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A Mercedes for the Masses - 2001-10-15

The Mercedes-Benz division of DaimlerChrysler is turning in another big sales year. The German-make enjoys a dominant position among luxury car brands in many countries throughout the world. But the company has set about expanding its customer base with a new model.

A new Mercedes-Benz for less than $26,000? It is true. That is the price tag attached to the new C230 coupe, says company spokesman Jim Resnick. "Even adjusted for inflation, we have never offered a car in the U.S. that was as affordable as this," he said.

The full name of this "affordable" Mercedes is the C230 Kompressor Sports Coupe. "Kompressor" means the four-cylinder engine is supercharged and develops 192 horsepower. The four-passenger coupe includes anti-lock brakes, traction control, eight air bags, alloy wheels and performance tires in its base price.

The engineering editor at Road & Track magazine, Dennis Simanaitis, was asked if the C230 qualifies as a "real" Mercedes. "Yeah, I think it really does," he says. "There are lots of details that they have brought "down" from the more "grand" Mercedes to this new price class. It is very impressive."

If one loads up the car with options like a sunroof, CD changer, leather upholstery, automatic transmission and power seats, the price rises to more than $30,000. But a base price of less than $26,000 is attractive for many American buyers. And it gives Mercedes-Benz a chance to break into the entry level to the U.S. luxury market, which is large and growing. By moving "down" market, the company stands to make more money on volume sales.

Road & Track's Dennis Simanaitis detected no "glaring deficiencies" in the car.

In a week of driving, we found the coupe has the solid "feel" of more expensive models in the company's line. It features brisk acceleration, a firm but comfortable ride, precise handling and a fair amount of cargo space reachable through its hatchback rear door. As to whether the C230 coupe will be a hit with its intended target customers, the younger crowd? Journalist Simanaitis has an opinion. "The difficulty, of course, is - will the kids, its intended market, see it as being hip enough and cool enough," he said.

That does not seem to be a problem so far. The company reports brisk sales for the sporty coupe. Jim Resnick says Mercedes-Benz is in the enviable position of having the demand exceed the U.S. supply. "Germany can only produce X-number of sport coupes in a [yearly] cycle and we are trying to take over those production units from other markets," says Mr. Resnick.

The C230 coupe has a big job: attract young and affluent buyers to the famous three-pointed silver-star logo and make them happy enough to become lifelong members in the Mercedes-Benz fraternity.