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Change is coming to Mercedes’ small-car range, and this new B-Class is the first taste of it

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This week's road test subject, the Mercedes-Benz B-Class, is hoped to change the manufacturer's successes in the 'premium compact' car sector.

Mercedes' previous efforts have been innovative and interesting, but they've never been as well received as the likes of the Audi A3 or BMW 1 Series.

The previous B-Class slipped off many buyers' radar, so the new version has some catching up to do.

Saddled with a mechanical platform that delivered excellent packaging but at a considerable price, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and B-Class siblings have failed to win major success. But change is coming to Mercedes’ small-car range, and this new Mercedes B-Class is the first taste of it.

Stuttgart’s pseudo-MPV was given a new platform and format that, stylistically and dynamically, make it a more conventional fit for the so-called ‘premium C-segment’. However, in 2014 BMW saw that Mercedes had tied up the market and decided to fight back with its front-wheel drive 2 Series Active Tourer. To ensure it didn't lose too much ground on its younger and likeable rival, Mercedes gave the B-Class a much needed facelift, which included a number of improvements.

It is at the vanguard of a fresh effort by Mercedes to make real headway into a chunk of the luxury car market where it can ill-afford to be outperformed. As such, the impact crater of serious investment is readily apparent.

The B-Class, like the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, is an all-new car offered with a choice of four-cylinder engines, manual or automatic gearboxes and extensive class-first safety features.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz B-Class rear

The first Mercedes B-Class was often characterised as a swollen Mercedes-Benz A-Class, but for this new model the tables have been neatly turned.

Beneath the B-Class is a front-drive chassis that replaces the old car’s costly sandwich structure with a conventional monocoque platform. It is set to underpin up to five models, including the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

While its appearance may keep it pitched between segments, the new car is a definite improvement over the old

The advantages of the less complicated set-up (aside from a cut in manufacturing costs) are a liberation of low-level interior space, a lower driver’s hip point and a 50mm reduction in roof height. The last of these adds credibility to Mercedes’ claim that the B-Class has a more athletic look, while combined they contribute to a lower centre of gravity for the engineers to exploit.

Mercedes’ design team has endeavoured to flesh out the more sporting, 'lower to the road' aesthetic theme of the new B-Class with a number of styling flourishes intended to create visual width.

A larger grille and better-defined nose do their job, but it’s the upswept flank crease that really catches your eye, pinching the car’s previously flabby flanks into something approaching good looks. The 2015 facelift brought a raft of exterior tweaks including restyled bumpers and its LED day-running-lights integrated into the main headlight cluster.

Engine options include a 121bhp and 154bhp 1.6-litre petrols (B 180) and (B 200), a 107bhp 1.5-litre diesel (B 180 d), a 134bhp 2.1-litre diesel (B 200 d) and a range-topping 175bhp 2.1-litre diesel (B 220 d)

A six-speed manual gearbox is offered, but a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is also available. With this transmission specified the B 180 d's displacement grows to 1.8 litres, but its output remains effectively unchanged.

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz B-Class interior

Given the alterations underneath, it ought not to come as any surprise that you sit lower in the second generation Mercedes B-Class than in the old.

The comfortable seat squabs are 86mm closer to the road than before, and the new configuration is dramatic enough to contrast quite starkly with the pulpit-like perspective of a medium-size MPV. However, the driving position is also more upright than that of the previous car and of most ordinary five-door hatchbacks.

We'll trade the previous car's quirky seating recline for the new setting and superior legroom

Space inside the car is generous – like the driving position, something of a middle ground between hatchback and MPV norms. There’s ample room for heads and knees wherever you’re sitting, and particularly good provision for feet in the second row.

Mercedes claims rear legroom exceeds that of an Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Our tape measure gives the lie to that; the 990mm maximum rear legroom we measured in the B 200 d is 50mm shy of what you’ll find in a long-wheelbase S-Class, but 50mm more than in a Volkswagen Golf – the more relevant benchmark.

However, larger families might bemoan the lack of comfort for a fifth passenger sitting in the middle of the second row, for whom the seat is thin and narrow.

Mercedes’ materials quality for the B-Class is sufficient to deserve a double-take. Regardless of whether you go for cloth trim or the optional leather, you'll find the trim flanked by substantial, soft-touch interior plastics that look and feel effortlessly superior to the class standard.

Aluminium details on the apple-sized air vents and door handles are tactile highlights. There are three trim levels to choose from, with the entry-level SE model comes fitted with 16in alloy wheels, comfort suspension, cruise control and a reversing camera, while inside users will find an infotainment system equipped with a 7.0in screen, USB ports and smartphone integration, air conditioning and an adjustable boot floor.

Upgrade to the Sport trim and expect to find 17in alloy wheels, auto windscreen wipers, a bigger infotainment screen and the addition of climate control, while the range-topping AMG Line models get an aggressive bodykit, brake discs at the front and rear, lowered suspension and a leather upholstery. For those more eco-conscious, there is an electric-driven Mercedes B-Class which comes with more enviromentally friendly equipment.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz B-Class engine bay

All Mercedes-Benz B-Class models come powered by one of several four-cylinder engines. Buyers can opt for either a 1.6-litre petrol engine, a 1.5-litre diesel engine, a 1.8-litre diesel engine offered in two outputs depending on transmission choice, or a 2.2-litre diesel engine. These engines are badged B 180, B 180 d, B 180 d Automatic, B 200 d and B 220 d respectively.

Turbocharged in all cases, the engines produce between 107bhp and 168bhp, delivered exclusively to the front wheels. Most come with a six-speed manual gearbox, but Mercedes' seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic is optional on many models.

The B 200 under our microscope had all the bases covered, but it's no class leader

A drive of the B 180 revealed it to be far from the poor relation you might expect of an entry-level model. While 120bhp from a 1.6-litre engine may appear average, being turbocharged means it produces good torque, with 148lb ft on offer from 1250 to 4000rpm. This wide availability of torque, combined with the slick-shifting six-speed gearbox, allows for brisk progress to be made in the B 180.

The lower-powered diesel option, the B 180 d, appears to suit the more laid-back demeanour of the Mercedes B-Class. It pulls from low revs with decent urgency while still delivering adequate performance and an improvement in economy, with 69mpg claimed in manual form.

The B 200 d would give up nothing to many more conventional 2.0-litre diesel family hatchbacks out on the road. Mercedes has come up with a flexible and quite potent 1.8-litre powerplant for its new Mercedes-Benz A-Class and B-Class that, in the main, is an entirely agreeable thing to interact with.

With our timing gear strapped in, the car hit 60mph in 9.4sec and 100mph in 28.8sec. The 138bhp Volkswagen Golf 2.0 TDI we tested was less than half a second quicker into three figures. In a class where there are Audi, Alfa Romeo and BMW diesels with 30 per cent more power, the B 200 d doesn’t exactly overdeliver on outright urge. ‘Adequate’ is a better descriptor of its performance than ‘generous’ or ‘exciting’, so those looking for premium-level bang for their buck should probably shop elsewhere.

Economy is a stronger suit. Our touring test recorded 52.3mpg. That’s respectable, but our experience suggests it isn’t much better than a modern 2.0-litre diesel might have returned. Similarly, an average test result of only just over 40mpg is acceptable but not outstanding.

Opt for the B 220 d, however, and you'll be rewarded with a much more urgent and flexible engine. It's over a second quicker from 0-62mph than the B 200 d, and it delivers notably more torque over a wider spread of the rev range.

The grumblings of Mercedes' diesel motor in all instances, however, is unacceptable. This may well be a new engine for Mercedes, installed under the bonnet in a direction the firm may not be altogether familiar with, but it needs to be house trained. The whooshing of its induction system under load is decidedly unluxurious, as is the insistent metallic thrash of its gear-driven cams at high revs.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz B-Class cornering

Independent multi-link rear suspension, a lower centre of roll, the option of a Sport-spec chassis… all of this suggests that the new B-Class has been designed with the amusement of its driver at least distantly in mind, rather than distantly neglected, as was the case with the previous B-Class. And on the right road, this Mercedes has its moments.

The previous B-Class’s parabolic rear axle has gone, replaced with a four-link arrangement. MacPherson struts remain up front. The old car’s much-maligned electro-mechanical power steering system has also been entirely redesigned. Range-topping Sport-spec cars feature uprated suspension, adaptive dampers, more reactive 'Direct Steering' and a 15mm drop in ride height.

The B-Class effortlessly eclipses its predecessor's handling capabilities, but there isn't much room for driver reward

On the standard chassis set-up and 16 or 17-inch wheels, the B-Class offers an acceptable ride, a relatively precise and composed feel and enough grip in corners to inspire confidence. There's little in the way of feedback but, given the target market, that's not a hugely negative point.

Sport versions of the B-Class can actually change direction too suddenly when you really lean on it, the car’s body pivoting around behind its front axle with giddy abandon. If you’re expecting exaggerated lean angles and a general unwillingness to respond to the steering wheel at speed, you’ll be more than a little impressed with a car whose singular dynamic triumph seems to be that it’s as lively and game as any ‘normal’ family five-door.

On flat, medium-tight, well sighted corners, the variable-ratio DirectSteer steering system tugs the tenacious front end towards apexes without much at all in the way of body roll or understeer, however.

But once you’ve grown used to that idea, you might struggle to find a great deal of lasting driver reward in the B-Class. That variable-ratio steering rack adds an undercurrent of unpredictability to the handling mix, making it hard to dial in just the right amount of steering angle to position the car precisely. A conspicuous lack of feedback doesn’t help, either.

It’s a less relevant criticism of a Sport-spec car, but the B-Class’s ride isn’t the last word in subtlety or finesse. The amplitude-selective dampers just don’t seem capable of maintaining good rebound control of the car’s body over choppy surfaces, leaving occupants, in the second row particularly, tossed and ruffled. The ride at town speeds is equally disappointing. A premium-brand family car ought to be more cosseting, Sport spec or otherwise.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz B-Class

If you're looking for a practical yet premium car, one with a particularly classy interior, the Mercedes-Benz B-Class is worthy of consideration.

There are roomier rivals around for less money, however. Mercedes customers are used to paying a premium, even over like-for-like Audi and BMW prices, and the B-Class's significantly higher price isn't likely to surprise as a result.

There is a premium to pay for the B-Class, but repeat Mercedes customers will be used to that

Yes, a cheaper car might have some obvious cost cutting measures, but if you're willing to trade some perceived quality and standard safety features for greater practicality and flexibility, then you may well be better off looking at the alternatives.

The Mercedes' running costs shouldn't prove extortionate however, thanks to wide service intervals, a decent warranty and sensible fuel consumption figures for all engines.

Just remember that to appreciate its concoction of character traits it’s necessary to specify your new Mercedes-Benz B-Class carefully.

This may well mean ignoring the more lavish Sport trim and its misjudged chassis tune, and opting instead for the SE with standard suspension and the optional Easy-Vario-Plus seating system, which includes adjustable rear seats and a folding front passenger seatback.

VERDICT

Mercedes-Benz B-Class rear quarter

Mercedes’ successes with the B-Class are several. It has taken away just enough of the wanton weirdness from the old car’s design to make the new one a more coherent fit for the compact premium segment, without robbing it of the distinctiveness to tempt buyers away from the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3.

This car makes more sense, as a premium-brand family five-door, than the previous B-Class ever did. It’s more convincing in that mould, too, thanks to an interior of excellent quality and generous space.

There's still work to do on the B-Class, but the car is a more credible contender now than it's ever been

A Ford C-Max or Volkswagen Golf Plus, would, in many ways, do a better job of carrying a small family in spacious comfort – but with significantly less alluring badges attached.

Which isn’t to suggest that the B-Class offers particularly poor value for money. Its engines are efficient, it's well finished and invitingly unconventional.

The car’s, contrived handling, slightly unsettled ride and gruff mechanical refinement suggest that it’ll be a few years before Mercedes challenges for the compact class lead in the way that it’s used to doing elsewhere, however.

Overall, the B-Class is a more complete and more accomplished car than the previous version, but it is not as versatile as several of the offerings from non-premium rivals, all of which cost notably less.

But the B-Class is a significant leap and has cut Stuttgart’s notional small-car deficit at least by half.

Mercedes-Benz B-Class 2012-2018 First drives