Of

course there was (and still is) the CLK, a car based on the platform of the old

C-Class, but it has always been marketed as a more expensive car, with styling

that marked it as a member of the larger E-Class family.

With its hatchback and stubby tail, the C-Class Sports Coupé is a completely

new kind of Mercedes, offering sporty looks (and, with the 230 Kompressor engine

the only power-unit on offer in South Africa, sporty performance too) combined

with a degree of load versatility that is rare in this class. In fact only Saab's

9-3 coupé offers a similar mix.

Mercedes-Benz points out that the Sports Coupé is not simply a modified version

of the C-Class saloon. Almost all sheetmetal has been redeveloped specifically

for the three-door model. The radiator grille is raked back more sharply, there's

no "vertical" three-pointed star on the bonnet (only a badge, as on other sporty

models such as the SLK, SL and CL), and the apron below the grille is completely

new. The headlamps follow the C-Class theme of overlapping ellipses, but the outer

ovals are visibly larger than on the saloon models.

Viewed from the side, the Sports Coupé has a wedge design, with the rearward flanks

flowing upward into large tail light units. A spoiler links the two light clusters

across the rear, and under it is an extra strip of tinted window to counter the

limited rearward visibility resulting from the swept-up tail and swooping C-pillar

line.

It's a treatment that evoked widely varying responses from the CAR team. One member

remarked that it "kind of grabs the strands all together in a rush at the rear

end... great front, though." Another commented that the rear end was "horribly

flabby", but that the looks were partly saved by the (optional) dark-glass roof.

But yet another tester pronounced it the best-looking Mercedes coupé currently

on offer...

Inside, the Sports Coupé follows new C-Class style, achieving an airy, upmarket

ambience despite the use of dark grey facia mouldings. South African models are

sold with the Evolution sports package, which adds a touch of sportiness with

brushed aluminium facings on console and door sills, polished steel "drilled-look"

pedals (with rubber grips in the holes to counter any tendency for soles to slip

off their faces), a leather-trimmed gearlever and inlaid carpets featuring "Evolution"

lettering.

Standard equipment includes adaptive front airbags, side bags and window bags,

automatic child seat recognition, belt tensioners, climate control (the test car

had the optional luxury Thermatronik system in place of the usual Thermatik),

dust and pollen filter, central locking, Mercedes's "easy entry" system, power

windows in front, a multi-function steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, cruise

control and a computer. On the test car, the standard sound system with front-loading

CD player was replaced by the more upmarket Audio 30 APS radio/CD with navigation

system and CD changer in the glove compartment.

The leather-upholstered front chairs are firm, and offer more lateral support

than those in the saloon models. The test unit was fitted with optional electric

controls for seat and steering wheel adjustment, with memory function. The driver's

seat automatically moves back 60 cm when the electronic key is removed from the

ignition, allowing easier egress.

Access to the rear seats is facilitated by a lever on each front seat that tilts

the backrest forward. The rear bench features asymmetrically split folding squabs

and backrests, allowing a variety of luggage and passenger-carrying configurations.

A panoramic sliding sunroof is another extra-cost option. This is a continuous

glass shell that extends from behind the windscreen to just ahead of the rear

spoiler. Polyurethane is injection-moulded around the glass panels to prevent

splintering in the event of an accident, and Mercedes-Benz says the roof has passed

its most stringent crash tests.

At the touch of a button, the front section slides backwards, over the rear section,

and a glass wind deflector pops up at the front. The opening is a lot larger than

that of a conventional sunroof, more like that of a Porsche Targa. With 18 per

cent light transmission when closed, the roof shades its occupants from the harshest

of the sun's rays while providing an open-air feeling. And, when desired, all

the light can be shut out by a pair of electrically operated blinds. By holding

down the button on the remote/key unit, the sunroof and windows can be opened

and closed from outside the car.

Under the bonnet is the latest version of Mercedes-Benz's four-cylinder d-o-h-c

four-valves-per-cylinder 230 Kompressor engine. Thanks to the belt-driven supercharger,

peak outputs are 145 kW at 5 500 r/min and 280 N.m between 2 500 and 4 800 r/min.

It drives the rear wheels through either a six-speed manual (as fitted to the

test car) or five-speed automatic gearbox.

Front suspension is the new three-link/MacPherson strut design introduced on the

C-Class saloon. Instead of a lower wishbone, the system uses two separate lower

links, with the steering tie-rod acting as the third. The rear wheels are suspended

by Stuttgart's tried and tested multilink set-up. As with all the other new C-Class

models, the Sports Coupé features the full range of electronic driver aids: ABS,

BAS (brake assist), ESP (electronic stability program) and ASR (acceleration skid

control).

And like the rest, the reworked suspension and power assisted rack-and-pinion

steering have been tuned to provide a more sporty driving experience than previous

generations of Mercedes-Benz cars. Turn-in is precise and, with the ESP switched

on, the Sports Coupé maintains a neutral stance when cornered fast. There is a

tendency for the front to push at the limit and, with the driver aids switched

out, the rear end can be "loosened" under power if the driver is so inclined.

Ride is good on irregular and smooth surfaces and, though the Contis are audible

on rough tar, they're extremely quiet at speed on good highways.

We found the six-speed manual shift perfectly in tune with the car's character,

though changes across the gate tend to be notchy, a familiar trait of Stuttgart's

manual boxes. Out on the test strip, with a crew of two and a full load of fuel,

the test car sprinted to 100 km/h in 8,68 seconds, passed the kilometre mark in

29,66 (at 179,4 km/h) and topped out at 236 km/h. Optimal getaways are achieved with the

ESP switched out, allowing just the right measure of wheelspin to slingshot the

car off the mark. Braking matches the performance, and in our 10-stop 100-to-0

emergency braking test, the Sports Coupé stopped time after time in three seconds

or less, the ABS pulsing away to prevent lock-up, and the BAS ensuring that maximum

pedal pressure was applied.