Mercedes builds the anti-SUV — there’s just one problem
PEOPLE don't buy what they need. They buy what they want. And this is why the Mercedes-Benz B-Class has never been very popular. So far this year it's been outsold more than four-to-one by the little SUV stablemate, the GLA.
But the small and tall B-Class hatchback is in almost every way a smarter choice than any similar-size SUV in the same price bracket. It's more practical, flexible, spacious and efficient.
There's just one problem. Looks. Australians today want SUVs and the B-Class obviously isn't one.
With the new B-Class, due in the middle of 2019, Mercedes-Benz hopes to close the style gap. The company surveyed people who bought the current model and found the improvement they most desired was a "more dynamic look", says senior small-car exec Dirk Kielhorn.
The latest B-Class is shaped to slip more easily through the air than before. Deeper side windows make it look less slab-sided, too. But car exterior designers aren't magicians. It's sleeker but the new B-Class is no supermodel.
As before, the beauty is on the inside. The distance between the vehicle's front and rear axles is exactly the same as Benz's new A-Class small hatchback. The B-Class is taller and the extra height makes a huge difference.
Its front seats are 90mm higher, making it feel much like a small SUV from behind the wheel. The elevated seating makes for great legroom front and rear and the tall roofline means headroom is likewise excellent.
Cargo compartment volume is roughly the same ample amount as before but the standard split-folding (40-20-40) rear seat backrest enhances loading flexibility.
All-round vision is very good. The deeper glass is one of the reasons but the Mercedes designers also took care over the size, shape and position of the roof pillars.
The instrument panel features the same brilliant double 10.25-inch hi-res flat-screen display, "turbine" air vents and steering wheel as the new A-Class.
Other key items of standard interior tech will include the MBUX (user experience) interface - its voice control boosted by artificial intelligence - plus centre console touch pad, satnav and reversing camera.
Not all of this will be standard. The B-Class can be optioned with even more advanced driver aid and safety tech than the S-Class limo.
Active safety driver assistance engineer Jochen Haab says the new B-Class uses the company's latest generation of sensors, which are superior to those in the flagship.
First of the new line to launch in Australia will be the B200, sharing the 1.3-litre turbo four and seven-speed double clutch automatic from the A200 as well as the same standard semi-independent twist-beam rear suspension. It will be about $45,000, a small increase over the equivalent outgoing B-Class.
Again as in the new A-Class, there will be a fully independent multilink rear suspension in the B-Class, as part of an optional package that also includes variable shock absorbers.
ON THE ROAD
The B200 at the international press launch in Spain came with the more sophisticated rear suspension. On often winding and sometimes rough roads the car's ride was lush and lovely.
There's body lean through corners but the handling is role-appropriate. Safe and sound is better than sharp and snappy in something like the B-Class.
But the engine and transmission should be better. Much better. The B200 can sound a little like a diesel at medium revs and develops unpleasant buzzy vibes when pushed hard. And because the engine isn't especially strong, it often needs to be pushed.
The transmission is calibrated to cover for the engine's lack of pep by shifting down gears with every increase of pressure on the accelerator. This can be annoying but not so much as the lack of hill-climbing and overtaking oomph - the problem is common to the A200, by the way.
Soon Mercedes-Benz will add its very fine turbo 2.0-litre four to the B-Class engine line-up. That model, the B250, is certain to come with the superior rear suspension as standard.
This model will make picking a B-Class instead of a small SUV a truly intelligent choice.
PRICE $45,000 (est)
ENGINE 1.3-litre 4-cyl turbo, 120kW/250Nm
SAFETY Not yet rated
THIRST 5.6L/100km (est)
0-100KM/H 8.2 secs