Review: 2003 Mercedes-Benz C240 Sport Wagon

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SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

By Robert Bowden, The Car Place

GOOD STUFF

  • Compromises everything nicely
  • Safe
  • Better-than-an-SUV fuel efficiency
  • Quiet
  • Aerodynamic
  • Good looking
  • Everyone assumes it's more expensive than it is

BAD STUFF

  • Some quirky controls
  • Some tight spaces inside
  • A manual seat adjustment! In a Benz?

Specifications

Style: station wagon
Engine: 2.6-liter V6
Transmission: five-speed automatic
Drivetrain: rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 168 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 177 ft-lbs. @ 4,700 rpm
EPA mileage: 19 city/25 highway
Weight: N/A lb.
Base price: $31,400
Price as tested: $38,955

Just the bottom line

Mark it on your calendar — first quarter, 2003. The SUV love affair is ending.

Just as a combination of factors — gas prices, insurance rates, federal regulations — conspired in the early 70s to end the popular muscle cars, so factors are gathering to force Americans from their oversized SUV chariots.

And the truth is that the huge majority of those driving the huge machinery don't need an SUV. They thought it was safe. It isn't. They didn't care about fuel costs. They do now or soon will. They thought it was practical. No more so than other vehicle configurations.

Today, five years from the SUV buying surge, factors are conspiring to again shift buying habits. Looming war (as this is written) and soaring fuel costs (13-cent per gallon jump overnight where I live). Plunging public opinion that now regards SUVs with the same disdain reserved for the lady who doesn't understand why her fur coat is an insult to many. SUVs are being vandalized and made the butt of jokes. Hey, Jesus wouldn't drive one! We've all heard of that campaign. Fact is, car fashions come and go -- and the SUV is on the "go" side.

What will the SUV crowd turn to?

Station wagons.

Everything old is new again.

The station wagon was the family vehicle of choice a half-century ago. It remained popular for decades -- and truly never went out of style, just out of favor with the trendy set. A tombstone of sorts was erected when Buick and Chevrolet discontinued their big, rear-wheel drive wagons in the 90s.

Some carmakers — call them slow if you must — did not jump on the sport utility bandwagon popularized by the Ford Explorer as wagons declined in the 90s. Volvo sales of wagons held steady at one-third of vehicles sold, and that maker only this year introduced a sport utility. Subaru stuck with its wagons until, late in the game, it dropped a boxy body over its wagon platform and served up the Forester. And Porsche — can you believe it — wasted time and money to develop its sport ute now being introduced.

Mercedes-Benz reacted better. It saw the trend and offered top-drawer sport utes years ago. It didn't invest in five — count 'em — models as Toyota did. It gave buyers a basic ute and a luxury, speed ute. 'Nuff.

Smart as it is, Mercedes knew it needed younger buyers for its vehicles. It stood for top quality, top status, top engineering, top style among automakers, but its vehicles were priced beyond the means of all but the very rich. The very rich tend to be old. They die. Ask Buick or Cadillac. Something, some vehicle in a line of vehicles needs to be affordable and attractive to young, less affluent buyers.

Get 'em on board with a make and they'll stick with that make and move up as income increases. That's the thinking.

So Mercedes-Benz begat the C-class.

In base form, a C-class coupe could be yours last year for under $30,000. And what a beauty it was. For many, it was exactly the combination they wanted: Attractive, small for easy around-town driving, safe, a handler, plus it had that special Mercedes status.

For 2003, the C-class coupe gets a stablemate, the C-class Sport Wagon.

It is everything the coupe is, but it adds the practicality and utility needed by families.

It is easy to drive, gets 25 mpg on the highway, has all needed safety features including side head curtains, and has a roomy cargo bay in the back. It is the kind of vehicle that those trading in out-of-favor SUVs will need.

It is not alone, however, as a desirable wagon.

As mentioned, Volvo and Subaru never abandoned wagons and offer some of the best at any price. Audi has been selling a great wagon for years. BMW has a wagon. In fact, it's mostly Japanese and American brands that must now scramble production lines lovingly producing 12 mpg sport utes for a world turning upside down.

Now none of this is to say sport utes don't have a place. They do. Some folks need them for poor conditions, including isolated vacation cabins, etc. I'd welcome a Jeep Liberty for the place I spend two weeks at in North Carolina. But for everyday uses, the ute is a terrible choice — earth-unfriendly, a vehicular nuisance, a selfish statement. Sorry, but it's all true.

I'll not argue further against a vehicle style I wouldn't buy except to say the head of NHTSA said he wouldn't buy one for his daughter if it were the last vehicle on earth. He was speaking of sport utilities with two-star rollover ratings (including the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Avalanche, Chevy Blazer, Tahoe and Yukon, Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty, Land Rover Discovery, Mercury Mountaineer, Mitsubishi Montero, and the Nissan Pathfinder and Xterra). And I'll recommend to you the popular new book, "High and Mighty". It makes all the arguments I've made for years while reviewing utes.

So turn now to what you get with the Mercedes-Benz C240 Sport Wagon. Look how attractive this wagon is, with its sloping C pillars that don't compromise rear visibility. Look at the craftsmanship here; listen as the doors (four of them) slam shut. Lift the tailgate and look at the low liftover and vast area for luggage, antique shop finds, etc.

Slide into the leather driver's seat. Adjust it. Hmmmm. The power controls -- poorly located where you'll scrape the back of your left hand between seat and door — take the seat up and down, and tilt the back. But how to move it fore-aft? Would you believe there is a lever under the front of the seat? In a Benz? Yep. Pull up on the lever and the seat slides.

The four-spoke steering wheel adjusts up-down and fore-aft and feels fine. Instrumentation is easily read and a vehicle computer readout is centered in the speedometer. It provides all manner of information, including statistics on each trip (time, distance, mileage). That's how I know I averaged 24.9 mpg in mixed driving.

The controls are a hodge-podge, however. I did adjust to the cruise control, but never found or used half of the tiny buttons. I cannot imagine trying to use them while actually driving at interstate speed. Confusing controls are invitations to accidents as eyes are diverted from the road.

I also disliked the six-stack CD located in the glove box. Phooey.

The ignition "key" is the funky no-key variety used in other Benz vehicles. It combines remote locking-unlocking with the ignition control. There is a rectangular end that inserts into the dash. A computer recognizes a signal and tells the car, "Yes, this must be our owner. Let's crank, shall we?" Cute as this is, it's not particularly easy to use. Actually, the key-start button combination used with the Honda S2000 is easiest.

Know that you're now surrounded by safety features. If one characteristic stands Mercedes apart form other automakers, it is concern for safety. There are dual front air bags, side bags both front and rear, head curtains, anti-lock brakes and sophisticated traction and handling systems. It doesn't get much better.

The base C models come with a six-speed manual transmission, not wanted by most buyers. We tested the five-speed automatic that is a $1,325 option. It was a joy, shifting seamlessly and quickly. The wagon, as might be expected, handles like a car. No compromises needed. Performance is sufficient, not thrilling.

Other options on the tester were the leather seats and special interior at $1,440, the CD unit at $400, a hands-off phone system for $1,595, emergency Tele-Aid system at $775 (it calls for help automatically if you're in an accident), and a "value added" package that included auto-dimming mirrors, a rain sensor and a moonroof for $1,475.

Power windows were of the desirable one-touch up and down variety at all locations.

The standard headlights were sub-par, unusual for a Mercedes. A Xenon option will add cost, but many will want it today. The rain-sensing wipers worked well.

Notable is how quiet the C240 wagon is at interstate speeds. There was very little tire or wind noise intruding into the passenger compartment. But a draft could be felt where the door and side window meet. Firewall air leakage into the interior was not excessive.

The stereo system was good, but not over-the-top. A Jaguar S-Type, for instance, followed the C240, and its audio system was considerably better.

One item missing from the tester is one I'd want: all-wheel drive. M-B offers all-wheel drive as a 4-Matic option. The cost of that must be factored in for buyers comparing this C240 with the Audi, Volvo and Subaru all-wheel drive models.

Take a last look at the C240 Sport Wagon above and ask if this might not be the perfect vacation-family vehicle. Roof rack, lots of interior cargo space, comfortable seats, safety features, good performance and true car handling, major luxury touches.

And .. how much is gas in your area? What's the real-world mileage on that SUV you had your eye on? Would you like to rethink things?

Think wagon. Go ahead. Be trendy again.

'nuff said.

© 2003, Robert C. Bowden
Reviewed 2/9/03

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