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Six months ago the Mercedes-Benz B-Class had the premium MPV segment all to itself, as it had done for most of the past decade.
Fast-forward to today, however, and the multi-purpose vehicle is now sharing the niche segment with the polarising 2 Series Active Tourer from traditional rival BMW and the cheaper C4 Picasso from plucky French hopeful Citroen.
The timing is advantageous, then, for the B-Class’s mid-life update, which freshens the compact van with styling similar to the top-selling C-Class, an upgraded infotainment system with a larger 8.0-inch tablet-style screen, and an expanded list of standard features across the four-variant range.
Pricing for the 2015 Mercedes-Benz B-Class has increased between $500 and $3800 across the range, but the German brand says the addition of extra equipment means overall value is up by $800 to $2500 depending on the variant.
Our first taste of the updated range came courtesy of a week behind the wheel of the B200, the mid-range petrol model (slotting between the B180 and B250 4Matic), which benefits from the addition of LED headlights, keyless start, blind-spot assist and an enhanced satellite navigation system in addition to the range-wide styling tweaks.
It’s priced from $47,400 before on-road costs, which is $1500 more than before, but $3500 less than its direct rival from Bavaria, the 220i Active Tourer. It’s worth noting the impressive C4 Picasso is much cheaper than both, however, kicking off at $40,990. (You can read our comparison review on the trio here).
Our car was loaded with more than $10,000 worth of options, taking its list price to $57,840. Ticked boxes included the $1490 AMG Exclusive Pack, which adds black leather with red stitching; the $1490 AMG Line that brings 18-inch AMG alloys, Sports Direct-Steer system, lowered “comfort” suspension, unique body styling and sporty interior elements; the $990 Seat Comfort Package with electric and heated front seats and auto-dipping passenger mirror for reversing; and the $1490 panoramic sunroof.
Also added was the $2490 Driving Assistance Package that includes Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist, and the equally-priced Comand Package, which adds high-definition navigation, 10GB music hard drive, DVD player, internet connectivity, DAB+ digital radio, and a 12-speaker Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround sound system.
Those features, added to the B200’s already standard push-button start, dual-zone climate control, steering wheel paddleshifters, reverse-view camera with dynamic guidelines (which move when you move the steering wheel), semi-automatic parking, collision prevention assist with semi-automatic braking, and nine airbags, make for a loaded MPV – albeit one that’s priced within $6000 of the sweet and arguably more desirable C200 Estate, and roughly $10K above a similarly equipped Picasso.
The boxy, tall-bodied MPV predictably doesn’t hit the highs of the C-Class wagon, particularly in terms of perceived premium-ness and refinement, though those even contemplating a $60K-plus on-the-road van will be doing so for its more tangible, functional strengths – and the B-Class performs admirably here.
The supportive seats are packed with plenty of padding, and decent space for heads, shoulders, knees and toes (as the rhyme goes) means four adults can ride in comfort.
The B-Class’s ‘walk-in’ seating position is friendly for those who struggle to clamber in and out of lower sedans and wagons, and parents with children in booster seats. Rear centre air vents and flip-down tables on the front seatbacks are other welcome second-row features.
Merc’s baby van lacks some of the practicality of the newer additions to the segment, however. Its rear seatbacks don’t recline and the bases can’t slide back and forth. The ski port in the centre backrest is tiny, and the seats only fold 60:40, meaning you can’t flip down the middle pew entirely as you can in the BMW and Citroen.
It wins back points for the easy release levers in the boot that allow you to fold the seats forward without reaching into the cabin. Its 488-litre boot rates in between its rivals, and raising the boot floor allows you to create a long, flat loading space with the rear seats folded.
Practicality continues up front where the B-Class gets good storage bins, cup and bottle holders and a decent glovebox.
The floating centre screen looks crisp and is generally intuitive to use via the rotary dial on the console, though it contrasts with the old-looking infotainment and climate controls beneath that remind you that this refreshed B-Class remains based on a car from the beginning of the decade.
Fortunately the gear under the bonnet hasn’t aged anywhere near as quickly. The B200’s 115kW/250Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine forms a capable, refined and efficient partnership with the standard seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
While the engine may not feel as swift as its 8.6-second 0-100km/h claim indicates, it’s both responsive around town and relaxed at highway speeds, and never shows signs of strain. The transmission is also free from the low-speed jerkiness and surging that still plague some rival dual-clutches, and provides seamless and intelligently timed gearshifts. The engine’s stop-start system can be slow to kick over at times, however, such as when jumping into traffic from an intersection.
Mercedes-Benz claims combined cycle fuel consumption of 5.5 litres per 100 kilometres for the B200, and we achieved a figure of 8.6L/100km on a varied loop that covered urban, freeway and country roads.
The B-Class feels more car than van when working its perforated leather-bound AMG steering wheel. Its steering is direct, progressive and nicely mid-weighted, and is at its best when the road ahead zigs and zags like the wheel’s red stitching.
It’s also got good body control, feeling balanced and resisting roll through bends.
Unfortunately the B200 doesn’t have the ride comfort to match the cushioning offered by its superb seats. Across some of inner western Sydney’s patchwork roads it struggled to settle, jiggling over corrugations and jarring into potholes, seemingly seeking out every imperfection to transmit to the cabin. It rolled nicely over smoother speed humps and undulations, however. We suspect the standard 17-inch wheel and tyre package may do a better job at taking the edge off bumps than our car’s optional 18s and low-profile Bridgestone rubber.
The tyres are also noisier than you would expect from a premium brand, making a particular ruckus over concrete and coarse-chip surfaces.
The world of the Mercedes-Benz B-Class is more competitive today than at any time over the past decade. At one end is the Citroen C4 Picasso, which trumps it for value, practicality and ride comfort, and makes a strong case for looking beyond the badge, while at the other is the temptation of the pricier C-Class wagon, which offers different leagues of sophistication and prestige.
It’s not a cheap bus, particularly when loaded with options, and should be quieter and more comfortable than it is, but its smooth drivetrain, great seats, impressive storage and improvements courtesy of the 2015 update mean the B-Class is still a solid option in the premium MPV space – if no longer the only one.