Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - B-Class - B200 Blue Efficiency
Spacious cabin, sensible dash, excellent audio and media interface, steering, safety, turbo oomph, dual-clutch gearbox, efficiency, seamless idle-stop system
Room for improvement
Drab styling, rear seats don’t recline or remove despite the mini-MPV bodystyle, stupid gear selector, firm and fidgety ride, road noise intrusion, some stopping issues on gravel/bitumen road mix, inaccurate self-parking system
6 Sep 2012
MUTANTS in the automotive world don’t come more evolved than this.
Starting off simply as a stretched version of the original 3.6-metre long A-Class in 2001, the first B-Class surfaced four years later as a separate model in its own right.
Trumpeted as the ‘Compact Sports Tourer’, the car was still A-Class-based, using the unique sandwich floor designed to both deflect front-end crash forces beneath the passenger compartment and house fuel cell technology that never came.
Despite lukewarm reviews against the BMW 1 Series (more dynamic) and Audi A3 (better perceived quality), the B became a big hit.
Now there’s an all-new one – and we mean genuinely new from the ground up – ready to fight rivals for buyers and bragging rights.
Mercedes has borrowed from BMW’s latest 1 Series book by standing almost completely still with the B’s styling.
But since the old one sold by the million, Benz knows what it’s doing - no babies with bath water thrown out here. This point, folks, is vital, because the B has a specific appeal that works for certain buyers.
For small and sexy, Mercedes will offer the completely made-over A-Class in 2013.
Here we’re checking out the B200 Blue Efficiency – a mid-range 1.6-litre petrol turbo that roughly equates to a high-spec Golf 118TSI Comfortline, though its $43,950 pricing actually puts the boxy Benz well into hot Golf GTI territory.
Throw in metallic paint ($1190), Vision Package ($2490 – including panoramic sunroof, bi-Xenon headlights, a different LED daytime-running light design and a black roof liner) and the $2990 Comand Package (bigger 17.8cm colour screen with navigation, voice control, internet connectivity, a better 12-speaker Harmon Kardon audio and a reverse camera) and the total ask breaches the $50K barrier.
If you’re familiar with the old version, Mercedes’ goals of improving quality, comfort, refinement, efficiency, and agility will come as welcome news. And the good news is that the new model does indeed take a massive leap forward.
It’s worth mentioning that safety has probably been the biggest beneficiary. Every B comes with nine airbags (including a new side pelvis bags), brake assist, brake pad wear indicators, ESC, run-flat tyres and Collision Prevention Assist – an effective radar-based warning system that alerts the driver of detect and impending obstacles.
Underneath the sleeker skin, the old but innovative sandwich floor is history, and the first impression is of an impressively contemporary Mercedes cabin boasting lots of space.
The lower seating position, combined with the tall roof design, adds an airier feel, while the driving position’s panoramic views are second-to-none in this class.
The glassy turret also helps with parking. Throw in a tight turning circle, and the B200 is a boon in a tight spot.
The best voice control system ever experienced in any car, combined with the excellent Comand interface option, further lift the luxury experience, as do firm yet supportive front seats that seem to mould around you over time.
Familiar to any current Benz owner, the fascia’s layout is conventional yet appealing in its mix of contours and material contrasts. From the black and white analogue/digital instrumentation mix to the metallic and piano black finishes, the effect is suitably upmarket.
A big thumbs up goes to the attractive and tactile steering wheel, featuring simple and intuitive remote controls (once you take the time to learn them).
The tablet-style stand-alone screen and logical air-con/audio layout and interfaces are unlikely to upset anybody (indeed the Harmon Kardon audio streaming is a pure delight), and both work well within expected parameters too.
There are plenty of storage areas. And the console dividing the front-seat occupants is nicely presented with lidded cubbyholes and a thoughtfully positioned elbow rest.
If the above description sounds a little robotic, it’s no coincidence. The B200’s interior is a comfortable, accommodating and functional environment, but one that’s also quite coldly anodyne in character.
The cabin also has its share of flaws, chief among them a transmission lever that is unbelievably easy to knock out of drive.
This is compounded by the absence of a rev limiter, meaning that when you inevitably mistake the smallish gear lever stalk for the indicator and inadvertently put it into neutral at freeway speeds while performing a lane change, the engine will just keep on revving.
At least you can’t crunch the gearbox into reverse moving forward by mistake.
Really, it’s almost as if someone at Daimler is attempting to sabotage logic.
While we’re at it, why is it that the attractive triple airplane-style vents and climate control knobs feel so outrageously flimsy? A 2000s Kia Spectra owner would wince.
The standard B200 seat trim is vinyl/pleather/faux leather, there are no louvres for the cupholders (the Hyundai i30 has them) and the hard lower plastics seem cheap compared to the softer mouldings found further up the dash and door trim.
It’s a shame the second row area – exceptionally friendly to heads, shoulders, legs and feet as one might imagine from the shape, with sufficiently comfy seats and budget airline-type folding seat trays – isn’t as versatile as it should be.
Nowadays, in a Renault Scenic-shaped box, you expect packaging cleverness and versatility, but instead the B200’s rear seats merely fold forward (and don’t recline). It’s a bit of a lost opportunity – especially as the old A-Class items used to be fully detachable.
That’s not to say the luggage area isn’t large or commodious – at 488 litres, it remains one of the B-Class’ strengths. Folding the hefty rear backrests down onto their cushions extends that considerably, though the resulting space into the cabin isn’t flat, while the loading lip is agreeably low.
But watch your head, because the tailgate doesn’t open up very high.
The new 115kW/250Nm 1.6-litre four-pot turbo powerplant that sits at the other end of the B200 is a sweet and punchy unit, though it does start sound a bit coarse approaching its 6200rpm redline.
Mated to a slick new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (with sensible paddle shifters complete with indentations so the driver can feel which one is up), the B200’s performance varies according to which mode is selected.
In Normal mode, acceleration is a little tardy, but then the turbo-fed forward whoosh comes on strong (though not so much that the front wheels break traction – a corollary of a well-defined stability/traction control set-up), making the Mercedes feel fleet-footed.
At 100km/h in Sport mode the engine is turning over at 3000rpm, dropping down to 1800rpm in the regular setting. The Sport mode also lessons the engine’s initial hesitation off the mark.
But while you take off more briskly (making it great for merging on a freeway, for instance), the gear ratios in Sport are held on for too long in an urban environment, so the engine ends up over-revving in a lower gear than ideal when all you want to do is potter about in an overdrive ratio in a 50km/h zone.
Such drivetrain inertia meant we grew weary of punting the B200 briskly in inner-urban areas. It just never seemed relaxed unless we drove gently – like we had downed a couple of Valium beforehand.
We only really warmed to the B200 once we hit the open road, where it shone brightly.
There may be software that ‘learns’ driver’s habits residing within, but ours never seemed to bother.
Arguably the biggest reason why Mercedes has chosen to downsize its B-Class engines is to meet stricter consumption and emissions targets. We averaged about 9.5L/100km punting our vehicle around a wide variety of scenarios.
No doubt the impressive figure was helped along by the Benz’s seamless idle-stop system.
Another related piece of new technology that we also rate highly is the ‘hold brake’ function that keeps the car from rolling when the idle-stop is activated. All the driver need do is press the brake pedal hard once and then release.
Speaking of stopping, one of our tests has long involved braking a car hard from 80km/h with the left wheels on loose gravel and the right ones on bitumen. Worryingly, though it shed speed with impressive determination, our B200 (in dry conditions too) would repeatedly dive to the right, to the sounds of ABS and tyre scrubbing and lights flashing furiously.
None of the many other cars driven along the same route have reacted in such a way. A handful for the unaware, it just doesn’t feel right.
This is a shock and a shame because on smooth roads wet or dry the Benz is the exact opposite – composed and completely controlled, with excellent stability.
The steering is beautifully realised, with a good balance of lightness and weight.
Responsive and faithful to driver inputs – it simply reacts to wherever direction the driver points to, and without feeling too nervous or twitchy.
Yet where’s the fun? With a helm that outshines a 1 Series for feedback, why does this Mercedes miss out on putting a smile on keen driver’s faces? Yes, the chassis is alert, with an alacrity that truly belies the dumpy styling, yet there isn’t any meaningful man/machine interaction or interplay.
Perhaps the problem lies with our next big issue with the B200 – the busy ride (particularly in Sport mode) on 225/45 R17 runflat rubber no less, made all the worse by road noise that seems to be a characteristic of every German car these days bar the current Golf and latest (now Thai-built) Ford Focus.
It seems that consistent suspension comfort is just a pipe dream in this Mercedes over the southern Victorian urban and rural roads on which we sampled it, alternating quickly from quiet and smooth to tetchy and noisy, utterly undermining the B’s luxury car aspirations.
Just coincidentally we had a Focus Sport, Lexus IS250 and Golf 103TDI on Sportline wheels with the Benz at various times during our time with it, and all served to highlight the latter’s foibles.
Finally, a word about the automated parking system that seeks out and then turns the steering into the right-sized spot. Generally the B200’s worked fine, though our rounded driveway gutters completely flummoxed the sensors and resulted in wrongly angled park almost every time.
Which pretty much sums the car up really. For all its progress in safety, comfort, technology and accommodation, the new model feels like an alien on Australian roads.
Despite oozing showroom refinement and appeal, the B200 needs more finesse – in the way both the engine and transmission respond (too lethargic in Comfort mode and too strong in Sport) in terms of ride absorption and noise intrusion, and how the car behaves on certain types of common local road conditions.
Maybe Mercedes’ engineers need to drive their prototypes Down Under before signing them off. Rival imported Euro small cars – namely the Golf and Focus – feel better suited to our challenging environs.
Our suggestion is to spend less and try the above, or to check out the less powerful and cheaper B180 with smaller wheels.
The B-Class remains a mutant – albeit a far-improved one over its very patchy predecessor.
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