The second-generation Mercedes-Benz B-Class may look like an evolution of its predecessor, but it's the first of a new breed of compact models aiming to significantly bolster the company’s coffers in a tough global market.
Mercedes-Benz is setting out to attract a new generation of buyers to the three-pointed-star badge, as it aims to capitalise on projections that the broader compact segment will grow from the current 19 million vehicles built annually to about 34 million units rolling off the line by 2020.
The platform beneath the new B-Class will spawn at least five new models, with the next-generation A-Class due here in early 2013 as the next in line.
The other three models to be based off the same compact platform include a compact SUV, a four-door coupe and possibly a three-door A-Class hatch. Expect to see the new four-door coupe, which is being touted as either the CLA or CLC, unveiled at the upcoming 2012 Beijing motor show.
Mercedes-Benz is keen to point to the success of the outgoing B-Class, citing sales of 2200 units in 2011 that placed the model in the top spot for the ‘Compact segment over $40,000’ in Australia.
The B-Class performed better once Mercedes-Benz Australia took the decision to drop the A-Class, blaming styling similarities between the two for affecting sales of both models.
This time, however, the B-Class isn't just what was essentially a longer-wheelbase version of the A-Class. While the A-Class transforms into a conventional hatchback for second-generation form, the B-Class retains its MPV-like design - albeit with the sharper lines and prominent grille that are common cues among today's Mercs.
There are greater changes inside as well as under the skin, though, for what Mercedes says is the most substantial model change in the company’s history.
Based on Mercedes-Benz’s new compact platform, the new B-Class is larger than the previous model - longer by 86mm and wider by 9mm.
Mercedes prefers to bill the B-Class as a sports tourer rather than an MPV, and to help the sporty bit the new model sits almost five centimetres lower on the road than its predecessor. Apart from the obvious styling benefits, aerodynamic performance has been significantly enhanced to a level close to that of the E-Class sedan.
Another aspect pointing to sporty intent is the reduced seat height - by 71 millimetres, but without affecting forward visibility that has long been one of the appeals of the B-Class. This is helped by the fact the B-Class sits on a higher-floor version of the small-car platform.
The B-Class may not be easy to pigeonhole in terms of vehicle type, but it certainly offers spaciousness and practicality. Rear legroom, for example, is just 12mm short of the current, regular-wheelbase S-Class limo.
There are three trim flavours: B180, B200 and B200 CDI, each powered by newly developed powerplants - two petrol and one diesel. All three offer more power and torque than the previous B-class variants they have replaced and with greater fuel efficiency.
The B180 and B200 share the same 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that features direct injection and turbo charging.
According to Mercedes-Benz, both petrol models will consume 6.1L/100km on a combined cycle – a reduction over the previous models of 1.5L/100km and 1.9L/100km respectively.
On the other hand, the 1.8-litre four-cylinder diesel engine in the B200 CDI generates 100kW and 300Nm of torque, while consuming just 4.7L/100km, or a fall of 0.9L/100km over the previous B200 CDI.
We got the chance to try out all three models, starting with the B200 that costs $43,950 before on-road costs are added.
Oddly enough, there’s no push button start across the B-Class range – you need to insert the remote fob – and twist. It’s not a big deal (almost satisfying, to be honest), but it’s largely unexpected today, with the proliferation of start/stop buttons - even in less expensive models.
On an earlier inspection of the car, we also noticed the absence of any soundproofing material on the inside of the bonnet – something else that is commonplace today in order to insulate the cabin from engine noise.
But any fears we might have about the new B-Class being in some way irritably noisy can be laid to rest. Whether you’re overtaking at 110km/h on a country road, or accelerating hard from a standstill, the B-Class is noticeably refined and quiet.
However, while progress under load feels more than adequate, it’s not quite as swift as we expected from the top of the range petrol model.
On the other hand, mid-range pull is much stronger, assisted by the engine’s wide torque band, stretching from 1250rpm through to 4000rpm.
Hopping into the $38,950 entry-level B180 might have been cause for alarm, with less power and torque on tap. Not so. There’s less power, but it peaks slightly earlier and the torque curve is exactly the same as the B200, so the performance gap between the two models is a lot less than you might imagine.
The B200 and B200 CDI are very evenly matched in so many ways, making the choice between the two difficult. For starters, they share the same starting price and same equipment specification.
From a performance perspective, what little power the diesel concedes to its petrol sibling is more than made up for with an additional 50Nm of torque at its disposal. So there’s plenty of go on tap from as low as 1600rpm.
So called ‘turbo-lag’ is another unwanted feature of small diesels, but thankfully, it has largely been engineered out of the new B-Class.
Turbo lag is minimal, and the diesel is quiet and refined. There's very little of that annoying clatter, even at idle - a common trait that seems to plague many of the smaller diesels these days.
Equally polished is the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that drives the front wheels and is standard on all models.
It’s not the quickest-shifting dual-clutch system on the market, but the gearchanges are smooth and effortless. More driver engagement can be had from using the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters – also standard equipment on B-Class.
The B-Class employs electro-mechanical power steering that provides good weighting from the straight-ahead position and provides a decent level of communication for the driver without being too sensitive for the type of vehicle that the B-Class is.
Through corners, the B-Class feels well composed with only a fraction of body roll.
The B-Class also has the ability to iron out the worst of our roads surfaces, though equip your B-Class with the optional lowered sports suspension and 18-inch-wheel combination and the ride becomes harsher.
Inside, interior presentation and quality is vastly improved on the previous B-Class. The list of standard features is also extensive, with overall value improved on the last-generation model.
Highlights include active parking assist, front and rear parking sensors, electric parking brake, audio with 14.7cm TFT colour display with six-disc CD changer with six-speakers, Bluetooth connectivity and steaming, three-spoke multifunction leather steering wheel with chrome insert, climate control air-conditioning auto sensing wipers and headlamps.
There are also six option packages to choose from. Select the Comand Package, for example, and apart from the 17.8cm colour display, HDD navigation and Harman Kardon sound system with 12 speakers and a host of other kit, you also get Internet connectivity and integration with Google Maps.
The front seats are well designed to accommodate a variety of body shapes and provide high levels of comfort and support, and that's regardless of whether you choose the man-made leather or fabric upholstery. If we had to make a call, we'd say the fabric seats on the entry-level B180 are the most comfortable.
The sports leather steering wheel is superb to hold, and it doesn't feel that much different to those found in more expensive Benzes.
Active and passive safety kit includes ‘collision prevention assist’ system, a radar-based system that monitors the distance between you and the vehicle in front. If the system senses an impending crash, an audible and visual alarm warns the driver and prepares the brakes to assist.
There are also nine airbags throughout the B-Class – front, pelvis, side and window bags for driver and front passenger, side airbags for rear seat passengers and driver’s knee bag.
The 2013 A-Class will attract a higher volume of customers, but for buyers looking for a keenly priced, practical compact luxury car with elevated seating height, good vision, refinement, and plenty of features and technology, the new B-Class is a stronger proposition than ever before.