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KEEPIN' IT REAL

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sun, Oct 31, 2004

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

KEEPIN' IT REAL

By JOHN GRAFMAN

As SEMA draws near, we can't help but think of the dozens, change that, hundreds of cars that have the cost of the car itself (or more) dumped back into it in the way of aftermarket accessories. An increasing number take street cars and tune them into one-of-a-kind show cars. By the time some are completed, they are virtually non-streetable. Is it me, or does that seem like overkill?

Spending half the national deficit to create a car that can't drive day in and day out might sound tempting, but not too realistic. Most of us can only remotely relate to this. Yet, it would be cool in a sort of freak show kind of way.

Ninety-nine percent of the population that wants to make upgrades to their car has no intention of re-financing the house to do so. That's where we come in. We find ourselves in the overwhelming majority that wants to push the envelope without straining the budget. In a nutshell, we all want to see real results for the money.

The Car

Now for the good news, this is maybe the best time ever to pick up some amazing cars for cheap. With the glut of cars on the used car market and with huge incentives on new cars and coupled with ultra low interest rates are creating used car deals that are just too good to pass on. Taking a beating are many models that might seem out of reach new, but a model that is just two or three years old has incredibly depreciated. For the price of a new Honda Accord, or the like, a buyer can pick up a relatively new European car in great shape with low miles, and still under warranty.

When the Mercedes-Benz C230 Sports Coupe came out three years ago as a '02 model, we found it to be interesting - but it seemed to somehow lose the sport aspect in its name. In part, limited success in sales might be attributed to this. While the stock C230 could be the successor to the Volkswagen Corrado and other hot hatches, unfortunately it is not to be. Of course, for our purposes, this is a boon. The C230 is a good basic car with a pedigree name that is lacking in the fun-to-drive department.

On the surface, this sounded like a good pick. However there was a down side. The limited numbers for cars sold also has not been incentive for aftermarket companies to jump in with upgrades. Other cars, such as the Audi A4, have upgrades coming out the tailpipe, so to speak. But let's face it, not everyone's interest is in purchasing a car solely because it is easy to trick out. As it turns out, this is a real world experience in the challenges that the majority face in turning their automobile into just what suits them.

In pricing the 2002 C230 Sport Coupe on Autotrader.com, we found that with a little persistence, a credible car can be had for high teens. Translation: That is nearly a fifty percent drop in three years! Mind you, in general, any loaded new car that is not bottom rung is normally starting at twenty-five large. Based on that, if we add several thousand in aftermarket upgrades we could still come in far shy of a new car and have something unique. All of a sudden this project was making good sense.

Now comes time to narrow down what needs to be done in some kind of a logical order. We consider modifications in both relevant impact to improving the dynamics of the C230 equally in terms of looks and effect on driving ability. And, of course, what does it cost? As I personally have spent many a mile in this car, I know it has a few nasty habits we will like to eradicate. The handling in this car is anything but sports-like. Mercedes does offer a Sports package for the Sports Coupe (sounds sort of redundant), and I suggest that anyone buying one new or used get this. It is a real good deal and very cost effective. However this particular car is not equipped with that. Secondly, the sound that is produced from this 2.3 liter is anything but aggressive. And if you ask me, when listening carefully out the tailpipe with the motor running, one can actually hear it sputtering out what sounds for the entire world like "wuss". Just like anyone else, we think additional power is almost always a good thing. Optional on later models is the 3.2-liter motor that is, by far, smoother and more powerful. However, the six-cylinder engine is also heavier and sucks up more gas to boot. Only the first year model has the 2.3-liter, which in subsequent years was replaced by the 1.8-liter motor. For some odd reason, Mercedes chose not to rename the car to conform with the engine size. This goes against the grain of their easy-to-understand nomenclature.

Drivability is one thing, but looks are something else entirely. The overall car in its natural state is decent, but lacks edginess. Although the sports package does rectify this with larger tires and such, it still doesn't push the envelope too much over the bone stock model. However, the sport wheels that come in the package are as nicely styled as any on the market. There are other body mods that we looked at and tossed around just to see what would stick in our formula. Unfortunately, the body styling kits such as those by Lorinser cost enough to blow any hope of a nominal budget. If this was a high volume model there would be more kits available and the price would likely be far more reasonable. The pricing on any aftermarket part is relative to the cost of the car. It is a whole lot easier to justify a part that is just ten to twelve percent of the new car purchase price versus twenty-five percent of the same vehicle on the used car market.

The Upgrades

Several times, we had to stop and think just what in the world we hope to accomplish. It is mind-numbingly simple to get carried away and blow the whole wad on some awesome set of rims. In making a list primarily on priority items and secondly on price, we quickly realized what is possible and what can wait till the lotto pays off.

The number one item on the hit list was to reduce the sloppy handling that this car exhibits. LA Car has access to cars that feel like they are on rails and still offer a comfortable ride. The Mercedes SL 500 comes to mind. Well, there is a good reason why that car is in the near six-figure range. So our target was reduce roll without a loss of compliancy over rough surfaces. In this case we can kill two birds with one stone. By going with a lower profile tire, larger rim and moderately stiffer springs that drop the body, the Mercedes not only improved in handling but in looks as well.

The wheel and tire combo is the most difficult choice for anyone who is upgrading their rolling stock. Why? In a word, choices. Picking a president isn't all too difficult, how many choices do you have? I didn't even get into whether they are even good choices. On the other hand, the marketplace has so many good options in the wheel and tire department that it will make your head swim. How to narrow down the choices can be done by various means: price, performance, appearance, recommendations, or by pulling a name from a hat.

The maximum size tire and rim that would fit created some limits for us. Cost of replacing tires also dictated keeping this within reason. As it turns out, one of the lesser known companies that produce some of the highest quality rims just happens to be right in Huntington Beach. Ronal supplies many of the OEMs with their stock rims. Produced in Germany, they are required to meet rigid German standards. Wheels that other companies offer, coming in from who knows where, often don't have to comply with such high standards. The wheels that we ultimately went with are the eighteen-inch RT "Twin" that has an eight-inch width (suggested retail, $249 per wheel). The dimensions are the same at all four corners for ease of rotation and replacement of tires. While the quality of these painted alloy rims mean a lot, it's the style that matters to most everyone else. One look, and that's it. These are the ones. The contour of the blades work perfect with the organic nature of the Mercedes body. They flow and have a sense of motion. They also are open to provide good ventilation of the brakes. The design also creates a wheel that looks even larger than it is. Ronal is one of those low-key companies that just happen to have the confidence of the OEMs, and probably anyone else serious about wheels.

The tires are the next logical step. Many of the same criteria and methodology we use to select a wheel is employed to narrow down the field of tires. In the end, the ability to provide a high level of performance without sacrificing ride comfort plays a big part in the decision making process. Price was a huge factor too as it is really easy to spend twice as much, or more ($139 each at www.tirerack.com ). The bottom line is how high a level of performance do we require. In our mind we think we are Schumacher but the reality is A) we are not and, B) we shouldn't drive like that even if we could, at least not on public streets. Yokohama surfaces as the pick of the litter. The tires are touted as providing all of our requirements. The car loses the original 205/55/16s in favor of the Yokohama AVS ES100 225/40WR18s. These particular tires also have a raised bead to protect the rim from damage. The tread pattern has an aggressive look, and the ES100s are definitely a lower profile tire as compared with the Michelin all season tires that the C came with.

We have the opportunity to drive the car with the new rims and tires but without the new springs. Immediately, the improvement is noticeable. The tire compound provides a very acceptable level of road noise while achieving far superior road adhesion. However, before our modifications, the tire and suspension more or less rolled and swayed in synch. Now the tires roll very little but the body of the car seems to float and roll on its suspension in a rather abnormal and frankly unnerving sort of way. To add to the handling malaise, the visual was out of whack. The new tires on those Ronal rims look amazing. The gap between the wheel arch and tire now looks way out of proportion, as the gap is now larger than the tire height . While that might be acceptable on a pick-up truck, it looks horrid on a sport coupe.

A tough decision needs to be made, should just the springs be replaced or is it in the cards for a springs, shocks and sway bar change out. Again availability of parts and cost dictate the decision. H&R Springs has just the right parts ($369, set of four springs). It seems that we continue our strategy of improving without overdoing. By just replacing the springs to the H&R sport springs we reduce the softness and the ungainly gap in the wheel well.

The team at Cameron SVC in Costa Mesa handles the install. They are well known in the area for their various custom projects. While the bulk of their projects revolve around the H2, they also produce a package for the T-Bird, and several Jags, among others. Their new location has about triple the shop area of their former location on Coast Highway. The install comes off quickly and flawlessly. The C230 becomes just another eye-catching car coming out of their doors. After all this time you would think they would be jaded. Nothing could be further from the truth; these guys are excited about each and every car regardless of the size.

The tire, wheel and spring combo is a little like throwing three great athletes together. While individually they can be the best at their position, will they play great together? You don't know until you try. In this case with the C230, they all meld perfectly. The sad sack coupe now feels taut and agile. While there is still a very minor amount of roll, the behavior is now worlds better. And even with all the added stiffness of the tire and springs, the ride is nowhere near harsh. In fact, a slightly stiffer set-up might even be worth considering. As it sits now, the car can provide fun and a ride free of thumping and bottoming out. At long last the capability of the handling doesn't fall short of what the motor can dish out.

Looking into the wallet and then into the engine bay we start drawing the line. There are some upgrades available for this motor but most are just beyond the scope of this project. While AMG and Brabus have some trick stuff, paying for it would be the real trick. However all is not lost, we still have a few aces up our sleeve. As with most cars, improve the airflow will improve the performance, both in speed and gas mileage. K&N air filters are the most elemental upgrade for most cars. It almost doesn't matter which vehicle, their extensive catalogue of sizes more than likely has the right product. And the additional expense is balanced with their ten year/million-mile limited warranty. The replacement is as simple as it gets. Remove fasteners, open lid, take out old filter and put in the new one, then replace lid and fasteners. Operation takes just a couple minutes. It's no wonder that K&N filters are standard upgrade protocol.

Improving the airflow at the front end is a little easier than at the other. I thought for sure that we would have a good number of choices for exhaust. Wrong! Only a few have what we want. Fortunately, Remus has a wide selection of quality systems. While they might not be the most well known name here in America, they are only the largest producers of exhaust systems in Europe. Their extensive work with cars produced the world over also lends further credibility to their products. Let's see, Remus the biggest name in European sport exhaust, Mercedes C230 a European car, hmmm. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. The Remus Sport Exhaust pipes and mufflers conform to this project as if they were developed specifically for it. The tone is by far lower and just a bit louder. It is still subtle enough so that it doesn't intrude too much into the cabin nor does it annoy everyone on the street. The twin tip also differentiates it from the garden variety Benz. The chromed tailpipe with the logo detent is a sporty touch that also provides a little flair. The high pitch whine is now exorcised for good. This exhaust melds harmoniously with the personality of Mercedes. Remus offers vast exhaust products that other company's only wish they could offer.

None other than local favorite, Mesa Muffler, handles installation. Reputation means a lot. Experience is hard to beat. I didn't realize just how many other shops all point to the same guys for exhaust installation. The Mesa Muffler shop is cleaner and more organized than many an office I have seen. Russ, the main man is easy going and friendly, and very accessible to even the novice tuner. It's that sort of professionalism that has kept them in business for so many years.

We can really justify only one other small engine mod on the car. We could opt for a pulley system upgrade, which is a viable option for supercharged cars like this. However, this is a rather involved process. The second choice and the typically easier choice is to chip the car. Powerchip, a well known company in the chip upgrade world, tells us flat out that we can expect improvements but not the same that would be experienced on say a turbo car like a Audi A4 with a 1.8T motor. By massaging the programming they can and do create a smoother power band that is not as peaky as before. A tweaked torque curve at the bottom end does the trick. The overall power seems to have slightly bumped up too. The chip also is useful to obtain an increase in economy. Even a small increase in mileage these days can pay for the chip in short order. The people at Powerchip in Santa Monica were all exceedingly accommodating. They have service while you wait to make life simple. It takes them under most circumstances just an hour or two. Waiting in the office while they do the work is by far less stressful than awaiting a dentist appointment. Observing freeway gas mileage covering over fifty plus miles from L.A. to O.C. is a decent 30.8-mpg. Not too shabby! Powerchip just isn't an upgrade; it's an investment in better motoring.

It just wouldn't be right not to make at least a small improvement in the interior while we are doing everything else. In offering the C230 Sports Coupe, Mercedes initially wanted $1,200 for the CD changer that fits into the glove box. No changer means no CDs at all, as there is no standard in dash player. While this is normally resolved with an aftermarket unit, the Mercedes uses optic-fiber connectors so you can either use a changer that use RF frequency to transmit the music to the stereo or pony up the money for the factory optic-fiber unit. Of course, it is possible to tough it out with the tapes and the radio. It's hard to believe that Mercedes-Benz would offer a car in 2002 without a built in player as standard equipment.

Lucky for us that there is now another option. XM Satellite Radio has a unit called the Roady 2 ($129). This unit is transportable between vehicles (if you choose to), home, or in a portable boombox, and it operates off a cigarette lighter. To connect there are a couple options including a tape adaptor and RF (radio frequency) transmission. In an effort to keep it looking less busy we opt for the RF. We have had no problem with signal reception up until moving into an area that is broadcasting on the same RF band. Roady 2 does have a number of bands so a clear band should be available with a little planning. Several color options for illumination mean we can find one that matches the standard Mercedes instrument panel lights. While the XM Satellite does carry a small subscription price ($9.99 a month), it is well worth it. The comedy channels can save any commuter stuck in traffic from going insane. How bad can it be in traffic if you are laughing your ass off? XM offers so many choices it is actually hard to decide what to listen to because there are so many selections worth listening to. Hear that FM radio programmers? And if you are tired of the endless and mindless babble in the morning, XM gives you so many other choices from music, to news, to weather, to traffic reports, that talk jocks have got to be getting nervous.

We did want to kick it up a notch, as Emeril might say, in the looks department above and beyond what we already altered. The custom look that finished this project off is vinyl cut graphics. This is one sure way to make the car custom and unique. One of the masters and well renown in this field is Molly Designs in Costa Mesa. Molly has done everything from numerous Toyota Grand Prix cars to Semis. I am almost embarrassed to have his talent on this project, which seems so remedial. The graphics on the lower section are toned down enough so they don't take away from the rest of the car yet they add a sense of race car/sports car flavor that caps this whole project off. A slightly darker shade also has the visual effect of bringing the car closer to the ground, an extra bonus. Graphics are the way to go for additional impact without the additional expense of a body kit. Molly Designs graphics, be it for racing or just for fun, is a proven winner.

The Verdict

Does all this gel? In everyway this car is improved upon. Some upgrades are more noticeable than others. Not everything turned out in the plus column however. As an example, the additional power and economy that the Powerchip upgrade provides is somewhat negated by the additional rolling resistance and weight from the wheels and tires. The wheels that look phenomenal are susceptible to damage as they extend past the protection afforded by the tires. Gas mileage has dropped but very marginally.

Nobody can argue that all of these installed upgrades don't improve the nature of this car vastly. This is not a flyweight that will be setting records for gas mileage (nor was that a goal). I am blown away at just how much faster this car can corner and navigate long sweeping freeway interchanges with absolutely zero drama. The additional grip and handling dramatically turn this into a different car, a far better car.

While the seat of the pants is still undecided if the power has bumped up much, it is definitely more refined. And the tone now sounds like the car has a pair. XM now provides entertainment even if the car is at a dead stop in traffic.

Since this car first came to the roads of America, I haven't seen so many heads swivel and double takes. While the various upgrades change the dynamics of the looks, they do so in a very appealing way.

LA Car was able to complete the objectives and at a price that most anyone could handle. Sure some nut is out there buying everything that he can afford, or even what he can't. We (and most of you) take a different approach.

Let's just say, we are keeping it real!

Additional online info available for the participating sponsors at

www.ronalusa.com

www.yokohamatire.com

www.hrsprings.com

www.cameronsvc.com

www.knfilters.com

www.remus-usa.com

http://ocautosites.com/MesaMuffler

www.powerchipgroup.com

www.xmradio.com

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