You used to know where you were with Mercedes-Benz. They made businesslike saloons, cement mixers, trucks, Turkish taxis, aristocratic coupes and the Papal stretch. In this odd diversity there was always clarity and consistency in the product. Just like a business school case study of brand management, Mercedes-Benz showed the way with steel-hard identity and integrity. But then someone started category-busting.
It began in the '70s when Mercedes, tiring of German specialist coachbuilders in Osnabruck or Bochum catering to the ambulance trade, or camping hobbyists with so-so improvisations, decided to protect its brand by making its own estate cars. Then there was the 'A' class, the curious-format car that showed infamous stability problems as it avoided the largest existing animal of the deer kind when in the presence of journalists. The endearing miniature smart soon followed. Now Mercedes will sell you something called the Vaneo. This seems to combine the aesthetic shortcomings of a builder's van with none of the advantages of a mature MPV. But, in this mad Krakatoa of swirling morphology and re-framed categorisation, nothing beats the Mercedes Sports Coupe. Especially if - as I did - you choose a diesel.
The Coupe is based on the C-Class, Mercedes' smallest conventional car. But it's like an experiment in genetic engineering gone awry. To be fair, Mercedes is not alone in this. BMW also got restive about making handsome, refined cars and did a brutal cut-and-shut on the 3 series vehicle to create the awkward-looking Compact. The marketing theory is that, for a small investment, you get a car to compete with a top-of-the-range hatch, thus attracting first-time buyers and gaining valuable market share. The marketing reality is that you end up with something that, if it were flesh, would be found in a jar of yellowing formalin in the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Not to be outdone by mere Bavarians, Mercedes has made something even odder than the Compact.
The Sports Coupe is a very ugly car. But after the shock wears off, it begins to command a muted, sardonic respect: it is actually rather fun to drive a car that confronts all conventional wisdom about automotive detail and proportion, and says to your public: 'Hey, I'm plug-ugly, but do I care?'
It's the tail that does it. The nose of the Sports Coupe has a rakish neatness common to all Mercedes' latest sports cars. It's fine until you get to the B-pillar, whereafter the designers have panicked. Committed to following a rising beltline, they realized they did not have enough overall length to bring it to an elegant conclusion, so the back end of the Sports Coupe sits with itself in the air like a monkey on heat offering itself to the dominant male. Frankly, out back this car is a real mess.
Inside is better. You get customary Mercedes-Benz thoughtfulness and sound ergonomics, compromised only slightly by signs of market-sniffing cost-cutting. Am I just suggestible, or do materials seem a tad poorer than heretofore? I was astonished to find the furnishings of the Coupe's big doors shimmying and chirruping when slammed. But the seats are comfortable, the driving position is very good and you can specify a huge black glass sunroof, which adds another dimension of personality to a car that is by no means bland. As if to emphasise that its maker is chasing customers outside the familiar sober territory, the Sports Coupe comes in some shocking colours, including metallic carrot, urine and budgerigar.
It would be misleading to say that this is a nervous, high-performance vehicle. It has all the Mercedes virtues of solidity and probity. Styling apart, this is not a car that will embarrass you. Better still, it is not boring.
A coupe with a diesel engine (and automatic transmission) is always going to be a curiosity and, although Mercedes' diesel is nowhere near as good as BMW's (being breathless and rattly), the Sports Coupe is one of those rare cars that gives you the very pleasing sense of wanting to travel.
I would not select it for a twitching blast on a D road through the Gorges du Tarn, but it would be splendid for a long cruise along the Ligurian coast road. Travelling is, of course, better than arriving. Especially if your arrival would incite a skirmish in the monkey house.
MERCEDES SPORTS COUPE - From pounds 18,975 to pounds 26,205.