Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - B-Class - 5-dr hatch range
Premium build quality, smart interior, space versatility, rear-seat leg and headroom, compact turning circle
Room for improvement
Rear-view mirrors too small, electro-mechanical power steering dulls feedback, thick A-pillars obscure forward views
11 Nov 2005
OKAY, we were seduced - for a brief nanosecond – into swallowing the line about the new Mercedes-Benz B-class being a "compact sports tourer".
Now we’re not sure what the description is suppose to mean, somewhere between a GT and all-round tourer, perhaps? Whatever. A little bit of marketing hype goes a long way.
But the B-class, although highly capable, is no GT.
It is just Mercedes-Benz’s way of preparing us for the arrival of a dedicated segment of "sports tourers" that will join the line-up over the next few years, one of which, the larger R-class, is considered a "close conceptual relative" to the B-class.
Our focus, however, is on the B-class. From most angles it's an interesting vehicle that is part van, part people-mover and part compact city car.
Bigger than the A-class upon which it's based, Mercedes believes its rivals will be "activity vehicles" in the mould of the Renault Scenic and Subaru Forester and if early indications are right, the car should appeal to a broad range of buyers.
Mercedes expects the B200 and B200 Turbo to account for 800 sales next year, with an even split between the normally aspirated and turbocharged variants.
Like most Benz buyers, most will opt for the automatic in the B-class’s case a seamless CVT auto with manual-shift mode. Self-shifters can opt for a five-speed manual in the B200 or six-speed manual in the B200T.
Having driven both the normally aspirated and turbo version, we’d suggest that the all-round practicality and extra room provided by the larger Benz may steal some sales from the diminutive A-class.
Like all Benzes, it manages to seduce you with a little bit of luxury, solid quality, reassuring safety levels and that gleaming three-pointed star stuck squarely in the grille.
There has also been a huge leap in the quality of the interiors of lower priced Mercs in recent years and the B-class reflects this attention to detail around the cabin.
We spent most of the time on a mix of freeway and winding country roads driving a B200T mated to the CVT.
The CVT works well with the turbo engine, allowing the hatch to surge forward without the usual high-revving change points of a conventional gearbox. The relatively low-boost pressure of the turbo also means excellent mid-range response. It’s not street tearaway, but it is no sluggard either.
Power comes from a 2.0-litre turbo that develops 142kW at 5000rpm and 280Nm from 1800rpm, while the normally aspirated 2.0-litre develops 100kW at 5750rpm and 185Nm between 3500rpm and 4000rpm.
Both are relatively unsophisticated two-valve units but are smooth operators and perform commendably around town.
For outright acceleration, the turbocharged B200T takes just 7.6 seconds to reach 100km/h and roll on to a claimed top speed of 225km/h while offering a combined fuel figure of 8.2L/100km – 10.5L/100km around town and 6.7L/100km on the highway.
The key to the B-class’s utility is its body.
Like the A-class, it uses the "sandwich" chassis concept that locates the engine and transmission partly at an angle under the passenger cabin.
This design offers greater front-end crash protection for passengers by allowing the engine to swing under the cabin in the event of a head-on crash, as well as deliver a roomy interior and flat floor.
The sandwich platform means occupants sit 200mm higher than a conventional hatch, well above any impact zone.
Sitting higher provides the driver with an almost panoramic view. However, forward visibility is partially obscured by the thick A-pillars.
The B-class is compact in size and the looks deceptive, and we’d suggest somewhat awkward from some angles, particularly the rear three-quarter view.
With a length of 4270mm and wheelbase of 2778mm the B200T offers comparable interior space too much larger cars. By comparison Holden’s spacious Astra wagon is 4515mm long and has a wheelbase of 2703mm.
A big attraction of the mini-Benz is the versatility afforded by a height-adjustable load floor – the full-size spare can be taken out to lower the load floor - as well as split-folding and removable rear seats with the optional removable front passenger seat.
Depending on the configuration, load capacity can vary from 544 litres up to 2245 litres with the rear seats and front passenger seat removed, offering a maximum load length of 2.95 metres.
The removable seats are a respectable $660 option and give the B and A-plus.
It is this capacious ability that will appeal to families with small children and those buyers who would never be seen in a small four-wheel drive or station wagon but desire some load-carrying practicality.
There’s nothing unusual about the suspension - MacPherson struts with wishbones up front with a space-saving parabolic rear axle and coil springs at the rear.
Over some twisty and bumpy roads near Melbourne it proved compliant and comfortable and despite the car’s height, gave the impression of being very well tied down.
There was no lurching through corners and also none of the steering kickback over rough roads experienced by some other European cars.
One interesting aspect with the steering is the inclusion of ‘steer control’, which provides the appropriate servo assistance in critical handling situations to help the driver stabilise the car.
We didn’t get to try it out but will take Benz’s word that it adds to dynamic safety levels.
Standard equipment is comprehensive and goes some way to redressing the car’s fairly high price – but it is right in the ballpark of Audi’s A3 Sportback and spanning the BMW 1 Series right up to the 3 Series.
Equipment runs too six-speed manual, dual front, side and curtain airbags, multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, reach and height adjustable steering, tyre pressure monitoring system, air conditioning, front seat armrest, electric windows/mirrors, single in-dash CD stereo, trip computer, leather steering wheel and shift lever, 17-inch alloys, anti-lock brakes with brake assist and acceleration-ski control, electronic stability control with steer control, brushed aluminium interior highlights, full-size spare and rain sensing windscreen wipers.
To the casual observer, it is quite easy to be sceptical about the B-class’s real purpose and position in the market place. We certainly were.
But if there’s one thing we know about today’s new car buyer, they are cashed-up and looking for alternatives to dreary "me-too" prestige sedans and small off-road wagons.
The B-class may just provide the answer. Niche or no niche.
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