FITTING a small engine into a compact car is a bit like putting a potato down your Speedos - everyone's impressed by the appearance. The audience may forever be blissfully unaware of the deception. It's only when there's a demand for performance that it all goes pear-shaped.
Park the Mercedes C250 CGI in your driveway and your neighbour would be very impressed. It's a very attractive car. It's German. It's a Mercedes. So it's a quality product that is expensive and sits at the cutting edge of performance motoring.
But pull off the clothes and the C250 is a very clever mid-size car with an unusually small 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine. In seeking motoring's Holy Grail of economy, low emissions and performance, Mercedes shows that downsizing can bring smiles.
This is pretty good value - and I rarely say that. But it has good and bad points. On the plus side it is a perfectly-sized wagon for the family and has that versatility of the wagon's flexible cargo area and the option of rooftop storage.
You can get this on the road for under $77,000 and though that's a lot of money, it rewards with excellent safety, a high level of standard features, good acceleration and even better roadholding. Plus, it's a Merc.
The problem is that you have to restrain yourself from flicking through the Mercedes-Benz option list. The test car added to its $68,890 prize with metallic paint ($2080), an AMG sports pack (18-inch alloys, gearshift paddles, sports seats and alloy pedals - $4850), privacy glass ($1100), electric bootlid ($1100), reversing camera ($1200), sunblinds ($440), intelligent light system ($440) and Vision (sunroof, bi-xenon lights, 12-speaker Harman-Kardon audio - $4920) package.
That's $85,020 less on-road costs that can add about $7500. So the affordable wagon starts getting expensive.
There are things you don't need - AMG kit, sunblinds, auto bootlid, light system and Vision kit - to tear the price down to $73,270 and yet visually your neighbour won't know. But perhaps I can afford the Harman-Kardon audio ...
The C250's engine is the same size as a Corolla engine. But before you dismiss Mercedes as a fraudster, consider the turbocharger and direct-petrol injection system that really make this little thing punch above its class.
The 150kW/310Nm is commendable from that capacity and the best news is that it works very well. The rest of the car is mechanically quite simple.
The layout is front-engined with drive to the rear, the suspension is Merc's three-link front and multi-link rear, the chassis list includes sophisticated electronics and the company dismisses the electric steering fad in reference to the feel of a conventional hydraulic system.
The trick is that all this combines to create a solid car that feels like it's built from a single chunk of steel.
A recent visit to the beautician has created a new face for the C-Class, highlighting a bolder grille and accentuating crisp crease lines along the flanks. There's a bit of the swoopy style of the CLS here as the Mercedes family starts to bond.
While the outside is functional and holds its status high, the inside is less arresting. Maybe I have spent too many hours inside a German taxi, but the cabin is quite clinical and it's really only the careful addition of some options that raise the ambience.
The Avantgarde version tested gets "free" leather to impress the guests but the dashboard is a bit too simple and the darkness of the trim and plastic hides the impressively accurate panel joins.
Here's where the additional cost of the AMG pack may come in handy because even the alloy pedals add some vibrance to the gloom. But the ergonomics are very good. You still have to learn this car - the main steering column stalk (the other skinny one is the cruise control) unusually combines the tasks of wipers and indicators - but its faults are few.
I'm no fan of the foot park brake but I appreciate the centre console storage space. Perhaps an electronic park brake for the future?
This is a five-star wagon with all the best safety gear from the self-titled world's safest car company. You can't do much better.
No surprise that this is made in a country that prides itself on speedy intra-city highways. The C250 eats highways. Don't be fooled by 1.8 litres and 1575kg - it lopes along at 100km/h at a shade under 2000rpm and does it quietly and economically.
Getting to 100km/h isn't too shabby either. I expected it to shine in acceleration tests when I was driving solo - so I brought along four adults to help me.
Even five-up, it was eager. I wasn't expecting the power to come in as low - it materialised about 2000rpm - given a turbocharger usually thrives on revs. In fact, it feels punchier off the mark than the supercharged engine that it replaces - a feat no doubt attributed to the direct petrol injection.
The five-speed auto does the job well but a seven-speeder would be even better. It's on the cards, apparently. I'm not a great fan of the Mercedes steering. It feels a little bit ponderous - perhaps because of the largish wheel diameter - and that takes the edge off its manoeuverbility in tight roads.
But it sticks like glue to the bitumen. Above all, it is so comfortable. The suspension is supple and there's a lot of successful sound deadening here. The engine can be intrusive as a rough grumble at low speeds but, like a diesel, disappears as it picks up speed.
Big car, small engine is an unusual combo from a German but the package is perfect for people wanting prestige without power.
MERCEDES-BENZ C250 CGI ESTATE
Engine: 1.8-litre, 4-cyl turbo
Power: 150kW @ 5000rpm
Torque: 310Nm @ 2000rpm
0-100km/h: 7.5 seconds
Fuel: Premium unleaded
Fuel tank: 67 litres
Economy (official): 7.8 litres/100km
Economy (tested): 8.2 litres/100km
Greenhouse: 182g/km (Corolla: 174g/km)
Transmission: 5-speed automatic, sequential; rear-drive
Brakes: 4-wheel discs, ESC, ABS, EBD, brake assist
Turning circle: 10.8m
Suspension: Front _ multi-link, coils; Rear _ multi-link, coils
Wheels: 18-inch alloy
Tyres: Front 225/40R18; Rear 255/30R18; full-size spare
Tow (max): 1250kg
Boot (seat up/down): 485/1500 litres (Corolla: 450/1121l)
Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km, roadside assist