Could the underachieving Mercedes B-Class come good at last? Jonathan Crouch takes a look at the latest model.
Ten Second Review
The latest Mercedes-Benz A-Class opened to rave reviews but its bigger sibling, the B-Class never garnered too many column inches. In a bid to propel it into the limelight, the Stuttgarters have boosted its equipment levels, tweaked the styling and even offered an electric variant.
Most people will be able to picture a Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Few will be able to visualise a B-Class - and that is a problem. Car buyers draw up a shortlist of potentials and if a vehicle isn't at the forefront of their minds when they do this, it soon becomes a curio or also-ran. The thing is, while the first generation B-Class deserved to be forgotten about, the second generation car was genuinely worth your attention. The issue at hand was that too few people even knew it existed, let alone what its qualities were. Mercedes realised this and have tried to make the B-Class a bit more memorable, beefing up the styling and improving the value proposition. It'll never be an exciting car per se, but the B-Class is a model that family buyers ought to consider. It's now been refined to a rare polish.
The most interesting news is the launch of the B-class Electric Drive model that's been developed in co-operation with Tesla. Power comes via a 177bhp electric motor that punts it silently to 62mph in 7.9sec and on to a limited top speed of 100mph. Introduced to vie with the Volkswagen e-Golf and BMW i3, the batteries, motor and other drive ancillaries tack another 200kg to the kerb weight, lifting it to a big-boned 1650kg. If you prefer more overtly fossil-sourced propulsion, the B-Class gets an improved Renault-derived 1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel in the B180 CDI which improves efficiency by about five per cent. The 2.1-litre B200 and B220 CDI diesels continue, the latter offered with an all-wheel drive variant. Petrol power comes via a pair of 1.6-litre four-cylinder units. The B180 is good for 122PS and the B200 a modest 156PS. A six-speed manual transmission is fitted as standard but a clever 7G-DCT dual clutch transmission is available as an option. This shifts gear with virtually no interruption in motive power and Mercedes claims it combines the comfort of an automatic with the efficiency of a manual transmission.
Design and Build
Petrol and diesel models now get a revised front bumper, wide radiator trim with two louvres and now integral daytime running lamps in the headlamps. The rear bumper has also been modified and now features a contoured covering and an additional chrome trim strip. LED High Performance headlamps are optional while all B-Class models get standard fit bicolour tail lamps featuring LED technology provide emphasis and make the vehicle more visible. The cabin's come in for a spruce-up too, with materials quality improved, the dial pack restyled, a choice of 12 ambient lighting colours, as well as a bigger free-standing head unit display. There's still a good deal of space on board, the 976mm of of rear legroom even acing the S-Class luxury saloon. This car is also optionally available with the Easy-Vario-Plus system which enables simple reorganisation of the interior so as to enable the transportation of bulky items. Features of the this package include fore/aft adjustment of the rear seats by up to 140 millimetres (thereby increasing the luggage compartment volume from 488 to 666 litres) and a front passenger seat where the backrest can be folded forward onto the seat cushion.
Market and Model
The previous model B-Class struggled to assert itself in a very talented marketplace that was stuffed with bigger and more cost-effective rivals. This latest version isn't going to diverge too much from the pricing model but it now goes some way to justifying those prices by bringing a properly grown-up Mercedes-Benz look and feel to the party. Equipment levels are a good deal more agreeable too, with plenty of standard kit and some very interesting options. Mercedes usually leads the market when it comes to tech but it has found itself playing catch-up when it comes to mobile technology convergence. The Collision Prevention Assist Plus package features autonomous partial braking to reduce the risk of rear-end collisions. The standard Attention Assist feature has also been upgraded: operating within an extended speed range (37 - 124 mph), this now uses a five-stage bar display to visualise the driver's current attention level. There's also 'Mercedes connect me", a connected services package that includes an emergency call function if by some chance you do manage to crash. The electric version gets an extended version. The charging level of the lithium-ion battery and vehicle range can be queried from a distance and, depending on the temperature, you can even pre-heat or pre-cool the vehicle ready for a specified departure time.
Cost of Ownership
The B-Class engine line up screams of efficiency with a very low drag coefficient and a number of energy saving features such as eco start/stop and the electrically-assisted steering system. The latest B220 CDI 4MATIC offers real efficiency gains over its predecessor, lowering CO2 from 150 to 130g/km. Fuel economy for the diesels ranges between 56.5 and 78.5mpg, while the petrol engines come in at between 42.8 and 52.3mpg. The B-class Electric Drive uses a 16.6kWh lithium ion battery that is claimed to provide it with a range of around 124 miles. Depreciation of the old B-Class was slightly better than average for the compact MPV class and this latest model should improve that a little further thanks to less residual dilution die to better standard equipment and also the beneficial effect of improved engine efficiency.
In truth, the Mercedes-Benz B-Class probably needed to do a bit more if it really wanted to be projected front and centre into the public eye. That said, this is a worthy set of upgrades to an already very good car and the electric version is something that you ought to keep an eye on. Although it lacks the sexy carbon-fibre tech and out-there styling of the BMW i3, the practicality of the B-Class might well see it emerge as the bigger seller. If you're looking for a compact MPV, the market is stuffed. Time was when migrating to a 'premium' badge paid off in the long term but the laws of supply and demand aren't flexible and that's no longer a cast-iron investment. Add to that the talent of rivals as varied as the Citroen C4 Picasso and the Volkswagen Golf SV and you have a very tough mission for the B-Class. It's up to the challenge, but perhaps it still needs a bigger push to remind people of that fact.