Here’s a little secret: ever since the folks at No Longer DaimlerChrysler decided to pervert their previously sensible nomenclature in order to better suit the lowest common denominator of California housewives, the replacement for the 190E has been known within Mercedes-Benz dealerships as the “Cheap-Class”. It’s a particularly common phrase in Service and Parts, but from time to time a salesperson will let it slip as well, although certainly not in front of the customer.
There’s something ungracious about calling a vehicle that sells for a minimum (and as-tested!) price of $36,725 the “Cheap” anything, but from the perspective of its manufacturer the sobriquet is legitimate. Set the Wayback Machine for 1975, and you can find a W115 240D selling for $9500. That’s $38,000 in today’s money, and it got you a German taxi with roll-up windows, no air conditioning, sixty-four horsepower, and M-B Tex seats. The new car offers more — a lot more — for less. So, Cheap-Class it is.
My recent trip to Napa for the VW Intramural League test offered me a chance to kill a couple birds with a single stone. By renting my own transportation, I’d be free to avoid the $100 dinners with various Heffalumps Of The Industry. And by paying an eye-watering $354 for three days including airport tax, I’d be able to review a Mercedes for the B&B. Done and done. To paraphrase Jerry Orbach in Dirty Dancing, let’s see what my money bought.
Don’t look now, but this car’s a bit of a media darling. I couldn’t find a bad review of it anywhere I looked. Had it just been the American press giving it props, I’d have suspected that the gilded hand of recently-deposed superstar Mercedes PR person Geoff Day had been hard at work. The Brits like it just as much, however, and they’ve been singularly unkind to the Baby Benz in the past. Although this is fundamentally a facelift of the 2007 model, the accolades for interior quality, styling, and dynamics have come thick and fast from sources as different as Car and Driver and Top Gear.
My initial impression of it was slightly different, and it was this: small, and crappy. Somehow, the “W204” has avoided the unsightly swelling that has afflicted its cousin from Munich. The 190E was 175 inches long; this is 180. The E30 and F30 are 175 and 182 inches, respectively, but the numbers don’t properly communicate how tidy the Benz feels compared to the Bimmer. This is still a compact car. I suppose that’s a brave thing, and Mercedes gets away with it because it’s not their core product the way the Three is for BMW.
What’s impressive about the interior: The evergreen M-B Tex seats, long may they wear. The LCD screen in the centrally-mounted speedometer is extremely high-resolution and contains many beautiful fonts and images. The steering wheel’s about as good as what you get in a VW GLI, and that’s not damning with faint praise. The shifter feels solid.
The rest of it’s pretty low-rent, and perhaps deliberately so, because this is, after all, the Cheapest of the Class. I had to keep telling myself, “This doesn’t cost any more than a Ford Fusion with the goodies,” to which my self responded, “That would be a bigger car with more power and more stuff and a nicer interior.” Fortunately for my mental health, I was interrupted by the infotainment system’s decision to pretend my iPod Classic didn’t exist. After some fussing, I paired my Galaxy S3 and cued up the Amazon Cloud Player. Gotta have the Player to hear that Mayer, dontcha know. There was a Hertz NeverLost (aka “NeverRight”) GPS goiter mounted on the center console, which seemed odd until I remembered that thirty-six grand doesn’t get you GPS. Oh, Mercedes! You so crazy! First it was optional air conditioning on your luxury car, and now it’s optional GPS.
In just moments, it was time to hop on the 101 and press the throttle pedal to the carpet. Hmm. Thus began my three-day experience with the World’s Most Charmless Engine. It’s a 1.8-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged to a fairly stout 201 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque. Or at least that’s what I’ve been led to believe. On the move, however, it has no characteristics of an internal combustion powerplant whatsoever. When full-speed-ahead is requested, it hesitates for a moment while the 7G-TRONIC negotiates the proper gear. Then it emits an odd sort of drone and begins shoving the C250 forward. This shove does not vary as the tach needle climbs. It’s like an electric motor. When a gearchange is called for, there’s a brief pause and then the unchanging push continues. The electric Mercedes luxury sedan may be a thing of the future, but its indifferent, uninspiring power delivery is here today. Next to this thing, the Jetta 1.8TSI might as well be a Ferrari F355, character-wise.
My schedule required multiple trips from San Francisco to Napa over the course of three days. During that time, I came to appreciate a few things about the C250. Thing one: the seats, driving position, and feedback from the controls are efficient and relaxing. I could dimly sense the vestigial tail of my 190E’s forged-steel approach to the open road in its great-grandchild, even though it was dulled by the modern requirement for a few hundred pounds of Dynamat. After driving the Passat and CC, neither of which was significantly less expensive than this car, I was relieved to find myself back in the Cheap’s black-vinyl-and-aluminum-trim confines.
Thing two: what features the car has do in fact work well. The Bluetooth integration is flawless and hands-free chatting is acceptably hi-fi. The climate control dealt with heat and cold to my satisfaction and without adding a lot of blower noise to the quiet cabin. The cruise control has an extremely intelligent feature: move it a little bit in either direction and it adjusts your speed by one mile per hour. Push it farther and it adjusts to the nearest multiple of five. Leaving a 50mph zone for a 65? Three quick pushes and you’re speeding by the same amount. A dyed-in-the-wool M-B fan (which I am not; I’ve only had two in my driveway out of the 25+ cars I’ve owned in my adult life, with a third likely to arrive in a few weeks) would likely have something to say about the company’s ability to intelligently engineer a vehicle for stress-free high-speed operation and blah blah blah and at that point I would grab that person by the shoulders and scream “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE S430? HUH? WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THAT PIECE OF CRAP?”
The C250 grows on you with time. It really does. If you sit in one at the auto show, you won’t be impressed. If you test-drive it for twenty minutes, it’s likely to convince you to buy something else. It takes time to respect the car. I’m not talking about the old hundred-mile rule here. This isn’t a case of becoming inured to its faults. Rather, you become fond of its virtues.
Over the course of nearly three hundred miles on the trot, much of it stop-and-go traffic punctuated by frequent calls for all 201 psuedo-electric ponies, the little Benzo was claiming 28.9 miles per gallon. This would not do. Plus, I had a mind to step into the ocean for a minute. I set a course that would take me from Napa to Stinson Beach and from there to the Golden Gate Bridge overlook. I borrowed a passenger for the trip whom I felt it might be amusing to frighten. Along the coast we flew, obtaining all available speed from the tiny four-cylinder, stomping the brakes into ABS with the approach of each hairpin. On corner exits I would let the tail run wide, kicking pebbles from the shoulder surface into a thousand-foot freefall down to the midnight blue of the turbulent waves below. I made each and every pass the moment it seemed likely that it might be possible to do so. As the miles rolled on, I found myself daring fate again and again; once, as the C250 was snagging fourth towards an uphill right-hander, with only the sea and the horizon visible ahead, I stamped the carpet twice, loud enough for it to be audible over the moaning from the engine compartment, and said, “NO BRAKES!” before calling upon the deus ex anti-blockier for real and staccato-squeaking our way around the blind face of the rock to the next open straight at the last possible minute. This was not well-received, I must say.
By the time we reached the overlook for the big orange bridge I’d formed my true opinion of the C250, and it is this: Other cars offer more features, more power, more space, more convenience for the same money. You should probably buy one of those. This is not a W126 and it’s not going to last a million miles. The purchase of a Mercedes-Benz can no longer be justified on longevity or durability. But what you get for the money, in exchange for giving up the nav and the leather and the usable rear seats, is a car that is properly engineered on an excuse-free chassis. It is tangibly more satisfying to operate than a Camry or a Passat or a Fusion. On a fast road the gap between it and the jumped-up front-drivers is considerable.
That stupid, charmless turbo four-cylinder rewarded my irresponsible operation by returning 22 miles per gallon during that last drive. In circumstances like that, I’ve seen my Boxster return half that. Ugh. How I disliked the 1.8 turbo. but the numbers are pretty good. I’d spring for the big-power V-6 in the C350, and certainly Mercedes wouldn’t be unhappy were I to do so. Still, the 1.8 is okay. Nobody’s ever going to look forward to hearing it rev, but the same was true for the diesel in the 240D.
So. Relatively cheap. Not too many features. The engine is blah but the chassis is sound and it works over the long haul. I don’t know about you, but that sounds about like what I expect from a Mercedes-Benz. If any modern car deserves to wear the star, then I suppose this one does.