind the wheel is a handsome new instrument layout with equal-sized, chrome-ringed speedometer and tachometer flanked by smaller gauges. Gone is the jumbo central speedometer, long a Mercedes-Benz trademark.

If you miss the entertainment value of a giant speedometer needle swiping across the gauge, we'd recommend the optional COMAND system, which gives you a large 6.5-inch monitor in the center console and includes controls for the DVD-based navigation system as well as audio, which, in our tester's case, was the fantastic 320-watt, 12-speaker Harmon/Kardon digital surround system.

Also making the C230 a better place to be is new silver color aluminum trim that considerably brightens up the interior over last year, while the supportive front sport seats have a slightly more aggressive bolster-all the better to hold you in place during spirited driving.

Even though the C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan may be the entry-level model of the lineup, it's still a Mercedes-Benz, and that means an impressive level of equipment. Standards include dual-zone climate control with dust and pollen filter, central locking with SmartKey (which includes all remote locking features on the key itself and uses a nifty infra-red system instead of a metal key), power heated outside mirrors, 10-way front sports seats with power height and recline, six-speaker CD sound system, leather front seating inserts, eight airbags including side impact airbags in all four doors and side curtain head protection airbags, AMG body kit, 17-inch alloy wheels, sport suspension, ABS, ESP stability control, traction control and more.

Factor in Mercedes-Benz quality, status and a base price of just under $30,000-and the C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan boasts tremendous value. Our admittedly well-loaded tester, which included the DVD navigation system, sunroof package, and Harmon/Kardon sound system, was just under $36,000 including destination.

If you like the C-Class, but the Kompressor Sport Sedan isn't your cup of tea, it's worth looking at the rest of the family. Those seeking more power can opt for the C320, with a 215-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6, along with the monster V-8, C55 AMG sedan. There are also the V-6 powered C240 and C320 luxury sedans and the C240 luxury wagon, all available with Mercedes' grippy 4Matic all-wheel drive. With this much variety, it should be easy to find a C-Class that meets your needs, especially since all the models enjoy numerous upgrades inside and out for '05.

Always a very nice car, the 2005 C230 Kompressor Sport Sedan is an affordable sport sedan to covet, fully deserving of its own place at the luxury sport table. (www.mbusa.com)

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