This was not how it was supposed to go. I was going to Kauai and I wanted a Miata. I booked a 2003 Miata for rental and I was excited about it for weeks. Unfortunately, when I landed I had a voicemail waiting for me that said the Miata was in the shop and I would be “upgraded” to a Mercedes. So... not exactly a lightweight nimble convertible. After a bit of cursing and pouting, I came around to the idea and saw the positive sides: I’d never driven a Mercedes, an 18 year old German car is guaranteed to have tons of “personality,” and straight-six POWERRR!!! Another positive: the rental company was great. The process was literally as simple as finding the car in the parking lot, getting in and grabbing the keys from the glove box.

Exterior 7/10

The C280 is a nice looking car and for the late ‘90s it’s amazing. It’s squared and purposeful instead of bubby and hideous without being too square. The looks justify calling it by it’s full name: Mercedes-Benz. Classy, right? Points off for being a tiny bit too dull, but so much better than the current C-class.

Interior 5/10

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Very confusing, and very German. Everything is in a weird place and none of the icons made sense. Also points off for the ugly wood dash. At least the materials were nice and have mostly held up for the last 18 years.

You can’t talk about a German interior if you don’t mention the cupholders, so here they are:

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One tiny, crazily complicated cupholder that occasionally popped out to where it should be and another tiny opening where I suppose a cup-shaped object might fit.

Oh, and one other minor thing about the interor: it drew blood from my wife. See that sharp piece of plastic there? It took a large enough chunk out of my wife’s knee that the piece of skin was still hanging off it when it was my turn to drive again. I removed it before taking the picture because gross.

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Transmission 2/10

The only reason I’m not scoring it a “1” is because it sort of works. Barely. Slow to change up or down, and very violent about it. It’s only saving grace was the ability to manually select a gear and leave it there for the twisty mountain roads. Probably one of the worst transmissions I’ve ever driven, including the Prius C’s CVT.

Acceleration 7/10

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First, a couple facts about the state of the 18-year old rental car. The passenger side mirror was being held on by a wire and the steering wheel telescoping lock was broken. What does that have to do with acceleration? Everything. Stomp on the gas and the steering wheel telescopes towards you and the mirror flaps against the door. Let off the gas and the mirror returns to where it belongs. Also, the gas pedal was strangely difficult to push down, so it felt like an event if I really gave it the beans. Except for when the transmission got in the way, which it did, often.

The C280 has a longitudinally mounted straight-six powering the rear wheels as god intended. There’s no denying the joy of a proper German straight-six. Smooth and refined, even after 18 years of hard labor as a rental car engine.

Sound 4/10

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Engine noise and exhaust sounds were refined, but too quiet for my taste. The sounds you do hear constantly are the squeaks and rattles as you drive Kauai’s less than smooth roads. The radio was kind of crap, too.

Ride 7/10

For a car with sporting intentions, it rode pretty nice. A little too stiff on some of the rougher roads but mostly just the right balance of firmness and luxury.

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Handling 7/10

I was hoping for a Miata, so it’s hard to be fair in this category. Driving around town, I was not too impressed. It feels heavy and old and a little boring. However, once I drove here, the car came alive.

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Steering feel was excellent and the car stayed mostly flat around tight corners. It stayed completely composed as I pushed and pushed on one of the best roads I’ve ever driven. I never forgot that I was supposed to be in a Miata, but the thing was plenty fun to drive in the twisties.

Total 39/70

That total is way too low compared to my overall feeling about the car. It grew on me as I came to realize how perfect it was for Kauai. It fit in better than any of the rental Malibus and Camaros (which seem to have replaced the Mustangs as the rental convertible of choice). I got to the point where I loved just hopping in and driving the thing, squeaks, rattles and all. It was the rare opportunity to own an old German car without having to worry about repair costs.

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