Four cylinders? A manual gearbox? Not traditionally attractive territory for a Mercedes, especially if you’re talking petrol rather than diesel. But Mercedes hopes you’ll go for this car rather than BMW’s 318i ES, and pay a couple of grand more for the extra 12bhp and 14lb ft afforded by the Merc’s supercharged engine.
Taxi spec doesn’t do it for me...
Times have changed. The base-model Merc is no longer poverty-stricken. Of course, you’ll pay extra if you trawl the options list for sat-nav, leather seats, park assist and so on, but the SE runs on attractive alloys, wears pleasing cloth on its seats, plays your CDs, controls your cabin climate and even tempers your over-exertions in corners.
And over-exert you may, because 154bhp is enough to make the baby C-class feel brisk. And there’s just enough feedback through the controls to make exploiting it all worthwhile.
You’re telling me this is a sports saloon?
Don’t get carried away. It’s the bottom rung of a tall C-class ladder, but 138mph isn’t to be sniffed at, and the 62mph sprint of 9.5sec doesn’t really convey the breadth of punch this engine offers.
A bit like a modern diesel, the supercharged four delivers its grunt from low-down, but it holds the charge as far as its 5200rpm power peak. You’re better off changing up at that point, rather than wringing it all the way to the red-line – this is a hard-working powerplant rather than an inspirational one. It’s quite gruff and tuneless, but its sheer pull is endearing and the note is muted so long as you avoid the tacho’s upper reaches.
You’ll be telling me it handles, next
It does. Don’t go expecting Caterham-sharp steering but rest assured that you can thread this C-class along a twisting B-road with great poise. A 3-series is more involving, but the C180 shields you better from imperfections in the road surface and somehow invites a slightly less frenetic driving style.
The ride is chunky at low speeds but becomes smoother as you gather speed, and the C cruises with unruffled stability, carving quietly through the air while the tall sixth gear keeps the engine twisting unobtrusively.
Even the gearshift plays ball, slotting deftly from ratio to ratio without the unnecessary heft of a BMW ’box.
Surely there’s a downside…
Well, yes, kind of. This is one of those cars that takes time to sink its claws into your affections. The reasons? It looks a bit stand-offish with that imperious grille, though SE-spec means less chrome around the windows and that makes it look sleeker. And traditionalists will probably prefer the old three-pointed star to the Sport version’s three-bar grille.
It’s a similar story inside too. The doors don’t shut with quite the measured thunk of an Audi, and it’s a bit of a penny-pinching move to delete the rear door pockets that upscale C-classes benefit from. Worse from a cosmetic point of view are the plastic surfaces that major on solidity rather than tactility and look cheaper than they probably deserve.
Yet all that kind of suits the C180’s unpretentious appeal. It’s obviously well-built, totally rattle-free on any surface, and the broad wheel, flat seat and straight-legged driving position give it some trad-Merc gravitas.
Merc won’t thank me for saying this, but I reckon the 180 SE’s a bit of a sweet spot in the C-class range. Yes, the six-cylinder cars are smooth but they’re also pretty vocal if you cane them. And, C350 apart, they don’t feel that quick.
Many would suggest the C220D is the perfect compromise between price, running costs and performance, but that four-cylinder diesel motor sounds and feels a touch too tingly at this rarefied level of the market.
And that leaves the lowly C180: well-made, well-equipped, decently spacious, unpretentious, entertaining, comfortable. Taking residuals into account, it represents a more sensible private buy than an upscale Mondeo. A good-value Merc, and an enjoyable one at that. Whatever next?