Since my leisure activities involve muddy dogs, greasy car bits, salty boat bits, oil paints and large packages of ill-defined proportions, and exclude advanced chef-ing, d’hôtels des Posh and cashmere V-necks in delicate pastel colours, I’m not really a target customer for a Mercedes-Benz saloon. The life, suggested by these southern German cars, of plutocratic luxury combined with ravening business ethics and perhaps even paid staff has never particularly appealed.
Perhaps it’s for that reason that I have always had a soft spot for the Mercedes B-class, a compact Multi Purpose Vehicle built for people like me. The compact MPV was once Europe’s most popular C-segment model derivative, although they’ve now been overtaken by the dubious charms of the compact Sport Utility Vehicle. By contrast, MPVs are genuinely useful; big enough for arduous family duties, practical enough to look good dirty and with lots of space and flexibility.
The B-class also embodied the Mercedes ethic of engineering excellence, together with an endearing loyalty to the sandwich-floor construction of the original A-class, with its just-in-case accommodation for the apparatus of alternative-fuelled transportation.
The trouble is, the B-class wasn’t very good due to high prices, nondescript looks and mediocre performance. Last autumn, almost undocumented, it was completely revamped, the sandwich floor was dropped and the new car was plonked on an all-new chassis floorpan, which will also underpin the new A-class which made its debut at the Geneva motor show.
The hardware consists of MacPherson-strut front and four-link rear suspension, with electromechanical steering with a pump that idles in the straight ahead to save fuel. There are two petrol engines, a 1.6-litre four-cylinder with 120bhp or 154bhp, and a 1.8-litre four-pot turbodiesel with 107bhp or 134bhp. There’s a six-speed manual transmission, or optional seven-speed, twin-clutch automatic. Prices range from £21,290 to £26,160. With its new aerodynamic mien, the B-class still has a corporate edge, but it’s not offensively swanky. Mercedes also does smoked glass better than any other car maker, which all end up looking like a drug dealer’s wheels.
Our test car is from the middle of the range. Its 1.8-litre turbodiesel is the first transverse application for the OM651 family, which, with a second turbocharger and at 2.1 litres, sees service in the C- and E-class. It is combined with a manual six-speed gearbox and a stark cabin specification lacking the usual gewgaws from the ruinous Mercedes options list. It is, in other words, the sort of Mercedes that ordinary folk buy and there is a perverse pleasure in manually adjusting your Merc’s seats.
Start her up and there’s a bit of diesel rattle, but once inside, it’s almost impossible to tell that this is a compression ignition engine. This is not so much about the deferential level of sound damping or the high-speed refinement that rivals struggle to approach – Mercedes invented the diesel engine and it isn’t relinquishing its lead any time soon. No, where this engine is really remarkable is its ability to mimic a petrol engine’s power delivery, trading down-and-dirty, gearbox-shredding punch for almost revvy power that is perfectly complemented by the gearbox ratios.
The engine isn’t powerful enough for you to ignore the gearbox, especially with almost 1.5 tons to pull, but this light and positive six-speed gives the lie to the received wisdom about never buying a manual Mercedes. The clutch, too, is meaty but positive, although the throttle suffers that cheapskate Mercedes trait of retaining the automatic’s artificial kick-down resistance at the bottom of its travel in the manual version – why?
Economy is quoted at 64.2mpg in the Combined cycle. On super freezing days, we managed about 52mpg in normal motoring and even when making up time on the M40, average consumption never dropped below 48.5mpg.
The cabin has a dignified simplicity, with rotary dials and switches that wouldn’t look out of place on an audiophile’s hi-fi, although the heater controls, situated in a dog-bone-shaped display, are sited low on the centre console and difficult to see at a glance. What’s good here is the bare minimum of information conveyed efficiently and attractively. So the displays have concise, sans-serif typefaces, the twin-dial instrument binnacle is big and clear and everything is the acme of white-on-black clarity. On this trim option, the eyeball ventilators sit in a faux engine-turned metal facia, with various grades of black surroundings. It’s classy and looks hard wearing. I also loved the radio, especially the tuning graphics, reminiscent of an old valve wireless set. There’s a radar-based crash warning system, which displays a discreet warning triangle on the dashboard and the start/stop system is equally effective while staying in the background.
The seats are comfortable and supportive, and in the back there’s room for even the tallest. Mercedes-Benz’s British PR is, in fact, a giraffe and he got in there with no major limb/trim impacts
What we didn’t like is the insanely obscured USB charge point in the centre armrest, which requires another arm joint to access, and the nasty, plasticky mobile phone charger shelf in there, which appears to have been made by another company altogether.
On the move everything feels a bit light at first. The steering twirls on lighter-than-air bearings and there’s a bouncy ride quality over the first inch of wheel travel, which feels like an under-ballasted small boat. On the Sport model’s standard 18in wheels and Goodyear run-flat tyres, the secondary ride quality over bumps and ripples is awful and the rear suspension is noisy, but we know a drop down to 17in wheels solves most of these problems.
The body control is good, though, with little roll and a precise response to the steering. It’s actually more fun that it has a right to be and were it not for the Ford C-Max, the B-class would be the king of the hill. As it is, you can sing along a country road in this box on wheels, making good progress with the faintest smile on your face like an evil Bond villain fallen on hard times.
There are cheaper and better riding MPVs, but this new Merc makes a good case for itself by being more than up to the class standard, while adding a bit of quality to the family troop carrier idiom. It bodes well for the new A-class, which will have a lot less to carry.