Ever the bridesmaid, is there still a place in the market for the segment-splitting Mercedes-Benz B-Class?
Published in our June 2006 issue, the summary of the first road test of the then-new Mercedes-Benz B-Class ultimately offered more questions than answers. These pertained largely to where this wedge-shaped offering fitted within the greater motoring landscape. Built on the same sandwich-floor platform as the second-generation A-Class, Mercedes-Benz proudly touted the B as a compact sports tourer; similar to its smaller sibling in terms of dynamics and premium trim, while offering purportedly greater levels of space and versatility to suit a burgeoning family. In execution, it was a rival to the Volkswagen Touran and Honda FR-V. Yet, in spirit, it arguably also took on the likes of the Audi A4 Avant, BMW 3 Series Touring and even Subaru Forester.
Nine years later and having both outsold and, indeed, outlasted many of its original rivals in our market, a more resolved (better balanced) second-generation B-Class found itself up against a like-for-like rival of the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer. Despite a narrow loss to the BMW in our April 2015 comparison test, Mercedes-Benz is, once again, enjoying the last laugh as the new (W247) B-Class arrives in South Africa in the wake of the departure of the Active Tourer and Volkswagen’s Golf SV due to poor sales. What has kept the B-Class relevant, and can the new version continue to defy both the odds and its detractors?
The metamorphosis of the A-Class from wedge-shaped shopping cart to a full-fledged member of the executive hatch flock has freed-up the B-Class to fulfil its mandate as an altogether more versatile offering than the A. Once again sharing a platform (MFA2), the B’s most distinguishable feature remains its (122 mm) taller stance when compared with its sibling. All other dimensions, including wheelbase length, are duplicated across both offerings. Designed around the striking looks of its hatchback relation, the B-Class’s raised roofline is countered by larger head- and taillamp clusters. A noteworthy feather in the taller car’s cap is it boasts a more slippery (0,24) drag coefficient than the sharper-styled hatch.
A curious inclusion on the spec sheets of both the B250 tested in 2015 and this new B200 version is the brand’s AMG Line upgrade. In this modern R50 175 application, it adds 18-inch alloy wheels, door sill extensions (that, like in 2015, dig into your calves on egress), a lowered suspension and the brand’s dazzling star-stubbed grille. Considering the family-focused mandate of the B-Class, the added aggression and stance (we’ll get to the ride quality later) associated with the AMG Line may be misplaced on this occasion.
While a glance at measured interior dimensions of the A and new B-Class reveals similar levels of lateral accommodation in both vehicles, one significant difference can be found in the 90 mm taller hip point offered in the B. The corresponding driving position is that much more raised than the one offered in the hatchback. Easier access aside, the obvious benefit is improved visibility out of the cabin. While we noted increased headroom in the rear of the B, another notable advantage of the more utilitarian package is a lower load sill and superior tailgate clearance.
It’s peculiar that the inclusion of a sliding second-row bench is a R5 700 cost option in the new B-Class range. Without this added flexibility (and only a 60:40-split backrest), luggage capacity in the B is no greater than currently offered in the A-Class hatch.
The first place we’d spend the money saved by not ticking the AMG Line box is in the interior. While the brand’s standard MBUX infotainment system offers impressive clarity and functionality, its corresponding seven-inch central display, combined with the entry-level digital instrument cluster of a similar size, is simply no match for the optional upgraded offering including a 10,3-inch touchscreen and fully customisable instrumentation. It’s also the best way to enjoy your (R11 000) navigation interface. While we’re at it, the clever ambient lighting package at R4 500 adds a welcome touch of class, and a reverse camera should prove more useful than the standard ultrasonic sensor setup. We would still like to see the inclusion of climate control vents for rear-seat passengers in such derivatives aimed at young families.
At launch, the all-new B-Class is offered with either a 110 kW/320 N.m 2,0-litre turbodiesel in the B200d mated with an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, or this B200 with its 1,3-litre turbopetrol. As featured in the hatch, this Renault-sourced four-cylinder unit offers 120 kW and 250 N.m of torque delivered to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch ‘box. Weighing slightly less than the heavily specced A200 tested in November 2018, the B200 boasts similarly impressive punch as its hatch sibling. It’s likewise let down slightly by coarseness and sounds of strain once the transmission is tasked with managing anything greater than a steady cruise. The reward for enjoying the well-insulated cabin at real-world speeds is a returned fuel consumption on our fuel route of just 6,30 L/100 km.
Another Mercedes-Benz SA press unit upgraded to include multilink rear suspension where a torsion beam item is standard fitment, in the B-Class in particular, you get the sense the more basic setup may complement this softer-edged package better than the AMG Line items fitted to our test car. The combination of larger wheels (16-inchers are standard) and a firmer suspension adds a level of sportiness – with a corresponding compromised ride quality – the traditional B200 owner is perhaps trying to avoid. Otherwise, why not opt for the A-Class?
That said, combined with a suitably lightweight electrically assisted steering setup, the B-Class matches its hatchback sibling’s easy manoeuvrability around town and, despite its taller stance, loses little precision and balance when pushing on.
Having sold more than 1,5 million units globally, the B-Class continues to defy the odds in what it offers compared with traditional (and more fashionable) competition. Until the relaunched Citroën brand perhaps introduces the likes of its C4 Spacetourer to our market, the new B is devoid of direct rivals as everyone else finds this segment unsustainable.
The advantage of the B-Class is that, where the likes of the 2 Series Active Tourer and Golf SV arrived fresh in our market, there are already plenty of Three-pointed Star fans who may want to upgrade their previous-generation A- and B-Class purchases. That’s not to say there aren’t (as ever) some compelling alternatives to the B-Class. A glance at the test of the all-new Audi Q3 may uncover some healthy perspective...
ROAD TEST SCORE
See Full Mercedes-Benz B-Class price and specs here