Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - B-Class - B200 5-dr hatch
Surprising interior space, economy, comfort, practicality
Room for improvement
Driveline not quite refined, largish turning circle
3 Feb 2006
By TIM BRITTEN
LIKE the man said, it’s difficult to figure where the new Mercedes-Benz B-class fits into the automotive landscape.
Between the A-class and C-class in exterior size but claimed, astonishingly, to be close to the S-class in rear-seat legroom, the new front-drive Benz is a little hard to get your head around.
What message does this practical five-door hatch, in which packaging is everything, send to customers? And how does it fit with A-class and C-class owners who might be planning their next Mercedes?
Aspirational for A-class and, maybe, offering something (heaps of stretch-out room) C-class has so far never really addressed?
To get some perspective, perhaps we should look at what the B-class actually is. Something not really difficult to do, really, because it’s essentially a development of the A-class, stretching further the space between the front and back wheels to make the absolute best out of its space-efficient front-drive packaging.
As such, it’s a more expensive car than its little sibling - Holden Astra-size externally and unexpectedly big inside.
It’s a sort of mini people-mover really, one of those designs that uses upright dimensions and a close to one-box cab shape to open up the interior so it will suit those who like to either lug around a lot of stuff, or who need plenty of passenger space.
This means the B-class is less appealing to Benz buyers of a traditional bent.
They’ll likely never budge from their rear-drive C-class sedan preferences, where the opening price may be similar to B-class, but the driving dynamics and the wide range of engine options make it more appealing.
The B-class will sit more comfortably with those who’ve already tasted the A-class experience, and who might be ready to move up a notch.
Move up a notch it certainly does, what with the extra space, and the suggestion it’s a little more refined and relaxed on the road.
The style is a long way from the regular Benz sedans, yet not really bringing to mind the A-class because it’s clearly bigger and less challenging in its proportions (although the latest A-class is way better balanced to look at than the original).
But the elements are familiar: a "sandwich" floorpan construction that lifts the cabin higher than normal and provides a space for the engine to go in a head-on collision, front-wheel drive and a hatchback body with split-folding rear seats.
Benz says the sandwich design gives as much as 70 per cent of the vehicle’s length to passengers and luggage. Certainly the first impression with B-class is one of interior space.
Externally the car is very close to Holden Astra, but it’s far from close inside, where the Benz claims of S-class dimensions appear to bear fruit.
Sitting in the back seat behind a tall driver still leaves plenty of knee room, along with an almost people-mover sensation of high-riding, airy space.
The floor runs flat from front to rear, and there is plenty of window glass to keep everything well lit during the day.
The seat-folding process is pretty straightforward – flip up the cushions before swinging the backrests down – but the load area is impressive. With the seats folded, a mountain bike will squeeze in – just – without the need to remove a wheel.
The boot, too, is pretty good even in regular full-load passenger mode, offering a claimed range from 544 litres to the 2245 litres achievable with the removal of the rear seats and the front passenger seat. In its maximum luggage-carrying configuration, the B-class’s load length is 2.95 metres.
So for toting around a load, the B-class is pretty impressive - more than you’d expect given its external dimensions - and it’s good at taking in passengers too.
But bearing in mind the A-class connection, what’s the B-class like dynamically?
The bottom line is that it’s a step up from the A-class with a generally good-quality ride, sharp handling and a decent serve of performance from either the regular 100kW 2.0-litre four-cylinder or the 142kW turbo version.
Both versions are also available with the Benz Autotronic CVT transmission (unlike some other CVTs, it fits a torque converter between the engine and transmission to smooth out and maximise initial acceleration), which proved in the normally aspirated test car to effectively transfer the kiloWatts to the road.
At 1345kg the B-class is not particularly light, but in terms of accelerative ability it manages pretty well, able to zip from zero to 100km/h in 10.1 seconds.
Looking at the specifications, that might come as a surprise, because not many engines are as simple as this.
With just a single overhead camshaft and only two valves per cylinder, it uses its long-stroke configuration to produce a reasonable 185Nm - 84 per cent of which is available by 1500rpm - while returning an average fuel consumption of 7.5L/100km. That’s better than the similarly-sized but lighter Astra.
Not surprisingly, the B-class comes across on the road less as a traditional Benz than a grown-up A-class.
Fortunately the cabin’s quality is right up to scratch, with plenty of slush-moulded vinyl, neat and simple switchgear and generously supportive seats.
The B-class does alright for standard gear too, with front and side airbags, full-length headbags, active front head restraints, ESP electronic stability control – incorporating steer control – selective-damping shock absorbers, tyre-pressure sensors, traction control and ABS with brake assist.
Creature comforts include manual air-conditioning, trip computer and a six-speaker sound system with a single-disc CD player.
There are also plenty of cubbies and bottle holders, even if there’s no such thing as a central console bin – just a sliding armrest.
The cloth-trimmed seats are manually adjusted, and if you want cruise control you have to pay extra for it.
The engine is neither the smoothest not the quietest four-cylinder on the market, but it does its job effectively and cruises pretty silently on the open road where 100km/h requires just 1800rpm.
Thank you to the CVT transmission for that, which is able to offer more profound ratios at the upper and lower ends than a conventional gearbox, while also giving you seven sequentially-selected ratios to play with.
It wrings the best out of the engine even if the driver does need to dig deep to obtain a bit of initial acceleration.
The B-class also gets the new rear suspension ushered in with the A-class. Benz calls it a parabolic axle, and says it is able to give the car a softer ride than would normally be managed with its inherently high centre of gravity.
Laterally located by a Watts link and attached to the underside by an elastomer bearing, and controlled by shock absorbers that vary their damping depending on circumstances, the system feels relatively cushy yet – via the slightly-light electro-mechanical speed-sensitive power steering – allows the B-class to point with accuracy and corner with a reassuring stability.
It’s still not the beautifully composed suspension we get to see in other Benz sedans though.
The B-class stands pretty high compared to a regular sedan, but feels quite stable on the road, apart from suffering some of the straight-line wandering effect noticeable also in the new A-class. Very subtle though, and far from being a concern.
If you like the idea of the A-class, but it’s still a bit challenging to look at and maybe still a bit small, then the B-class will suck you right in.
It does everything bigger and better – part of the penalty for which is a wider turning circle - yet is still politically correct with cutting-edge safety and a reassuringly low fuel consumption.
But if only rear-drive Benz sedans appeal to you, the capacious hatch is not really going to deliver.
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