Thursday, 29 May 2008

First Drive: Mercedes-Benz W204 C230 V6 Avantgarde

The W204 C200K has been dissected by the motoring community thus far with mixed reviews. I found it a little light footed – with a feathery steering rack and a somewhat nervous chassis on those high speed run and during overtaking manouvres. Interestingly or rather baffling, waiting period for this junior exec from Mercedes-Benz Malaysia (MBM) has stretched to 8 months for the C200K Elegance while the Avantgarde version is back logged to 10 months now!

So it is with abated breath that I drove a new demo C230 V6 out of a Cycle & Carriage Bintang (CCB) showroom today, only to be a little disappointed. One, wait list for this soft-launched variant has ballooned to 6 months now and people paying RM300K for a compact sedan shouldn’t be made to wait half a year! Two, the Dynamic Handling mumbo-jumbo didn’t live up to its extreme expectation. Three, the 7G-Tronic seem to have a mind of its own should you want to rush things up a few notches.

Other than that, it’s a fine piece of all-new MB vehicle that oozes prestige, heritage, badge snobbery, solidity in motion and as always, creature comfort. The 6-pot is fine – apart from being a little thirsty – with mostly mid and upper range punch as you’d expect from a ‘small’ V6. The 7G-Tronic isn't helping much with the 6th and 7th cogs mainly overdrive ratios while the 5th felt much like semi-overdrive. This made quick overtaking quite labourious with manual shifting of gears necessary into 4th or even 3rd gear - to ride on the M272 E25's normally-aspirated powerband. Also, I found it a little weird that manual shifting works better and faster via the gear lever than with the steering paddles! The C230 does however takes sweeping corners in stride and will take you from A to B in good shape with the least of drive and ride fatigue.

Problem is there will be more than a handful of enthusiasts who will contrast this to the BMW 325i Sports. That’s where the line of distinction between a good and a better drive starts to appear, not a bad versus an excellent one, mind you. I don’t intend make this article shootout themed so let’s not get into that. After all, I did not test the 325i or 325i Sports back to back.

On motorway, I’d say the new C230 have enough power for that cool, serene and laid-back drive. However, you have to be much more aggressive with that throttle and throw out the notions of driving a C200K, an A4 (B7) 2.0 TFSI or that wicked little Golf GTI. Work with that V6 quickly up the 3500rpm rev range, keep it there or higher and things do get spiced up. The 7G-Tronic is best left to its own devices and never turn the ‘SPORT’ button off unless your mother-in-law is in your new C230! This little button determines the gear shifting response time, throttle response, firmer damping rate and steering agility too. So, don’t mess with that little switch (you don’t want to be in ‘C’ drive mode) if you want to beat the supercharged C200K or that over-confident guy in his E90 325i.

Around bends, the C230 is pretty progressive in nature. You can attack corners at fairly good speed until you sense that rear end starting to veer out just that wee bit. More than that, you get that ESP in -dash exclamation mark blinking away. That said, I still find the rear axle a little twitchy (read: less planted), more so during quick lane change or sudden veering input at the rack. While it is definitely more composed than the C200K, I dare say I have had more fun in the old W203 C230 V6 Avantgarde Sports. Strange. (Or perhaps I need more than 90 minutes in a new C230?) The W204 C230 feels just that bit light-footed still, with the steering yet somewhat EPS-ish. Mind you it’s accurate and sharp but it just not weighty or talkative enough.

Rumbling over bad roads is definitely the new C230’s forte, no junior exec from Munich or Ingolstadt will ever match. Seats are comfy, well sized and supportive. Even hitting uneven patches mid corner does not ruffle its chassis composure. Well, perhaps just that ocassional single rear wheel trampling for footing over that split second. Otherwise, it’s fine. NVH refinements at triple digit speed are very good while straight line cruising stability cannot be faulted. However, I found the tester not very willing to climb higher after crossing mid-point of my quest towards the 2nd rung of triple digits velocity. Then again most engines need to be run-in, more so the European ones.

So there you have it the new C230 Avantgarde with Advanced Agility aka Dynamic Handling package. I have no major complaints with its ride, handling (you can definitely get accustomed to the chassis balance) and agility overall. But Mercedes-Benz, can we have a Kompressor in the C230 V6 for better low end torque? And if possible, a dual clutch 7-speed automated manual gearbox as say 7G-Tronic II? A little less hydraulic assistance for the power steering would be appreciated too. Thank you.

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