Mercedes-Benz B-Class 2019 overseas preview drive
MPV-like cars aren't often a matter of form over function, but the new tallboy B-Class might just blend the best bits of both.
Now into its third generation, the B-Class has long been the Mercedes-Benz you have when you’re not convinced an A-Class is quite on the money. That was certainly the case with the first-gen B (2005-2011), which not only looked a bit more muscular than the hatch it shared DNA with, but was also a more rounded car. However, something happened along the way.
In light of the circa-2013 A-Class finally discovering sex appeal (at the expense of engineering innovation), the previous B-Class was left to family-minding duties, standing on the sidelines trying to appear youthful and relevant while its progeny went clubbing wearing chic new gear. Try as it might, regardless of colour or wheel choice, the old-gen B-Class didn’t have the bone structure or the dynamic talent necessary to make any real impact.
The all-new B-Class, on the other hand, aims to turn that family-burdened frown into something approaching a smile. It still adheres to the formula – same 2729mm wheelbase as the latest A-Class but standing quite a bit taller, to the benefit of vision and packaging efficiency – but it now has a clearer identity and a more youthful outlook on life.
If the A-Class is a bit too brash, a bit too low-set and not quite spacious enough to fulfil a one-car-suits-all brief, then the new B-Class is your baby Benz. It possesses all the interior flair and technological razzle-dazzle that defines the new A-Class, yet it moulds that design aesthetic into a more sensible and sober form.
It’s not boring, but then its appearance is hardly going to ignite passions either. The new B-Class’s proportions have altered slightly to make it look more dynamic – 26mm longer, 10mm wider and 4mm lower, with a 15mm broader front track – and there’s a likeable friendliness to its glassy shape, but the new-gen B-Class remains pen-pal material, not a late night booty-call kinda car.
While the new B is still some time away from reaching our shores, Mercedes-Benz Australia has confirmed the fundamental spec of our B-Class range.
We’ll get the full MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) realness of twin 10.25-inch cockpit screens as standard, along with ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice control, artificial intelligence, and Mercedes Me connect; a centre console touchpad; Comfort seats; LED headlights; keyless entry and start; an electric hands-free tailgate; sat-nav; a rear-view camera; nine airbags; and a nine-speaker 225-watt sound system with subwoofer.
No mention as yet on what wheel size the B200 launch car will wear (costing around $45,000), but if Mercedes-Benz Oz remains true to recent form, expect 18-inch alloys.
What's the interior like?
Bloody nice, providing you don’t go scratching around too far below the tide line. Stuttgart has invested every cent making sure the B-Class’s striking cabin hits where it counts, and that’s all the stuff you can immediately see.
Lovely, soft-touch dashboard surfacing with classy exposed stitching, a beautiful steering wheel and the sparkling, multi-hued wonder of MBUX – Mercedes-Benz’s top-shelf widescreen cockpit display that pairs two 10.25-inch screens side by side – is a visual feast. And there’s the added delight of 64-colour ambient lighting that even encompasses the jet-style air vents.
Flick your side of the dual-zone climate control up a notch or two and the vents in question glow red. Perform the opposite temperature request and they momentarily turn blue. It’s a subtle but delightful piece of lighting theatre.
As for MBUX itself, I could spend this entire First Drive review covering the depth of its magnificence, not only for its Panavision vastness but also its useability. Once you get your head around a few basics – the left wheel-spoke touchpad square controls the screen ahead of the driver while the right-spoke version controls the centre dash section (in our left-hand drive test version but, thankfully, the opposite in Aussie spec) – it’s both interesting to use and a joy to master.
It’s a smartphone-inspired system based around interconnected touch surfaces, including the screens themselves and the centre console’s touchpad. Many of them cover the same, or similar, functions by either swiping or pressing, yet if that sounds confusing, it’s brilliantly logical after a relatively brief acclimatisation. And after a handful of utterances, Mercedes claims the ‘Linguatronic’ voice control can learn your accent and respond in a Siri-like manner to “Hey Mercedes” requests.
There’s also augmented-reality genius in the way the sat-nav films the car or scenery in front of you and projects it onto the centre screen while creating its own oversized street signs and directional arrows. The future is here and it’s in a B-Class – a future intelligible enough to not scare off the B’s 50- to 60-something age demographic.
The rest of the B-Class’s interior is like an A-Class’s, but different. Instead of the perforated and rolled horizontal ridge of the A, the B packages its identical central vents and climate control as part of a broader driver’s cockpit, with the front passenger facing a super-squidgy dash section with a large concave trim insert above it.
The door trims are also different, ditching the A’s trademark hooped grab handles for plain flush door pulls, as if no one is ever going to generate enough cornering G-force in a B-Class to need something to brace yourself with.
Where the B-Class’s flashiness starts to fray is the core architecture beneath all the glitter. The hard plastics that populate the lower dash sections, centre tunnel, lower door trims and B-pillar garnishes all fit neatly but the material lacks that soft, slightly oily feel of a proper premium material and could easily be from a Honda Jazz.
There’s roughly the same amount of room as the old B-Class, though with some significant improvements. There’s 5mm more front headroom, 4mm more front legroom, 33mm more elbow room and an extra 8mm in front shoulder width, while in the rear seat, an additional 8mm of headroom and 10mm more shoulder width complete the new B’s expansive picture.
Despite being quite flat, the seats themselves are reasonably comfortable – aided by the front hip point being 90mm higher than an A-Class’s – because your legs can drop down rather than stretch out. And there’s a substantial amount of rear head- and foot-room, even with a (dual-pane) sunroof fitted and the front seats dumped.
There’s also a centre armrest in the rear and a flip-down panel below the twin rear air vents containing two USB-C ports, a 230-volt charge point and a 12-volt outlet.
The new B’s 455-litre boot is actually 33 litres smaller than the old car’s, though 35 litres larger when all seats are dropped (via 40/20/40 backrests).
Fore-aft rear-seat adjustment (over a 140mm range), rear backrests that can be locked vertically into place to carry boxes, and a fold-flat function for the front passenger’s seat backrest will all become optionally available from mid-2019.
What's it like on the road?
Mercedes-Benz will offer five initial engine choices when the B-Class goes on sale in Europe next February – a pair of 1.3-litre turbo-petrol fours (with 100kW and 120kW outputs), an 85kW 1.5-litre turbo-diesel four, and two versions of the new-gen 2.0-litre turbo-diesel four (110kW and 140kW). Australia will only see the petrols.
As with the A-Class, expect hybrid versions to launch internationally in 2019, with local availability unconfirmed.
As sure as death, taxes and Sydney traffic, international Mercedes-Benz launch vehicles are always loaded to the ceiling with options. That’s barely an issue with the AMG performance models, seeing our three-pointed-star range-toppers are among the best equipped in the world, but when it comes to more mainstream models, there’s always a caveat.
The B-Class is set to follow in the A’s footsteps by offering three core suspension set-ups. The base tune features fixed-rate damping and a torsion-beam rear end while the top-spec adaptively damped version (as per our test cars) scores a more sophisticated multi-link independent rear suspension arrangement.
On incredibly smooth Majorcan roads, it’s difficult to judge exactly how the B-Class is going to acclimatise to Aussie surfaces, but there’s definitely some added dynamism with the fully independent suspension set-up – improving both the B-Class’s keenness to turn into a corner and its behaviour during cornering. Wearing pricey (optional) 225/40R19 Pirelli P Zero rubber, the B’s handling purchase and driver involvement should be far beyond what most people could want from an MPV in drag like this.
Where the B stumbles a bit is in its damping over undulations at speed. In Comfort mode, it feels a little too floaty, while in Sport, a little too stiff. There’s a happy medium there – one perhaps best achieved by offering an ‘auto’ setting that uses more of the damping parameters of both modes to greater effect – though the B-Class can’t quite find it.
The new B is an improvement on the latest A, however, with a more supple ride in all situations, even on 19-inch wheels, and a superior ability to breathe with the road. But it feels like it lacks compression-damping discipline, and the flow-on effect is never quite ideal.
As for the versions without the premium suspension, expect a noticeable reduction in ride comfort, road-noise refinement and handling poise.
What's the first impression?
We sampled the B200’s 120kW/250Nm 1.3-litre turbo-petrol and the B220d’s 140kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel at the B-Class’s international launch, and much preferred the 220d’s effortless cruising gate and low-speed spriteliness. Featuring a mostly impressive new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, the high-boost diesel is the B’s strongest ally when it comes to covering ground briskly and efficiently (0-100km/h in 7.2sec; 234km/h top speed; 4.5L/100km on the combined cycle) and offers a real kick from a standing start.
The lesser-powered petrol engine we’re getting isn’t quite so blessed. The B200 certainly feels like it has the knackers, with its seven-speed dual-clutch ’box tightly stacking the lower ratios together for a modicum of muscle, though much of it is an illusion.
Given the vast number of sweet and strong 1.3-litre engines we’ve sampled over the years, the fact that this all-new, all-alloy donk does such an underwhelming impression of what it promises on paper is rather disappointing (0-100km/h in 8.2sec; 223km/h top speed). It’s neither sweet nor strong, with an audible reluctance above 5000rpm and the odd lumpy gearchange at urban speeds, though it feels smoother and sounds less intrusive in the B200 than it does in an A200. Let’s hope it’s as economical as Mercedes-Benz claims.
So we’re left with a far better B-Class – one that finally steps out of the svelte shadow of its once-frumpy A-Class sister – though it still lacks the drivetrain distinction to truly sparkle. If the A-Class is any guide (and it should be), the B250 4Matic will be the one to go for, once the all-wheel-drive versions come online later in 2019.
But for anyone wanting a premium badge on a well thought-out, beautifully furnished, pleasantly practical plus-sized hatchback, the new B-Class has its own unique appeal.
2019 Mercedes-Benz B200 Price and Specifications
Price: $45,000 (estimated)
Engine: 1.3-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder
Power: 120kW at 5500rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 1620-4000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch, FWD
Fuel use: 5.6L/100km
Having completed an Arts degree in English Literature and Film, Ponch started out at Hot 4s & Performance Cars magazine in 1997, honing his distaste for bodykits and commercial doof-doof, before editing Australian Volkswagen magazine, then kicking off a 17-year career at ACP/Bauer as Staff Journalist for WHEELS in 2001.