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Mercedes-Benz C180K review (2000-2007)
Bodystyle: 4dr saloon
Engine: 1.8-litre in-line supercharged 4-cylinder
Fuel type: Petrol
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Date of test: December 2003
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What is it?
Mercedes is a brand famous the world over for its large, luxurious saloons. Yet it has had a smaller saloon in its range since 1983. Now called C-Class, and incorporating three-door hatchback and five-door estate lines as well as the staple four-door model, it's a key car for the German maker. Though even here, the emphasis has always edged towards the costlier range-toppers, seemingly at the expense of cheaper variants. Mercedes rectified that in 2002 with an all-new supercharged 1.8-litre. Said to offer large-engine refinement and not-far-off-diesel economy, it's an intriguing proposition.
Where does it fit?
The C180 is the cheapest C-Class you can buy. In four-door form it competes with more expensive, larger-engined versions of the Ford Mondeo, Renault Laguna and Vauxhall Vectra, not to mention more obvious rivals like the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series. The marketing of this car has always been 'prestige for mainstream money', explaining the scarcity of equipment and small engine range, yet today's car is even more tempting due to the power of the supercharged engine and spec levels which, really, aren't all that basic anymore. Interesting.
Is it for you?
If you want out-and-out sporting dynamism, you're probably better off with a BMW 3 Series, Alfa Romeo 156 or maybe an Audi A4. The C-Class has a different set of priorities which major on out-and-out refinement, not boundary-pushing feedback through every corner. The idea is for not only the stylish good looks to ape the S-Class limousine, but for the whole experience to do so too. Of course, this means Mercedes feels no need to compensate with overly-exotic finishes as standard, like its plush mainstream rivals, so leather-lovers and climate control-fans may be better-served by a Mondeo or Laguna.
What does it do well?
Drives like a mini S-Class - seriously. The ride and refinement offered by the C-Class are exceptional, particularly at speed on a motorway where it really does eat miles with ease. Sensible wheels (not too large) and supreme suspension absorption and control also take the edge of city centre bumps. It's a real class act. The reasonably nippy engine is now much more capable than before, with decent pull and a not-unappealing engine note at higher revs, though it's still a little intrusive. The excellent five-speed auto takes the edge off this though. Inside, initially the seats seem too flat and firm, but become adorable after a few hours behind the wheel, where you'll discover precise, positive steering and pretty tidy handling. It feels as though nothing will knock this car off its course, so solid and straight does it track in all weathers.
What doesn't it do well?
The steering, though confident, is heavy at slow speeds and lacks a degree of 'self centring', a trait that's helpful when exiting corners. The engine still lacks the punch and refinement of a rival BMW unit, and sometimes the auto 'box changes down too readily, making it a bit noisy in the cabin. A cabin which, by Mercedes standards, is too cheaply-trimmed, and surely this is the car's weakest area. There's nothing wrong with the actual design, it's just that plastics are far too shiny and, well, plasticky - mainstream rivals like the Ford Mondeo seem more expensive, which surely is a mistake. Parts of the door trims look like they come from the BL production line, circa 1976. And really, though all essential kit is standard, there really should be a few more luxuries considering the steep list price; though, saying that, keenly-priced 'SE' packs do offer notably better value over standard cars.
What's it like to live with?
The roomy C-Class is very comfortable for front-seat passengers, but although those in the rear have ample room, a too-low seat base leads to a knees-in-air posture; not hugely comfortable over long distances. The boot is big but hindered a little by a narrow opening - and be careful if you use the remote opener on the keyfob, as the lid springs up very smartly! Visibility is OK but door mirrors are too small. As for economy, a 33.6mpg average is reasonable for an automatic variant, even if it is some way off the 38.7mpg score of the six-speed manual. Needless to say, build quality is first-rate even if some trims aren't, while a 30-year breakdown warranty shows the faith Mercedes has in its products. As such, depreciation is very low; you'll never lose too much cash with this car.
Would we buy it?
We don't mind admitting, the C-Class really surprised us. Familiarity means it doesn't stand out in a crowd, yet the driving experience it offers is nevertheless crowd-leading, particularly in terms of refinement and comfort. It's a small Mercedes which imitates a big car well, without going down the 'sporting' route of so many rivals; refreshing. The new 1.8-litre engine is also more refined and economical than before, and only adds to the C-Class's pleasant vibes. Would be buy it? Almost certainly, if we had the cash. And cover as many miles as possible in it.
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