Review and photos by
Jil McIntosh, Autos.ca
Back in the earlier days of motoring, luxury automakers often faced a dilemma. Well-heeled customers could be hard to come by, especially when the economy soured. One solution was to offer a smaller, less-powerful and less-expensive model that would appeal to a fresh round of buyers – but the plan often backfired. Wealthy buyers didn’t want to see their vehicle’s logo on one driven by a mere mortal, and often left the brand for one that remained more exclusive.
It’s a situation Mercedes-Benz might have faced in 2005, when it introduced its 2006 B200 compact hatchback, its least-expensive model save for Smart. But rather than watering down the brand, the B-Class has carved out its spot in the company’s Canadian line-up. It’s also “all ours” over here, as it isn’t sold in the U.S. The smaller A-Class remains European-only.
Buying a B-Class isn’t really a practical decision. It’s expensive for a hatchback, starting at $29,900 for the naturally-aspirated 2.0-litre B200, and $32,400 for my tester, the B200 turbo, which also uses the 2.0-litre but with forced air. It’s not for someone who simply wants cheap transportation. Rather, it’s a great car for someone who has always wanted a Benz but whose bank account can’t move up to the pricier models. It can also be a second-car runabout for those who already have a larger Mercedes in the driveway and want to “keep it in the family.”
The base price includes a five-speed manual in the B200 and six-speed in the B200 Turbo, with both optioning up to a CVT. Standard features include a/c, six-CD stereo, heated mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, aluminum interior trim, leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, tire pressure monitoring system and cargo cover. Moving up to the B200 Turbo adds 17-inch wheels in place of 16-inch and seats with cloth and “Artico” leather, the type that hasn’t been anywhere near a real cow, rather than the B200’s all-cloth chairs.
The B-Class is undergoing a makeover for 2012, and so my model came as an optional Avantgarde Runout Edition, with several options tucked in to sweeten the model. Paint, upholstery and trim levels have also been cut back to prepare for the upcoming changeover. On the non-turbo B200, the Avantgarde adds heated seats, CVT transmission, media interface and 17-inch twin-spoke wheels. On the B200 Turbo, it includes all of that plus a panoramic sunroof and power-adjustable driver and passenger seats.
The turbo is a peppy little engine that’s well-suited to the B, delivering 193 horsepower and 206 lb.-ft. of torque with a nice, sporty little growl. CVTs can vary in their performance and feel, but this one’s as good as the engine, keeping the revs in exactly the right place with no rubbery feel. There’s a manual shift mode for those who want more control, and a button to toggle between Comfort and Sport.
The handling is also quite sporty, with quick response to wheel inputs and almost no body lean. Like most Mercedes models, it feels solid and heavy, but not sluggish. The brakes bite in with confidence and nice pedal feel. On the down side, there is some road noise, the turning circle is wide, and the ride is very firm, although it takes bumps without any banging in the undercarriage. Published fuel figures for the CVT are 9.5 L/100 km (30 mpg Imp) in the city and 7.4 (38) on the highway, while I averaged 10.9 (26) in combined driving. It asks for the premium-octane juice.
The interior is roomy for the car’s size, and while there isn’t a great deal of room between the front and rear seats, I was fine as a back-seat passenger thanks to deep indentations in the front seatbacks to accommodate my knees, and sufficient room under the front chairs to slip my toes. The tall-wagon styling ensures good headroom in all seating positions. The back seats fold flat for extra cargo space once you’ve flipped the rear seat cushion forward.
Front-seat legroom is excellent, although you may find that your knees are higher than in many other vehicles. That’s due to the car’s “sandwich floor,” which has a space between the cabin floor and the car’s underbelly. Mercedes touts this as a safety feature, in that the engine and transmission will slide down the firewall and under the passenger compartment in a front-end collision. That may be true enough, but those clever Germans were thinking ahead when they designed it: an electric version powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, now undergoing testing in various locations, has some of its electric drive components stuffed into the sandwich floor’s space where they don’t take up any of the cargo compartment.
My tester’s electric seats were a nice improvement over the manual ones I’d driven in the past, especially since power chairs are now available in many entry-level vehicles and their omission on a Mercedes seems unusual. The seats themselves are typically Teutonic, firm but very supportive, even on longer drives.
Although there is a lot of plastic in the interior, it’s done very well and doesn’t seem “plasticky.” It feels like its price inside, save for power locks that sound cheap and clunky when they close. And speaking of door locks, some white paint on the keyless entry fob would be appreciated. It’s hard to see which button is the lock and which is unlock when all you have are black padlock icons molded into a black plastic fob.
The heater controls are delightfully simple dials that are easy to grasp; the stereo panel comes up with an image of an old-fashioned radio dial when listening to music via the airwaves. If the B-Class could use any cabin improvement, it would be a few more places to stash stuff up front. The centre console box doesn’t open, but has a small drawer that slides out. A single cupholder sits behind the gearshift lever, while the one in front of it, primarily meant to hold a removable ashtray, doesn’t function very well with a beverage cup inside since it’s too close to the centre stack. There are bottle holders moulded into the narrow map pockets as well.
The panoramic lamella sunroof consists of five polycarbonate panels. Hit the button, and the front one flips up; hit it again, and the remaining four slide backwards, stacking against each other above the roofline. It’s a huge opening that will really be nice on hot summer nights, but I’m a bit of a pessimist and I wonder how long all those individual seals will remain leak-proof as the car ages.
Overall, the B-Class is a car that challenges perceptions. It’s very expensive for a small hatchback when you compare it with other tall wagons on the market. And yet, if you’re willing to spring for it, you’ll probably feel like you got your money’s worth. I pulled up at several lights beside E-Class and even S-Class owners, and rather than looking down their noses at me, a couple of them gave me a nod. It looks like Mercedes’ gamble paid off well.
Pricing: 2011 Mercedes-Benz B200 Turbo
Base price: $32,400
Options: $3,865 (Polar Silver metallic paint, $890; Sirius satellite radio, $475; Avantgarde Edition package of heated power front seats, panoramic lamella sunroof, CVT, media interface and 17-inch wheels, $2,500)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $38,360
Buyer’s Guide: 2011 Mercedes-Benz B-Class
Crash test results
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)