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First drive: Strong debut for Mercedes-Benz B-Class

Even its maker is surprised by the redesigned B-Class hatch’s sales spurt

29 Jan 2020

MERCEDES-BENZ has admitted that strong initial consumer response to the latest B-Class has come as a welcome surprise, with higher-than-anticipated sales since the series went on sale in Australia in mid-2019.


With sales jumping 50 per cent above 2018 levels last year at 1272 units, Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific (MBAP) media relations and product communications manager Ryan Lewis believes that the premium small-wagon/MPV segment can be viable in Australia.


“We don't necessarily see the B-Class as a niche model,” Mr Lewis told GoAuto this week.


“It's part of our compact range and it certainly has a place in Australia. It's a viable alternative for customers seeking middle ground between an A-Class hatch and a small SUV like the GLA.”


He also added its success has been achieved despite a variant cull compared to the previous model, that has seen the all-new third-generation W247 series offered as just a single B180 variant – albeit a highly configurable one.


“Considering how successful the B180 has proven, even as a single variant offering, it has exceeded our expectations since launch,” Mr Lewis said.


However, while it is understood that a more powerful and expensive version badged B200 – with slightly more power and torque from the otherwise same engine as the B180 – has been homologated for Australia, Mr Lewis said that MBAP will stick with just the single variant for now, given how well it seems to resonate with buyers.


“We don’t have any plans for any additional B-Class models at this time,” he said. “For now, we’re sticking with the B180.”


Priced from $46,400 plus on-road costs, the tall-boy boxy B180 is currently bundled in with all C-segment sized premium hatchback VFacts categories such as the bestselling Mercedes-Benz A-Class that it is based upon, but in fact only has one direct rival, the conceptually identical BMW 220i Active Tourer.


While still listed on sale from $49,900 before ORC, the latter only managed a paltry 38 registrations last year, and is nearing the end of its production life cycle.


A second-generation version, known as the U08 and related to the recently-released front-drive BMW 1 Series, is expected to debut in Europe in 2021, though whether the next 2 Series Active Tourer is earmarked for Australia is unknown.


As mentioned previously, the B-Class’ more-streamlined body design ditches much of the top heaviness that characterised the previous versions (2005 W245 and 2011 W246), for more conventional hatchback proportions, aided by a wider stance, lower roofline and 30mm wheelbase stretch (to 2799mm), which in turn boosts interior room – especially rear-seat space.


Better aesthetics are cited as one reason why interest in this model has risen, while contributing to a class-leading 0.26 Cd drag co-efficiency in the B180. It’s even lower on some overseas variants.


Changes underneath to the modular front architecture (dubbed MFA II) have brought a stronger and stiffer platform that are meant to improve noise suppression and ride comfort – bugbears of all previous front-drive Mercedes models – though the switch from a multi-link independent to a torsion beam rear suspension set-up on cheaper models like our B180 (to save money) may raise a few eyebrows.


A glamorous cabin overhaul as per the A-Class sees the new Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) multimedia system integrated to the elongated tablet-style dashboard binnacle, bringing extensive customisation to the look of the digital instrumentation, backed up by sophisticated voice-activated control (just say “Hey Mercedes”) of many of the vehicle’s cabin functions, as well as artificial intelligence that ‘learns’ the user’s mannerisms over time.


This is all accompanied by an obvious increase in perceived material as well as design quality, addressing previous criticisms of the series.


The B-Class retains its expected higher hip point, with 90mm-loftier seating compared to the now-overtly sportier A-Class hatch, putting it midway to most small SUVs.


Slimmer pillars and a lower beltline also benefit driver vision compared to before. Unlike some versions offered elsewhere, though, our B180’s rear seats don’t slide individually for increased cargo flexibility, though their 40/20/40 backrests do recline a little. Luggage capacity varies from 455 litres to a wagon-esque 1540L.


On the safety front, semi-autonomous driving technology from the S-Class debuts in the B-Class, including advanced active cruise control, active lane-assist and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) systems that detect pedestrians and cyclists.


Sadly, however, the plug-in electric hybrid B250e is likely a non-starter in Australia.


Instead, our B180 scores the same 1332cc 1.3-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder engine co-developed with Renault, and as found in the corresponding A180.


Here, it delivers 100kW of power (at 5500rpm) and 200Nm of torque (from just 1460rpm) to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.


Rated on 95 RON petrol, the combined consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions figures are 5.7L/100km and 131g/km respectively.


These numbers may seem puny for a large C-segment hatch weighing in at 1396kg, but a spell behind the wheel of a B180 underlined the progress the series has made, and just like the company’s own sales forecasts, the overall experience exceeded our expectations.


In the A180, the 1.3-litre four-pot turbo disappoints, despite its eager and spirited acceleration, since it sounds too coarse and loud for something wearing the Three-Pointed Star, particularly compared to the pleasant and smooth 1.6-litre unit powering the older-generation front-drive Benzes.


However, in the B180, it seems to be substantially more muted and unintrusive. A determined right foot is required if you want to match the published 9.0 seconds to 100km/h figure, but the performance is there to be extracted, and it comes on in a more civilised manner in this application. We still miss the old engine, though.


Our example rode on 18-inch alloys as part of a Sports Package, but even on an inch-larger wheel, the B180’s ability to absorb and muffle bumps is on the acceptable side of firm – the old brittleness and harshness has been banished – and that’s good news.


This in turn means the dashboard squeaks and rattles that plagued the earliest versions of the old MFA cars have also largely vanished. Which is even better.


Plus, and perhaps this is a nod to the wider rubber, the B180’s newfound dynamic flair brings improved steering and handling capabilities, with the driver able to really fling the hatch about with precision, poise and control – probably to an incongruous degree given its MPV looks.


Finally, there’s the cabin – a striking, luxurious and inviting environment, thanks to the luminous 10.25-inch touchscreen, lush ambient lighting and beautiful detailing found in items like the turbine vents and steering-wheel tactility.


Great seating front and rear, too, offering ample room, while folding the seatbacks brings generous cargo-carrying capacity. We fitted the bonnet of a 1990 Mazda MX-5 inside easily.


Finally, equipment levels aren’t too bad – the B180 includes a hands-free power-operated tailgate, keyless entry/start, powered mirrors, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, DAB+ digital radio, a nine-speaker audio system, climate control, paddle-shifters, AEB, lane-keep and steering assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, traffic-sign recognition, park assist, a reversing camera and front and rear parking sensors.


That all said, our B180 featured a trio of desirable packages that – with optional $1190 metallic paint as well – bumped the price up to $53,360 – the $2490 Vision, $1990 Sport and $1290 Seat Comfort packs.


They bring added luxuries like massaging cushions, a sunroof and full electric seat adjustability.


This is where the B-Class starts to become quite expensive for what it is, particularly compared to more-mainstream high-spec medium SUVs.


Additionally, the MBUX voice-control system never quite worked as reliably as we had hoped, as it struggled to understand some simple commands; we would like less tyre noise on the open road and more suspension pliancy around town – that’s where optional adaptive dampers might help; adaptive cruise ought to be standard nowadays given that Toyota includes it in the most basic Corolla; and, oh, we really do miss that old 1.6-litre turbo, which remains a stronger, smoother and more refined unit than the 1.3T.


Still, that’s a thumb’s-down list that’s way shorter than before, in a car that looks and behaves significantly better and more smartly than before. No wonder the B180 is off to a strong sales start.

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