Although never a darling of the professional road tester, the first generation of Mercedes-Benz’s B-Class nevertheless went on to notch up an impressive world-wide sales tally of around 700 000 units. Even in South Africa, the B-Class has been a favourite of retirees and practically minded but well-to-do families. But, due partly to stinging criticism by the motoring press about the previous model being a dynamic dullard, as well as feedback from existing owners, Mercedes-Benz has dramatically changed the formula for its successor.
Gone is the sandwich floor and the resultant raised driving position. Gone too are the unique-to-this-model engines that were previously required due to the car’s unique construction. In its place is a sportier, squatter B-Class.
It needs to be pointed out, though, that Mercedes still refers to the B-Class as a compact sports tourer and not a straightforward hatchback. Its body style is therefore often the first topic of conversation, as it appears to be stuck in the design never-never land that exists between conventional hatches and compact MPVs.
That said, it features the side body sculpting that can be seen on many a new Mercedes and the same blunt face, too. Its more butch stance is the result of a lower roofline (by 50 mm). Our test unit was equipped with the optional Sport package, which includes a ride height dropped by 20 mm in front and 15 mm at the rear. Now, add our test unit’s smart 17-inch wheels, bright-red paintwork and a large black panoramic roof (R10 000), and you have to say the B-Class looks rather tasty.
The interior has been subjected to an even more dramatic overhaul. You sit far lower; the seat position has been dropped by a significant 86 mm and the facia looks like something that would usually feature on a sportscar. There are chromed, round ventilation outlets similar to the ones on the new SLK and SLS. The instrumentation is deep-set and sporty. The entire facia can, as an option, be trimmed in leather (as our test unit’s was). Then, there’s also a free-standing, full-colour TFT (thin-film transistor) display that ranges in size from 147 to 178 mm, depending on which media system is specified. Mercedes-Benz offers three trim options, Sport as featured here, Exclusive and Night. Cloth upholstery is standard but leather is a relatively cheap option, priced at R2 500.
Although the roofline is lower, there is actually more headroom than before. Rear legroom is superb and all local models feature the Easy-Vario-Plus system – the rear seats can be adjusted forwards and backwards by up to 140 mm, allowing occupants to find the required boot space/legroom compromise. We measured boot space to be between 312 and 408 dm3 and, with the rear bench folded down, the total utility space is 1 152 dm3.
There’s a strong focus on safety. Standard features include attention assist (drowsiness monitoring), brake hold, hill hold, seven airbags and seatbelt tensioners, belt-force limiters and belt-height adjusters even on the rear seats. There are also a number of options to choose from, including an automated parking system (R5 000), Distronic Plus active cruise control (R10 000) and a lane-tracking package (R7 500). One missing item is a full-size spare wheel.
Under the bonnet is a 1,8-litre turbodiesel that delivers 80 kW and an impressive 250 N.m of torque between 1 400 and 1 800 r/min. Considering the B-Class’s mass (1 605 kg), the engine does an admirable job of moving it around with some urgency. Nevertheless, with the sprint (0-100 km/h in 11,68 seconds) and overtaking-acceleration figures being what they are, this is most certainly not a sporty car.
It is, however, very economical. Our calculated fuel index for this model is an outstanding 5,28 litres/100 km, a figure we couldn’t match on our fuel run, but the 5,9 litres/100 km achieved is nevertheless impressive.
On the road, the B180 CDI is initially very promising. The engine is refined and the double-clutch seven-speed transmission is a good partner for it, not only benefiting economy, but also providing smooth, unobtrusive shifts when left to its own devices.
We wish we could judge its ride/handling balance better but unfortunately we can’t – the optional Sport pack (R10 000) results in a crashy ride with little in the way of compliant damping. Testers who have driven standard B-Classes claim far better ride quality, so this is an option that should, at the very least, be considered very carefully. For what it’s worth, our test unit handled better than any B-Class before, but then it should because it has a dramatically lower centre of gravity and far firmer suspension.
As it stands, we feel the optional Sport package has robbed our test car of a core requirement of any practical, family-oriented car – ride comfort. Of course, not everyone will be buying the B-Class as a family car. At least Mercedes offers the choice. In other respects, the B-Class shows great potential.
The interior has been both normalised in terms of seating position and made sportier, with some very nice detailing. The boot is of a decent size and rear legroom is excellent. The basics are certainly there for a lovely family car. Just make sure that, when you dive into the options list, you know what you want to end up with, or else you could drive home in a car similar to our test unit – half-heartedly sporty, and half-heartedly comfortable, and therefore, somewhat half-baked.