2014 Mercedes-Benz C-Class C250 sedan review

When I got my C250 from Mercedes, I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to drive the same C250 that smoked its tires through an abandoned post-apocalypse Manhattan.

I got inside, stepped on the accelerator, and WHOOOOSH – the car took off. I thought, “Yes! Truth in advertising!!” until I realized I’d been hoodwinked. See, touch the throttle, and the C250 will lurch forward out of your Walmart parking space as hurriedly as if you’d floored it in attempt to pass the Subaru wagon one lane over.  Anything past 4200 RPMs, however, and the engine calls it a day, and you’ll see Subaru tail lights. It looks like they filmed an AMG stunt double in the city that day.

For a 4-cylinder 200-hp turbocharged engine that gets 31 mpg, however, the engine does its job. Those who want a remote chance of burning rubber might upgrade to the optional 6-cylinder engine. (or find out whatever happened to that magical (mythical?) tire-smoking C250 from the commercial?))

The C250 has the most sensitive on-center steering the side of a Mini Cooper. The slightest touch on the wheel will dive the vehicle into a corner. Which is fine for racing, however, at highway speeds, it’s a nuisance. You must keep the wheel absolutely still, or else you’ll veer out of your lane. Your mileage may vary, and perhaps it’s just my style, but on long trips, I like to move around in my seat, adjust the stations, slap the kids in the back seat, hydrate, and in the C250, the slightest nudge on the steering wheel causes a hard direction change. Like driving and texting? Forget it. You’ll be in the ditch before your first smiley face. There are ways to make a car’s steering sensitive, without making it a chore to keep going straight. Take a BMW 3-series for a spin, and you’ll see what I mean.

The only available transmission is an automatic. I can talk about how fast, efficiently and sportily it shifts, but if you bought this car, you probably don’t care –  Mercedes’ only model with the a manual transmission is the lowly SLK 250. I will say the transmission shifts fine. If you want more control, put it in manual shifting mode – just don’t expect a lightning-quick, response  – in manual shifting mode, your lever nudge is a suggestion, which gets approved by the transmission committee, eventually.

The engine is smooth, and doesn’t announce itself until it nears redline, which is when it sounds like a cargo van – albeit an expensive one with leather seats. I’ve read auto journalist who poo-poo the idea of piping engine sounds through the car speakers, however, in this car, I’m completely for it. Anything would sound better than the stock engine sound at full tilt.

The interior is pretty pleasant. Nice leather, clear gauges. The cowl is low, with great outward visibility. The doors close with a satisfying clunk. The cupholder is behind the shift lever, which guarantees your drink will always get in your way while leaning on the center armrest. For years American car publications complained about the lack of cupholders in German cars. Now that we have them, we’re still complaining. Serves us right.

 My model was the stripper, I know, for Mercedes completely went out of their way to rub it in. Note the heated seat button, next to 5 buttons of “features you could have had, were you not such a cheapskate.” Seriously, unless you select $15,000 worth of options, and get the buttons to prove it, every time you look down here, you’ll be bonked on the head about what you could have had.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at . Mar 6, 2014

To unlock the door and start the engine, one must press the unlock button on the key,  insert it into the ignition slot, then rotate it. For those used to keyless entry and ignition systems, (if the key’s in your pocket, just open the door, get in, and push the START button) this can be annoying.

This is a nice-looking car. However, it’s starting to lose its prestige since the MB CLA250 was introduced. The CLA250, which is a baby sister for the gorgeous and swoopy CL class,  is much better-looking, and starts $6000 cheaper. There will be a new C-Class Mercedes introduced this fall, so we think.

Thankfully, it is not covered with AMG badges – only, however, on all four wheels. Which, in my opinion, cheapens the AMG brand. I’ve driven Mercedes AMG models, and they are terrifyingly fast, world-class pieces of awe-inspiring engineering. That being said, the reverence I feel towards those models diminishes every time I see a 4-cylinder model with an AMG steering wheel, spoiler, door sill, and seat belts. I really believe that prestige and branding is important, and sometimes, auto manufacturers unwittingly do things that diminish it.

Would I buy one?  Keep in mind this car’s base price is $36,250.  Add an option or two next to those blank spaces near the heated seat buttons, and you’ll have a $50,000 car. A car is about compromises: engine power vs. fuel economy, comfort on long trips vs handling during spirited driving, etc. The Mercedes C250 tries too hard to be a racy car, with it’s hair trigger throttle, and ridiculously sensitive steering. Yes, they’re trying to chase BMW, but in the example, I think they’ve overshot the mark.

2014 Kia Soul Review – yes, I actually got into the vehicle

2014 Kia Soul Review

First off, I have to give a disclaimer. I’ve been making fun of Kias for years now. Hey – I’m not mean – they earned it. In the 80’s, they were so cheaply made, they even skimped on the key – my buddy in high school had a Hyundai Excel. the first day he had it, he opened the trunk, and the key broke off inside the latch.

Whenever I see someone with a Hyundai, the first thing I think is, “What a piece of junk.” I know, their quality has improved, however, it’s nearly impossible for a brand to erase a poor first impression.

So, Kias are made in the same factories, using the same parts as Hyundais, and are marketed towards the same budget-conscious customers.

So, one sunny day in Fort Lauderdale, when the Hertz car rental folks told me I was getting a Kia, I cringed.

When the Hertz employee brought it to me, and I saw it resembled an electric banana dustbuster, I winced.

Here it is, waiting patiently in the parking lot while I go get boxes.

Here it is, waiting patiently in the parking lot while I go get boxes.

Let me explain the feeling. Ever get a ride in a friend’s expensive car, and think to yourself, “I sure hope someone sees me!” No one in the history of civilization has ever jumped into a yellow Kia, sat up straight, and thought, “I hope the class bully from elementary school sees me driving THIS hot little pile of potassium!”

So, I loaded my parents into the car. First thing dad said was “Son, I hope no one from the condo association see me in this.” I’m just kidding.

I did ask Hertz for a hatchback, since we needed a little more room than a regular car for their luggage and shopping trips.

Yes, it definitely has more cargo space than a Miata

Yes, it definitely has more cargo space than a Miata

When I got behind the wheel, expecting to look around and laugh – I couldn’t do it – that is, the interior looked pretty good – mostly matte black, with red lighted buttons, a la BMW. There was a tasteful white stitching on the shift lever boot. The wheel felt nice and thick. It had little buttons. Seats were reasonable comfortable, but all the weight was on my rear end – I prefer a little curve in my lower back, and lower thighs to even out the pressure.

You’re kidding, right? Reading the paragraph on performance for a Kia review is like skipping to the gas mileage section on a Range Rover review. Let me be brief: it has a 4-cylinder engine. It’s  the preferred ride of hamsters. If you floor it, it makes a lot of noise, and the only part of your body that gets a visceral reaction is your rear end from all the vibration. If you want to go fast in a Kia Soul, find a downhill.

Here’s where I almost actually started to like the car. My iPhone connected via Bluetooth easily. When it rang, the stereo muted, and I could talk to the roof-mounted microphone, hands-free. I could push a steering-wheel button, and tell it who in my iPhone address book to call. It streamed my iPhone’s music library through the stereo flawlessly. Very impressed.

It’s things like a car’s infotainment center than can be the fine line between loving and hating it, and I almost started to like it at this point. But then, I put it in drive.

You’re joking, right? This car was happiest in a straight line. Long sweeping corners meant re-adjusting the steering 3 or 4 times before the corner was up. Not much feedback from the wheel. Then again, you don’t buy a Kia for the joy of corners.

If I needed a second car with decent gas mileage, and high-than average utility, I might consider this Kia Soul. Sometimes, it’s not about performance and handling. I don’t see Chevy and Ford pickup truck owners arguing, “My F150 takes has higher tactile feedback in the steering wheel than yours.” My biggest gripe with this Kia is their overly-focused juvenile marketing.

See, in 6th grade, I was embarrassed to own a Rick Springfield cassette because his pouty-lipped mug was on the cover. Rick didn’t want 11 year old boys buying his cassettes. Similarly, I don’t want to be seen in the same vehicle shared by Gen Y female athletes and hamsters. The 2014 Hyundai Tuscon doesn’t have that repulsivity baked-in. But at least, the Kia’s key worked flawlessly.

Why I sold my BMW E46 M3 manual

1983_ford_escort_gl_28794763 copy

Yes, it lost its life after a Night Ranger concert. The Firebird hood decal places just for comic emphasis.

Owning a car with a manual, however, can literally be a pain. I owned a Saab 900 Turbo when I lived in San Francisco, which is possibly the worst city in the United States to own a manual. You can easily spot a manual owner in San Francisco because they walk with a slight limp, due to the fact that their left leg is twice the size of their right leg. And it’s not from starting on a hills that’s so steep that if you drop your car keys on the sidewalk, they’ll slide into the bay. It’s from the 3-miles stop and go traffic on a 5% uphill gradient that keeps you in first gear for 2 hours. Some days I had to depress the clutch with my right leg, my left leg was in so much pain.

Here's my Saab 900 in front of the Brady Bunch house in Century City, CA.

Here’s my Saab 900 in front of the Brady Bunch house in Century City, CA.

Years after that, I owned a 2005 BMW e46 M3 six-speed. The dream driver’s car, right? Not so much. Maybe I’m asking too much, but 95% of its powerband was in the upper revs – in order to pass the minivan next to me, I had to drive it like I was trying to melt the piston rings, causing many minivan drivers to look out their side window with amusement at the car blowing by them, turning the same RPMs of a leaf-blower at full throttle.


The BMW E46 M3. Fun to shift, corner, and be seen in. Accelerate? Not so much.

Okay, I exaggerate, but that car had about as much low-end power as my Escort. If I was on the interstate in 6th gear, and I needed to pass someone quickly, mashing the pedal did absolutely nothing. I had to downshift to 4th, while blipping the throttle so the engine braking wouldn’t cause my shoulder belt to lock) Oh, and every 100 miles, I had to pull into an ATM to pay for parts and repairs. Everything that broke costed $1200.

When I was looking for a car to replace it, I thought, “Hey, I’m in my 40’s now. Maybe it’s time for an automatic.” And when I need to unexpectedly accelerate, it goes into the correct gear instantly.

So, I bought a BMW E93 335is – bonus, the previous owner installed a Dinan Stage 2 package. And, it felt quicker than my E46 M3, due to its more low-end torque. It works perfectly. It shifts extremely quickly.

I missed blipping the throttle when I downshifted so my drinks didn’t spill. I missed putting it in neutral and coasting down hills. I’m afraid it the battery dies, I’ll have to call a tow truck, instead of bump-starting it. And, worst of all, I hate the feeling of things happening with the transmission happening underneath me that I cannot control.

I tried using the paddle shifters, and the gear shifter. It’s not the same. It’s too easy. Yes, it up shifts in one-quadrillioninth of a second, but all that was involved was my index finger. I like getting my entire body into it – coasting to a stop, rattling the shifter around neutral, while pressing both the clutch and brake at the same time. It’s like the difference between pedaling a bicycle, and riding the bus.

My e93 BMW 335is Dinan Stage 2. Really really fast. Just needs a clutch pedal.

My e93 BMW 335is Dinan Stage 2. Really really fast. Just needs a clutch pedal.

So, my next car will be a manual, I’ve determined. I know, only 5% (and dropping) of autos sold in the US have a stickshift. If auto importers are still sending cars with a clutch pedal to the US by this time next year, I might even buy one.