3 Dec 2013

Mercedes Benz B220 CDI Sport Review

Alex Wakefield reviews the new Mercedes B-Class

In the mid 1990’s, Mercedes Benz decided that the key to world domination was to create a car for every niche, and to increase profit margin by compromising on the quality of what went into those cars. As a result, we got some innovative niche models, but at the expense of longevity. The late 90’s C-Class and E-Class models, can develop to be rot-boxes of the highest order.

Those manufacturing issues have been addressed, and the latest C-Class and E-Class versions give the impression of having been hewn from solid rock, but the legacy of the explosion in models is still with us. The range now comprises the following: A-Class, B-Class, C-Class, CLA Class, CLS Class, E-Class, GLK Class, R-Class, SLK Class, S Class, CL Class, SLS, G- Class, GL-Class, ML-Class and Viano. That may or may not be the entire range, especially when we need to consider the Smart ForTwo.

If the customer wants a battery powered city car to keep company with a seven seat off road vehicle capable of propelling a board-room’s worth of Saudi executives at 160MPH, this is possible. Anything is possible, and this probably accounts for the marque’s proliferation into every area of our lives. From the school run, to 7 star hotels, via the postman, Mercedes Benz has everything.

Part of this assault into every possible niche is represented by the B-Class, a compact family Multi-Purpose Vehicle, which is now into a second generation.

The last model appealed to badge snobs who first chose the three pointed star over flexible seating or innovation; it did nothing special that other manufacturers couldn’t provide for a lot less. Indeed, the only stand out feature was the amount of money you could be charged for a fully specified version. This second generation version would at first glance appear to do nothing more than provide the same package, with a newly designed body and interior.

Our test model was fairly representative of how most will specify their cars. If it’s going to be a question of style over substance, better to choose the Sport pack with pretty alloy wheels and twin exhaust outlets, together with your four cylinder diesel engine. Up front is the very familiar 2.1 litre engine which does service across the range, very ably. In the B-Class, you can have it with a 6 speed manual, or like our test car, with a 7 speed twin clutch semi automatic, which is in the mode of VW’s more famous DSG transmission.

A column shifter places the car into drive, after which time you have the choice of leaving the car to take care of itself, or using the steering wheel paddles to give a more tactile experience. As seems to be consistent across the Mercedes range, it is best just to leave the car to change gear for you, as the ratios are well chosen and the car’s brain seems to know what it is doing. Shifting between those ratios is smooth, and the power is delivered without drama through the front wheels. There’s 168BHP and 62mph comes up in 8.3 seconds. It feels sprightly, with the most impressive feelings of urge coming on as you accelerate from modest to high speeds through the 7 speed ‘box to overtake other traffic. Occasionally it does something stupid, like hold on to a gear for too long, but in general, it does a pretty good job.

The distant din from the engine doesn’t encourage tomfoolery, the driver never being in doubt that this is a car fuelled by diesel, but there’s a complete absence of vibration as the power is delivered, and very little evidence of turbo lag. If you start working the car hard, that 7 speed automatic gearbox does start to hunt through ratios which whilst jarring, does seem to be able to make the most of the power.

The Sport version we tried has a lowered sport suspension system, ride height dropped by 15mm and the driver is able to change settings from the cabin. With 18 inch wheels, the experience is never one of serenity, the car crashes over imperfections in attack mode, but does a reasonable job of isolating passengers from the worst of the road surface when the driver is not on a mission. The electric power steering feels fairly lifeless. It responds quickly to requests to change direction, but doesn’t do a very good job of informing the driver what’s going on. Unsurprisingly, there’s a tendency toward understeer, which is masked by grippy tyres. However, it’s much better at going round corners that you might imagine.

Such cars aren’t necessarily about driving dynamics however, and most owners and are not about to negotiate the Nurburging. The global domination of the MPV has come about because of the clever use of interior space; flexible seating, cubby holes, increased headroom, storage areas with gadgets and so on. The B-Class doesn’t have any unique features. To the most part it’s a large family hatchback, with room for 5 adults and their things. Boot space is really quite good, with a large opening and low lip making the car well suited to accommodating luggage and pushchairs. There’s 486 litres of space with the seats up, but unlike certain competitors, the seats don’t have any magic tricks up their sleeve; they either function as seats (with plenty of legroom ahead of them), or move forwards to create increased load space.

For the driver and front passenger, whilst the dashboard does at first glance appear pleasant to look at, unfortunately it is let down by material quality. The really stylish jet-age inspired interior air vents have been moulded from an incredibly cheap feeling plastic, such that they flex in your hand as you use them. Other plastics are disappointingly poor both on the dash, and elsewhere in the cabin. It’s a shame that switches which are used regularly have not been upgraded – the window buttons, headlight on-off switch and climate control rings do not inspire confidence.

The driving position is pleasant, with good all round visibility helping to place the car on the road. The touch screen satnav and information system which sprouts out of the dash like an iPad is both intuitive to use and very responsive. In satnav mode, this is combined with a more concise information display for the driver in between the dials of the instrument pod, giving upcoming directions and speed limit updates. It works very well, but the graphics are blocky and shout ‘MISER’ at you every time a prompt pops up.

The lack of excitement meant that we had time to deploy the many gadgets fitted to the test car. The most impressive of these is the excellent Distronic Plus cruise control system, which has now filtered down the range from the larger models. In short, it’s a cruise control system which is able to monitor progress of the vehicles in front of you, and recognise obstacles. It will maintain a constant speed as instructed, but when active, will maintain a safe distance behind the vehicle in front, matching speed as the other traffic slows down and speeds up. It’s a superb system, and incredibly well suited to Europe’s crowded roads where it is difficult to maintain a constant speed, and for £900, is a must have option.

You would need to choose your options carefully, because speccing up a B Class can be a very expensive business. The basic cost of our test car before options is £27,880. With a dozen or so extras, the final list price is approaching the £40,000 mark. This is cripplingly expensive for a car which fights for attention with the likes of the Ford C-Max, Vauxhall Zafira, and the Peugeot 3008. Those three cars offer more inventive use of space, similar if not superior cabin materials and will set the owner back much less. They’re also excellent cars to drive and set the benchmark for what is required of a flexible family car in the year 2013. The B-Class is something of an also-ran, when looking at the paper specification; it doesn’t have any special features, and is not particularly good value for money.

It’s handsome enough, in a safe way and from the front, has some road presence. However, for any driver, choosing a car like this is an admission of defeat, an acceptance of the mediocrity of becoming a family person. Mercedes want to convince you that it’s possible to be a parent in style, but in the case of the B-Class, the beauty is not much more than skin deep. Impressive engine aside, it’s not as good to drive as the competition, doesn’t have any special features, and is eye wateringly expensive. Although stylish, the quality of the materials used leaves you wondering quite why you spent so much. If excitement is what you want, better then to buy a C-Max, and spend the change on skydiving lessons.

Review by Alex Wakefield