With its abbreviated three-door styling, first impressions of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Sport Coupe suggest it's a rival for the BMW 3-Series Compact or Audi A3.
But the pricing doesn't.
At the same time BMW New Zealand is trumpeting its entry-level 318ti Compact with a sub-$40,000 entry price, the positioning of the C-Class Sport Coupe is rather different.
The base-model C180 Sport Coupe on the DaimlerChrysler NZ price list costs $68,000.
Loaded with equipment and offering a torque boost courtesy of mild supercharging, the C200K Evolution tested here will set you back at least $89,500.
Add the optional Panoramic sunroof that rolls back to open a large portion of the ceiling and the Parktronic proximity warning system, and the test car has a breath-taking $94,900 price tag. Did we mention its a two-litre four-cylinder?
It's possible to go even further by choosing an AMG Evolution package with exterior bodykit and wider 245/40 R17 rear tyres. Options, including a Bose audio, and the voice-activated Linguatronic phone and audio system, are also available.
There can be little argument that the C-Coupe has a striking appearance. It also delivers the responsive handling and crisper steering that has made the latest C-Class saloons a leap forward over the old model. And there are no short cuts in the standard of build quality or safety technology.
But when you're comparison shopping in the $90,000-plus market, you quickly realise there are cars offering similar style, more eager performance or simply greater room more cheaply.
If you consider the Audi A3 a direct rival, the turbocharged six-speed performance and Quattro all-wheel-drive adhesion of the S3 with a $76,300 price tag provides a value benchmark that this Benz can't approach.
Although it carries C180 badging, there's a little deception about its designation as a $68,000 entry model as the powerplant actually displaces two litres. The supercharged 200K is based on the same two-litre engine and costs $75,000. Neither the 2.3-litre 230K model nor the common rail turbo-diesel 220CDi version is sold in New Zealand.
The styling clearly derives from the latest C-Class saloon, but with some detail fine-tuning. The ellipsoid headlights are slightly larger and there's more rake to the nose, with the three-pointed star moved from bonnet emblem into the louvred grille to provide a common theme with the CLK and CL. An eye for detail will also notice the bumper and front air dam are different.
At the rear, below where the wedge shape rises to the spoiler lip, there's a strip window - remember the Ford Laser Lynx - providing excellent visibility when parking, but at the cost of a rear screen wiper.
The Sports Coupe and saloon share the same 2715mm wheelbase and track dimensions, but that minimal rear overhang of the three-door means it measures 183mm shorter. It also sits 20mm lower.
A versatile hatchback configuration offers a relatively compact 310 litres of luggage volume, but this can be extended to a generous 1100 litres by folding the 60/40-split rear seat backrest.
Well-bolstered leather seats in the Evolution provide a supportive driving position and a huge range of adjustability.
Like the C-Class saloon, it has the door-mounted power seat controls, introduced on the S-Class with steering column tilt and telescope adjustments along with seat cushion height and tilt movements, a power-adjustable backrest and electric height adjustment of the head restraints. Both driver and passenger get a three-position seat memory function.
Inside, there are reasonably generous 2+2 dimensions with no pretence of five-passenger accommodation. There are only two rear seatbelts, even through the seat has a 60/40 split-fold design. Access to the rear is relatively straightforward, thanks to a quick-release front-seat design that flips forward and tilts.
The Panoramic roof - a Mercedes-Benz first - has little effect on the inner roofline with only 9mm less headroom. Taller passengers will find the tapered roofline compromises the headroom in the rear, but the legroom is acceptable, and the seats offer good shape and support. It provides better adult seating than most 2+2 coupes.
The K designation and the Kompressor badge on the tail of the Sports Coupe indicate belt-driven supercharging for the 1998cc twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder.
Maximum power lifts from the 95kW of the normally aspirated version to 120kW at 5300rpm, but the important difference is a solid torque increase to a 230Nm plateau across a 2500-4800rpm rev range.
That torque output is key to the C200K's unstressed performance and the engine rarely needs revving beyond the point where the forced induction-assisted torque curve is tailing off.
That's a welcome characteristic, because if it's worked beyond 5000rpm, the four-pot' rather coarse engine note leaves you wondering if the 2.4-litre V6 might have been a better choice of powerplant.
As an open-road cruiser, it's quiet, refined and has flexible part-throttle overtaking response. The 100km/h speed limit is achieved at 2400rpm in fifth gear and at 2900rpm in fourth. Mercedes-Benz quotes average fuel consumption of 9.5 litres per 100km and during my test, the trip computer showed I managed 9.7 litres/100km.
For New Zealand, a five-speed automatic transmission is standard. The smooth shifting and ratios are well matched to the mid-range torque, and the Benz Touchshift system provides one of the simplest systems for sequential manual shifting in the business.
When in "drive", a nudge to the left prompts a downshift or one across to the right shifts the transmission up a gear.
The Sportline suspension on the Evolution version provides firmer springs and damping, and is specified in combination with 17x7.5in alloy wheels shod with 225//45 ZR17 Continental ContiSport radials.
Sports suspension and 45-profile tyres will compromise both ride quality and road noise on many cars, but on the Sport Coupe, considerable suspension compliance is retained, keeping the bump-thump responses to surface changes and the more severe pot-holes.
The ContiSports not only give confident grip, they are notable for muted sound levels across coarse chip surfaces, especially by 17in low-profile standards.
Standard safety equipment on all Sport Coupe variants includes an eight-airbag package - a pair of two-stage frontal airbags, four-side impact and A-to-C pillar window bags, and the AKSE automatic child safety-seat recognition system that disables the passenger-side airbag to allow a child seat to be fitted. There are seat-belt pretensioners and load-force limiters.
A host of active safety functions now expected in a Benz include Electronic Stability Programme integrated with ASR traction control and anti-lock brakes with the emergency Brake Assist System.
The standard specification for New Zealand includes the ELCODE electronic key system, a multi-function steering wheel that controls the audio system, trip computer and Speedtronic cruise control, manual steering column adjustment, thermatic semi-automatic air conditioning with dust and pollen filter, automatic headlights, front fog lamps, power windows and "Facetto" aluminium centre console trim.
The standard Sport Coupe runs on five-spoke 16in wheels with 205/55 R16 tyres.
Adding the Evolution package to the Sport Coupe bumps the price up by $14,500. But the package seems better value than the base car.
For the extra outlay, the Sport Coupe gains the Sportline suspension, electric seats and steering column adjustment, and the air conditioning is upgraded to fully automatic Thermotronic climate control.
The Evolution also has sports seats in full-leather trim with a leather steering wheel, aluminium door-sill strips, polished metal pedals, a glovebox-mounted six-disc CD changer, anti-dazzle mirror, rain-sensor wipers, headlamp washers and security alarm.
Outside is an oval chrome exhaust and body colour-matched door handles. The Sport Coupe is an unquestionably elegant car that displays the same responsive driveability of the new C-Class saloon and adds an appealing third bodystyle to the C-Class line-up.
But it's not a car that wears a $90,000 price tag very comfortably. DaimlerChrysler NZ has positioned this car as a new component of its exclusive CLK, SLK, CL and SL coupe family, rather than where it should be - an entry-level model with the potential to attract new customers to the three-pointed star.
AutoPoint road test team. Words and photographs by C.M.