2019 Mercedes-Benz B-Class review

First international drive

The all-new third-generation Mercedes-Benz B-Class has lost some of the previous gen's frumpiness and gained tech, refinement and plushness.

The Mercedes-Benz B-Class is a car that defies classification. It’s not a people mover, although its boxy and tall dimensions lend it an air of one. It’s not a hatchback, certainly not in the traditional sense, and neither is it a station wagon, even if its side profile hints at a wagon-esque form. And it’s certainly no SUV.

So, what is it then? Mercedes-Benz, for its part, calls it a ‘sports tourer’, a name that belies its slightly frumpy appearance. To my eyes, it looks like a hatchback for tall people.

No surprise then that the new third-generation B-Class shares its underpinnings with the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class – right down to the same 2729mm wheelbase, which is an increase of 30mm over the outgoing model, but still way down on the original’s 2786mm wheelbase. But whereas the A-Class sits at 1440mm tall, the B-Class’s roofline is a whopping 122mm higher, standing at 1562mm.

Mercedes-Benz says over 1.2 million B-Classes have sold worldwide since launching back in 2006 and, in what will come as a shock to almost no one, a Merc representative at the new car’s launch in Majorca this week, admitted that around 70-80 per cent of those sales were to people over the age of 60.

And it’s easy to understand why, because what the B-Class offers is a high-riding (the front seats sit 90mm higher than in the A-Class) hatch-like experience, that is easy to get in and out of, with a capacious boot area and a host of Merc’s latest infotainment tech that is not only a hub for entertainment and information, but also a wellness centre, of sorts.

The market for B-Class in Australia in relatively small, with sales of around 1000-1200 per year. Of those, Mercedes-Benz Australia claims around 80 per cent are of the petrol B180 and B200 variants. That’s why, Australia will not be getting any diesel variants of this new-gen B-Class.

We won’t know pricing and specification until closer to the car’s local launch in mid-2019, but we can expect locally delivered B-Classes will be highly-specified, with standard inclusions that other markets will need to option.

Likely, although not confirmed, standard kit on the new B-Class includes LED headlights, keyless start, electric tailgate, satellite navigation, rear-view camera, Merc’s twin 10.25-inch widescreen displays including touchscreen, MBUX infotainment including Mercedes Me Connect, a touchpad in the centre console, nine airbags and a premium nine-speaker 225-watt sound system.

Those nine airbags are joined by a suite of active safety systems, although again, we won’t know what will be standard and what will be optional until final specification is confirmed. In Europe though, active brake assist, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist are all listed as standard while adaptive cruise control with Distronic Plus that can read road conditions up to 500 metres ahead, such as curves or intersections and adjust the speed of the car accordingly, are optional.

A word on the satellite navigation – using what Mercedes-Benz calls Augmented Reality, the system is, at first glance pretty much like any other. Until, that is, you come to a turn where the AR kicks in. Basically, it splits the sat-nav screen into two sections and on the right-hand side of the screen projects the road in front of you, like watching through a forward facing camera but with arrows and guidance superimposed over the movie. It’s brilliant, in a word.

Stepping inside the B200 – and it’s a cinch thanks to not only the high-riding seats but also generous door apertures both front and rear – and the first thing that strikes is just how plush the interior is. Our test car was finished the Progressive line’s macchiate beige leather, which looked sumptuous and added to the light and airy feel of the cabin. The glasshouse is generous and sitting up high, all around visibility is excellent.

The materials, certainly up high, are luxurious with swathes of double stitching and plenty of soft-touch faux leather and plastics. Faux wood trims complement the ambience and even the harder materials used down low still look plush, probably because they were finished in the same macchiate beige colour that lessens the visual impact of their inherent hardness.

Anchoring everything are the twin 10.25-inch high-res colour screens that command the dash like one of the lone windmills that liberally dot the landscape in these parts; the left-hand screen (on our launch left-hookers) serves as the car’s instrument cluster and is configurable to personal tastes in multiple ways. So too the head-up display which is one of the better HUDs we’ve experienced recently, not only for its display clarity, but also because it can be highly personalised to display only the information you want.

The right-hand 10.25-inch touchscreen is the nerve centre of the B200’s infotainment. We’ve previously waxed about how good and intuitive Mercedes’s new MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) is, how the clarity of the screen is matched by its ease of use, thanks in part at least, to the myriad ways you can control its functions. As well as the now ubiquitous touch screen, there are controls on the multi-function steering wheel that swipe and toggle through the various screens. The cars at launch were fitted with the optional touchpad in the centre console which offers another way to play with the infotainment, but like many such systems, we found this a little clunky and awkward to use.

The easiest and perhaps most entertaining way of playing with the system is by using voice commands, in the same way you would on your smartphone or smart home system.

“Hey Mercedes,” is followed up by a “What can I help you with?” and if, for instance, you tell ‘Mercedes’ you’re cold, she’ll automatically adjust the B200’s climate control to reflect this. Of course, you could just use the toggles and dials that control the HVAC functions on the console, but where’s the fun in that? After all, who doesn’t like the idea of barking out an instruction and having some faceless algorithm posing as a person respond to our every whim? It appeals to the primeval in us all.

For some of us, that primeval urge extends to driving. We need that visceral connection to the road, a blend of engagement and performance that not only transports us from A-to-B, but also makes us feel something. That ‘something’ can be as simple as the bark of an exhaust, or the screaming banshee wail of an engine at redline. It could also be in how relaxing the drive experience is, where the car underneath behaves predictably and goes about the business of transporting us and our loved ones with minimum fuss.

Buyers of the B-Class looking for the former – although we suspect, there won’t be many of them – will be disappointed, while those looking for the latter, should have their needs largely fulfilled.

Under the bonnet of the B200, lies Merc’s 1.33-litre, four-cylinder, turbo petrol engine (internal code M282 for the nerds amongst us) with 120kW and 250Nm. Those modest outputs are transmitted to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch auto.

And it’s a refined drivetrain, perfectly willing and effortless around town where not too much is asked of those power and torque numbers. Out on the motorway too, getting up to cruising speed (in this instance, the legal posted limit of 120km/h), the B200 happily gets there – eventually.

With a claimed 0-100km/h sprint time of 8.2 seconds, the B200 is no missile launcher. But again, the target market is unlikely to be too concerned. Which is probably a good thing, because once you start asking some questions of the drivetrain, it becomes apparent what the B-Class is and what it isn’t.

First, let’s deal with what the B-Class isn’t, and that’s any kind of performance-focussed ‘sports tourer’, certainly not in this B200 spec. There’s just not a lot of depth to the powertrain, which starts to struggle and make a lot of noise for little gain when you accelerate hard.

Similarly, the seven-speed DCT is perfectly refined out on the highway or around town, but once out on some twisting mountain roads, the transmission was constantly and needlessly changing gears, in what seemed like an elusive hunt for the right cog. It made for an unpleasant and sometimes, annoying drive through some lovely back roads. And to be clear, no one was trying to treat the B200 like a hot hatch, but rather simply enjoying an afternoon’s drive through some beautiful scenery.

Where the B200 on test shone, was in its ride. There’s a caveat though, as all test cars were fitted with independent rear suspension (IRS) and adaptive dampers. It’s likely, although not confirmed, Australia’s B-Class range will be torsion-beam-shod at rear, although the more mature set-up will be available as an option.

That said, the B200 offers a lovely ride, plush even, as it soaks up bumps and lumps with barely a ripple in the cabin. Sitting on 19-inch rims did enhance tyre roar over some rougher surfaces, but the overall experience is a positive one.

Mercedes-Benz claims the B200 will hum along all-day in various traffic conditions and drink just 5.6L/100km. That’s an ambitious number but no doubt helped by Merc’s cylinder deactivation technology, which shuts down the second and third cylinders depending on conditions between 1250 and 3800rpm. Noticeable? Nope. Did we see a fuel reading at launch? Also nope, so we’ll have to wait until the B-Class lands locally before we can test any fuel consumption against MB’s claims.

What’s not in dispute is the B-Class’s practicality. That high-riding front seating position is only the start. Hunker down into the back row and you’re met with a similar ambience, at once light and airy and spacious. There’s a ton of toe, knee and leg room while – unsurprisingly – head room is off the charts, thanks to the B-Class’s high roofline.

Boot space is also generous, with 455 litres with the back row in play, expanding to 1100 litres with the second row folded down. Mercedes-Benz further claims a capacity of 1540 litres of the entire load space up to the roofline is used.

It’s not cavernous, but it is set to expand further, with MB confirming the back row will be able to slide fore and aft from the middle of next year to free up more boot space. That seems like an odd strategy, to release an all-new model without that ability but then promise it a short time into the future. One suspects, although this is pure speculation, some focus groups may have had their say and Merc has responded accordingly.

Practicality, it seems, is an important consideration in this most nichest of niche segments (by the way, there’s no such word as ‘nichest’ but it works in this context). And on the practicality front, the B-Class delivers and delivers handsomely. It’s spacious, light, comfortable, and Mercedes-Benz has gone to great lengths to ensure it’s also luxurious. And while some of the drivetrain’s shortcomings were exposed at launch, it’s worth noting the launch program asked questions of it unlikely to be asked in the real world, by real owners.

Mercedes-Benz knows who its customer is for the B-Class and with this, the third-generation of its popular, if quirky, ‘sports tourer’, has pandered to that demographic handsomely. Would I buy one? Ask me in nine years.