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Names can be deliberately suggestive. Out of nowhere the other day – actually not quite, as it was published in the newspaper that day ahead of, say, conflict in Syria – my better half decided to send me a list titled ‘most attractive baby names of 2015’.
Topping the list were Alessandro for blokes and Scarlett for girls, as voted by people on a website somewhere (it was that kinda poll).
After wiping sweat from my forehead, I distracted myself by realising that it’s a similar story with cars; especially in the case of two-thirds of this trio of mini multi-purpose vehicles from Europe being tested at the time.
The Citroen C4 Picasso is no doubt meant to bring out the arty types in all of us, even though losing the ‘Grand’ part of the name for this $40,990 entry-level model also means losing two seats; and that would have meant poor old Pablo would have had to leave one of his four offspring behind, or otherwise one of his two wives.
It does, however, place the non-Grand, regular C4 Picasso against two big-name heavyweights and one in particular that is also new to market.
The BMW 2 Series Active Tourer likewise has a couple of words in its name that basically read out its target market. This fellow tall-boy five-seater that isn’t an SUV is meant for outgoing types who put stuff like bikes and surfboards in its boot then, err, tour around places.
What if you need seven seats? That would be the 2 Series Gran Tourer not coming to this country that competes overseas with the … Grand C4 Picasso. Grand clearly equals more seats, in the same way a Camry Grande equals getting more fruit; though curiously Grande at Starbucks actually means small.
There isn’t much to infer about the Mercedes-Benz B-Class but it probably doesn’t need an explanation as it really started the premo-MPV segment in 2005. It’s the second letter in the alphabet, which is probably why its closest competitor used numero due just to make sure everyone knew they were rivals.
Regardless, the brand refers to the B-Class as its ‘sports tourer’.
What else is in a name? In this company, the BMW propeller roundel and Benz tri-star badges are unquestionably worth more to buyers than the Citroen double-chevron when it comes to premium appeal. That is reflected here in much higher pricing.
The real battle is between the B-Class that pioneered the segment and the 2 Series Active Tourer that has arrived a full decade after, with the Picasso as the wild card (or painting).
BMW’s first-ever front-wheel-drive model is actually based on a Mini platform that should endow it with the great handling for which both brands are renowned, and which should give every active type the upper hand on that mountain climb to go mountain biking. That it shares 2 Series nomenclature with a rear-wheel-drive coupe and convertible is as bizarre to some as the fact this 218i utilises a three-cylinder (albeit turbocharged) engine.
This entry to BMW mini-MPV ownership is priced from $44,400 plus on-road costs. The base Mercedes-Benz B-Class starts from a lesser $41,400 in B180 form, but in a case of splitting the difference, only the $47,400 B200 was available to test here.
Comparatively it’s a bigger step up to the next 2 Series Active Tourer, the $54,900 225i, which competes directly with the $54,200 B250 4MATIC, but both are well above the one-spec Citroen.
As tested in base form you’re paying about $3500 less for the C4 Picasso compared with the 218i.
Just like the cars themselves, we have three very different testers on board for this comparison: new cars editor Tim Beissmann who is newly married, contributor Benn Sykes who has an even newer little unit that has come into the world, and myself who occasionally throws a gym bag or bike in the back of a car and that’s about it (but as yet has no need for a baby names list!).
Benn has had intimate experience with the C4 Picasso prior to this test (read his lifestyle review here) while I spent a weekend in Canberra with the 218i Active Tourer and Tim collected the B200, so we came into this test with some clear impressions of individual models.
Difference again forms around the way each manufacturer presents its family-focused interior.
For a dense urban loop, we pile first into the B200, our test car of which includes options such as an AMG Exclusive Package featuring red-cut leather trim, and AMG Line pack including 18-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass, sports variable-ratio steering, bodykit, twin exhausts and other accoutrements, at $1490 for each pack.
There is also electrically adjustable front seats with auto-dipping passenger mirror when parking for $990 and a more premium Comand infotainment system with 8.0-inch colour screen, 10Gb music hard drive, internet connectivity and Harman Kardon 12-speaker audio for $2490.
Once we became accustomed to the AMG black-on-black interior, the B200 proved a comfortable urban conveyance. Seat comfort is superb up front and behind, and there is plenty of headroom front and rear.
Above: Mercedes-Benz B-Class.
As with all three MPV models there are rear air vents and the superior protection of ISOFIX child anchor points, in addition to flip-down rear tray tables shared only with the Picasso.
The infotainment system is generally pretty easy to use, though the ‘floating tablet’ screen is tilted back too far and some of the trim materials in this A-Class-based cabin don’t feel premium.
Crucially you don’t get sports suspension as you would in an AMG-optioned A-Class. The standard ‘comfort’ suspension absorbs larger impacts such as speed humps really well, though the low-profile tyres snag on sharp-edged pot holes and fidget over creases in the road.
Above: Mercedes-Benz B-Class.
Swapping into the 2 Series Active Tourer, its dashboard immediately feels narrower and this optional ($1000) Luxury Line trim level brings beige leather and light wood trim to feel much airier.
A stitched leather-look dashboard impresses, as do the more sizeable door pockets with double bottle holders. While there is a large open storage tray between the front seats lacking in the B200, the flip-down armrest above it only has space for an (optional) phone charging adaptor. At least the Benz gets a big centre bin in the traditional sense.
Our test BMW is also optioned up with keyless auto-entry that is standard in the Benz, which is packaged with electrically adjustable front seats with heating for $2400. The LED headlights that are also standard on B200 are a $1900 option on the 218i, so together the initial $3000 pricing gap between them largely closes.
We also would have loved to see the Professional Multimedia Package on our test Active Tourer, which costs an additional $2900 but features a larger 8.8-inch colour display, head-up display, and 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system with digital radio tuner to mostly match the optional Benz system.
Even the standard model’s 6.5-inch display connects with a benchmark iDrive nav/audio system that is a delight to use and makes the Merc’s look more finicky than necessary. Still, it’s impressive to find all three have USB inputs that don’t require special cables to connect with your iPod, for example – they all plug and play on any cable, with quick and simple Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity.
It’s not just the colours and connectivity that make a contrasting impression to the B-Class, though, but also the seats … and not for the better.
Above: BMW 2 Series Active Tourer.
There is little support on the thin front seats that are also quite narrow, and more befitting of a Mini than a multi-purpose vehicle. After a two-and-a-half-hour stint behind the wheel at the weekend, I found the front seats among the least comfortable of any new car recently tested.
Despite the more compact impression up front, there is excellent legroom and toeroom for rear riders, and with headroom being equalised by both Germans having an optional panoramic roof ($1962 at BMW, $1490 at Benz, yet standard in Citroen) it was again the 218i that is better accommodating to taller passengers.
The big downside, as up front, is markedly less comfortable seats themselves, and ride comfort isn’t ideal either. Riding on standard 17-inch alloy wheels (as with the B200, with run-flat tyres) and standard suspension, the BMW bangs around over potholes less than the Benz. But it is also bounces its occupants more over speed humps and is less settled over small irregularities, transferring more vibrations to its occupants.
Above: BMW 2 Series Active Tourer.
Practically speaking, the back seat itself slides 60:40 and can be folded 40:20:40 (where the Benz is fixed and only folds 60:40), which is impressive.
When you keep the seats up its 468 litre boot is the smallest here (by 20L to B-Class and 69L to Picasso), though it does have a handy, lined underfloor storage compartment where the B200 houses a subwoofer and repair kit inside a bare metal cave.
With the BMW, it would be even more ideal if the luggage lid could flip up and attach to the rear seat backrest, though it can be removed entirely to create a deep well; overall, though, practicality improves on the solid Benz base.
If the 218i is light, airy and compact inside and the B200 is darker, but broader and more plush, then the C4 Picasso brings together the best of both.
Its dashboard will polarise many, with its high-set instruments inside its all-encompassing 12.0-inch colour display, matched on the dashboard fascia by a smaller 7.0-inch colour touchscreen flanked by shortcut buttons.
There is no escaping the fact the system takes longer to learn than its rivals, both of which use a simple rotary dial on the centre console to access multi-media functions and have separate buttons and display for the dual-zone climate control. In the Citroen you must switch between audio, climate, nav, trip computer and internet using separate buttons.
Above: Citroen C4 Picasso.
Once acclimitised it’s fine, and what you otherwise get is the classiest, most high quality cabin of the lot. The texturing on the soft touch plastics, mood lighting even inside the door handles, and the furry flock lining inside the large storage area beneath the main controls make it feel more premium than its competitors (though we mused that O’Brien Glass would have a field day replacing the windscreen that stretches right back over your head).
The C4 Picasso is also more than just a pretty picture (ahem); it doesn’t skimp on functionality, either.
The big storage box with cupholders between the front seats can be removed entirely, the fold-down tray tables at the rear have individual LED lights, the rear air vents are mounted on the sides at face level, and when you fold the rear seats down the side seatbelts are magnetised to attach to the side of the car.
Above: Citroen C4 Picasso.
If you’re not flipping and folding seats, the lowest and widest loading lip of the trio is the boot space highlight with the Citroen, while it even presents a handy removeable torch in the boot.
Riding on standard 17-inch alloy wheels (18s are a $1500 option) like the 218i, the Citroen’s suspension is nothing short of outstanding. Anything that comes under its tyres is soaked up, yet there’s real control, not nauseous floating you get with some soft set-ups.
It is also deathly quiet, with the concrete slabs that pass as urban arterials around Sydney being pretty much ignored, where they roar through the cabin in both of the Germans.
The front seats are the cushiest of the lot, and the rear seat comprises three individual chairs; they each aren’t quite as comfortable as the B-Class’s bench, being particularly harder on the backrest, though the C4 Picasso is the only car here to offer reclining individual backrests in addition to individual sliders.
Here’s a tip: if you’re travelling four-up, recline the outboard seats and the upright centre seat will provide cozy shoulder support.
The rear floor is also the flattest of the three, meaning the least compromised foot space for a centre rider, though toeroom under the front seats is limited. Headroom and legroom for all three are similar.
It’s worth noting that full Nappa leather seats are a hefty $5000 option, but it is packaged with electrically adjustable front seats with heating, five headrests that are like those in an aeroplane with padding for the side of your head, and even an electrically adjustable footrest for the passenger. The leather itself is also the highest quality material we’ve felt in a mainstream car.
Starting from a lower pricing base than the others, you can afford to option leather in the Citroen, as well as an electric opening tailgate ($1000) that is standard only on the 218i here, and also a driver assist pack ($2000).
That latter pack does, however, incorporate features already standard on the others such as auto high-beam, auto-dimming rear-view mirror and forward collision alert, while lane departure warning is included on the BMW. What the pack does include that is an optional extra on the others is active cruise control, but not for any price will the Citroen automatically apply the brakes if a low-speed collision is imminent – where both Germans will.
Conversely the Citroen gets a blind-spot monitor standard, as does the Benz, but the BM doesn’t. Even fully loaded, you’re looking at a sub-$50K C4 Picasso.
For the driver around town, the Citroen’s light and direct steering works as ideally as the cushy seats and ride, and its thin forward pillars provide excellent visibility.
That is if you do need to park it, of course, because all three MPVs otherwise come standard with front and rear parking sensors, a reverse-view camera and even a semi-automatic parking function than can detect a spot then automatically steer itself into it while you modulate the throttle.
The Mercedes-Benz also has smooth and crisp steering, but it’s harder to see out of. Disappointingly, the BMW’s steering is light and vague on the centre position but becomes lumpy and hard as you wind lock on and off between one laneway and the other, for example.
There are some other issues for the 218i driver. Its 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo is the least refined engine here, sending lots of little vibes through the steering wheel and seats, even at idle, making it feel more like a clattery diesel than a petrol.
Despite the 218i having a regular six-speed automatic versus the 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo B200 having an automatic seven-speed dual-clutch variety that is more typically known to lurch in low-speed traffic as the clutches engage, it’s actually the former that shunts when creeping in traffic while the latter is smooth.
The Citroen combines the same-sized engine as in the Benz and the same number of cylinders, with the same type of automatic and an identical number of gears to the BMW. The French contender is smooth and quiet, just as you might expect, and it has the smartest stop-start operation.
In the urban cut and thrust, passengers Tim and Benn agree that the C4 Picasso is a stand-out.
Out on the open road, the Citroen maintains its comfortable silence. Where its rivals have deafening amounts of road roar on coarse-chip bitumen, it is conversely one of the quietest affordable cars we’ve tested, eclipsing both the Peugeot 308 and Volkswagen Golf wagons we tested on the same roads the week prior.
If your definition of ‘active’ and ‘sports’ is dynamics that hint at hot-hatchery once the baby capsule and bikes are out of the back, then it will be the 218i Active Tourer or B200 Sports Tourer that you’ll want.
The Bridgestone Potenza tyres on the Benz are stickier than your kid’s lips after a Krispy Kreme visit, providing plentiful grip and allowing plenty of pace. Although it weighs the most here at 1425kg, the 1.6-litre turbo delivers 115kW of power and 250Nm of torque – the latter being the most here – with the quickest claimed 0-100km/h acceleration time of 8.6 seconds.
It doesn’t feel quite that brisk, because plenty of ‘slur’ has been built-in to the dual-clutch gearbox obviously to prevent the jerkiness that afflicts other such types.
There is clearly plenty of Mini about the 2 Series Active Tourer, even if it is like threading a stilted version of the Brit icon through corners. On smooth bends when the steering weights up it feels sharper and relies less on grip than the Benz, but throw in bumps and its poise is affected.
With only 1320kg to lug around, the 1.5-litre turbo puts its lesser 100kW and 220Nm to good use.
Despite the 9.2sec 0-100km/h claim it feels no slower than its rivals, probably because the three-cylinder is so growly, flexible and keen to rev.
A surprise comes that the quieter C4 Picasso with the bigger engine and more indulgent interior tips the scales 10kg lighter than the BMW, and similarly there’s nothing much in it with its 9.3sec 0-100km/h.
The 1.6-litre turbo with 121kW and 240Nm isn’t the most charming unit around, but it toils away matched by a clever auto and even paddleshifters are standard.
Proving that hardness and sharpness aren’t the only ways to do dynamics, the C4 Picasso feels light and nimble on its feet, tipping into corners via the quick steering daintily and the well balanced chassis provides plenty of enjoyment. The steering becomes a bit wishy-washy when loaded up and the van rolls and moves around more than the others, but unlike the others it works on all manner of surfaces.
When it comes to fuel efficiency, the 218i claims the lowest official combined cycle consumption figure of 5.2 litres per 100 kilometres, versus 5.5L/100km for the B200 and 5.6L/100km for the C4 Picasso.
On my weekend drive to Canberra the Active Tourer couldn’t dip below 6.8L/100km, probably because with six gears it was revving at 2700rpm at the freeway limit – 500rpm higher than the seven-speed B200.
On our urban/freeway/country road test the BMW used 8.3L/100km, the Citroen 8.5L/100km and the Benz 8.6L/100km.
It may not be such a surprise that the MPV that feels smallest and the most nimble used the least fuel. Nor would it be a shock that a car based on a Mini might seem a bit immature and energetic in this company.
The BMW 218i Active Tourer is in many ways a likeable and honest compact, but what it doesn’t feel like is a particularly premium one, at least not as much as you’d expect for the price (and badge). It only really topples the latest version of its fellow German rival based on back seat space and flexibility, smooth-road handling and marginally economy.
The Mercedes-Benz B200 shares its flaws of excessive road noise, an inconsistent ride and expensive options list, but from its broader dashboard with more storage to its comfier seats and quieter, smoother engine around town, the B-Class feels more sophisticated.
Who would have thought that the French could oust the Germans so convincingly, yet here the Citroen C4 Picasso is at the top of the podium.
Starting with the lowest price tag may have handed this wild card the status of underdog, but it needs no such head start. Everything about this MPV is built for practical purpose, yet it proves the breed doesn’t have to be dull, and there is unwavering consistency to the way it shifts passengers quietly and comfortably, while feeling light and enjoyable to steer. That it doubles the others’ warranty – six years plays three – is all the more impressive long term.
What’s in a name? In this instance it really is a case of what’s beyond the badge...
Click the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.