What is it?
The new Mercedes-Benz B-class – premium priced rival to the Volkswagen Golf Plus, Ford C-Max, Citroën C4 Picasso, Vauxhall Zafira and other high roof hatchbacks increasingly favoured by family car buyers.
Set to go on sale in the UK in March 2012 at prices Mercedes-Benz officials suggest will be close to those of the old B-class, the second-generation MPV has been thoroughly re-engineered with a new front-wheel drive platform, frugal four-cylinder engines, contemporary gearboxes, heavily revised chassis and an extended range of safety features.
Gone is the heavily hyped sandwich platform that underpinned the first-generation B-class and imbued it with a predominately flat floor – something Mercedes-Benz now admits was terrific for structural rigidity but compromised interior packaging. It is replaced by a more conventional – and cheaper to produce – structure with conventional footwells in a move that provides the new model with added volume within the interior.
Under the bonnet is a new range of transversely mounted petrol and diesel engines. They’re mounted out front rather than under the front section of the floor, as was the case before. Together with the 136bhp turbocharged 1.8-litre common rail diesel in the B200 CDI tested here, there’s also a less powerful 107bhp version of what is essentially the same engine but with lower boost pressure in the B180 CDI. Also planned from the start of UK sales is a turbocharged 1.6-litre direct injection petrol unit that produces 120bhp in the B180 and, with added boost, 154bhp in the B200.
The new engines come mated to a standard six-speed manual gearbox. Buyers can also specify an optional six-speed double clutch transmission. Offering both manual and automatic modes, it replaces the unloved continuously variable transmission.
Another crucial change is the chassis. It retains a Macpherson strut front suspension but the rear torsion beam arrangement of old has been replaced by a more contemporary multi-link set-up. The steering also follows the recent trend, eschewing hydraulic-mechanical for electro-mechanical actuation as part of a series of fuel saving measures that also includes automatic stop/start and brake energy recuperation on all new B-class models.
What’s it like?
Great in some areas, disappointing in others. Climb aboard and the first impression is that you now sit in the B-class, not on it. Due to the floor changes, the front seats have been made considerably more upright and the steering wheel less vertical. It means a more relaxed driving position than the oddly sporting set-up of old. Knee height up front is considerably lower than before.
The front seats, which offer greater cushioning and a more substantial construction than the thin backed pews used in the previous B-class, are mounted 86mm lower. It all adds up to a greater level of perceived comfort even before you’ve turned the key.
Performance wise there’s little to distinguish the new B200 CDI from its predecessor. The new engine feels very similar to the old B200 CDI unit in terms of overall response, although a new front axle with altered driveshafts now manages to place its power to the road in a tidier fashion.
There’s enough low-end torque to haul you smartly away from the lights and sufficient mid-range punch to allow you to confidently exploit spaces in traffic. The B-class also cruises at typical motorway speeds without any undue mechanical harshness. In fact, overall refinement levels are now very impressive.
The official 0-62mph time is 9.5sec – 0.1sec faster than the old B200 CDI. In real world terms it feels faster, owing to the flexible nature of the engine. Mercedes-Benz claims economy of 64.2mpg on the combined cycle – an improvement of over 10.0mpg.
The new gearbox offers a trio of modes: eco, sport and manual – the former being the most comfort orientated as well as the most frugal of the three. It is not quite as smooth as rival gearboxes in automatic mode when placed in eco and sport modes – especially on downshifts. But the double clutch unit responds well to manual shifting, which is performed via steering wheel mounted paddles.
The new B-class offers greater agility than the old model, some 32,000 out of a total of 700,000 of which have found their way into the hands of UK buyers since its introduction in 2005. It’s hardly sporting, but there’s added willingness to the way the new model handles.
The electro-mechanical steering, geared at 3.0 turns lock-to-lock, is one of the better systems we’ve come across in recent times, offering good response and progressive weighting across the wide range of lock. Around town, the new B-class is highly maneuverable thanks to the direct nature of its steering and a reduced turning circle.
On more open roads, there’s greater eagerness upon turn in and, thanks in part to the reduction in height - and with it a significant lowering in the crucial centre of gravity and less body roll during cornering. The front tyres hang on with greater defiance than before, resisting understeer at cornering speeds that would have worried the old B-class. There’s also a big improvement in cruising ability with greater straightline stability at high speed.
The part that really impresses is the ride. Despite a 79mm reduction in the wheelbase, the new B-class absorbs small imperfections with greater authority while providing excellent big bump absorption. The revised suspension provides the new MPV with a more settled feeling on varying surfaces. There’s also less tyre roar at higher speeds. All traits that help make it a more relaxing long distance proposition.
So, it’s pleasing to drive. But what about interior ambiance and practicality, which for many is what MPVs are all about?
No qualms up front. Together with the more substantial seats, a high quality dashboard with a standard flat screen monitor operated by a remote dial and flashy new switchgear helps provide the new B-class with a grown-up look. The improved quality of the materials used throughout the interior also give it a more upmarket feel.
It’s the rear that disappoints. In line with recent Mercedes-Benz practice, the two outer rear seats receive proper scalloped out squabs and back rests to provide a good deal of comfort and, thanks to the provision of standard longitudinal adjustment, the sort of legroom to shame many larger cars when you’re prepared to forgo ultimate luggage space. The middle seat, though, is not really a seat at all, but a narrow and raised section of upholstery linking the outer seats.
To make matters worse, there’s a transmission tunnel running through the middle of the floorplan robbing valuable legroom for those unlucky enough to end up in the centre rear seat. This, in a front-wheel-drive MPV! In this respect, the B-class should be thought of as a four plus one than a true five seater.
Given it has put on 89mm in length, boot capacity has been reduced by 57-litres to 488-litres when the rear bench and its adjustable back rests are set all the way back. And for a car that is billed as being premium, it also comes as a bit of a shock to open the bonnet and find the new B-class does without gas struts, adopting instead a rather crude steel rod support.
On a more positive note, Mercedes-Benz plans to sell the new B-class in the UK with a standard radar controlled collision warning system that operates at speeds between 19mph and 155mph as part of a comprehensive safety package that includes many of the features found on its range topping S-class.
Should I buy one?
If it has to be a premium brand, yes. On the strength of its classy interior alone, the new Mercedes-Benz B-class is well worth consideration. However, there are roomier rivals around for a lot less money and there are some obvious cut cutting measures.
If you’re willing to trade off some of the new B-class’s perceived quality and standard safety features for greater levels of interior flexibility and added practicality, you should take a look at the Ford C-Max and the new third-generation Vauxhall Zafira in particular before making any hard and fast decisions.
Mercedes-Benz B-class B200 CDI
Price: TBA; Top speed: 130mph; 0-62mph: 9.5sec; Economy: 64mpg (combined); CO2: 115g/km; Kerb weight: 1475kg; Engine: 4cyl, inline, turbodiesel, 1796cc, transversely mounted; Power: 136bhp at 3600-4400rpm; Torque: 221lb ft at 1600-3000rpm; Gearbox: 6-speed manual