When Mercedes-Benz introduced its original A-Class and B-Class city cars a decade ago, it had a difficult trick to pull off when you think about it. Building two relatively uninteresting, urban biased cars isn’t exactly ‘laissez-faire’ for over-achieving Mercedes-Benz. If they were going to do it they were going to introduce either a radical technology, or engineer the hell out of those cars to dispel any nay-sayers.
Mercedes-Benz proceeded to break the bank with their revolutionary, new format designs for the A and B, and built cars with a front wheel drive drivetrain, with a ‘double decker floor plan’ and an engine block mounted at 45-degrees so it could be shunted underneath the passengers feat in the event of a head on collision. This also meant the front row of seats could be pushed all the way towards the A pillar and create loads of extra space throughout the rest of the car. In the case of the A-Class, not since the Issigonis Mini was penned on the back of envelopes in the 50’s had an urban car been made with such a fuss.
How ironic must it have been just 2 weeks after the launch, when the issue arose of the A-Class being prone to roll over problems. Mercedes-Benz admitted to the problem in the press, redesigned the rear suspension, but alas the A and B, which shared the same ‘sandwich’ floor as it became known, were now the butt of all motoring journalist jokes from there on. How does the new Merc corner? On its roof’s, etc… Early models also suffered in customer satisfaction indexes, but Mercedes-Benz soon addressed that as well, with further investment into build quality ensuring they often came out tops when tested again. The sandwich floor in the B-Class also went onto prove an ideal chassis for Hydrogen Fuel-Cell and fully electric versions.
This brings us to the all-new B-Class, which Mercedes-Benz unveiled to the press last week. It’s as radical as the 7 year old model, but for all sorts of different reasons. It was rumoured that Mercedes-Benz tried to tie up with PSA, BMW and others in building this new generation A and B to fill the void so spectacularly left by now defunct Chrysler. None were having it though, so Mercedes-Benz were forced to go it alone on this new front-wheel drive architecture and will now sell these cars in the US for the first time to maximise profits. Creatively they’ve called it ‘Mercedes Front Wheel Drive Architecture’ or MFA and on the MFA platform they will have the hip new A-Class, just unveiled internationally, and potentially a BLS four door coupe and BLK four door crossover vehicle, but the first of these MFA vehicles is here now and it’s the new B-Class.
Not knowing quite what to expect, this B-Class has the potential to go either way I fear. It might be brilliant because Chrysler is now finally out of the picture, or it might also be poor because like a batch of pancakes, there always has to be a first one and this is it for MFA.
At the B-Class’s core are the values of functionality, space, safety and real quality, Mercedes-Benz say. Safety is a given with a Mercedes-Benz and they say this car will set the new benchmark like the S-Class does in its segment. It has seven airbags, pre-safe assist and collision prevention assist. It knows when you’re going to crash and having it standard on a volume selling car such as this is quite remarkable.
One gets the impression from the interior fit and finish that they’ve pulled it off too. The interior is well built and even a little bit funky with its move away from generic shapes and angles. The fascia rolls in from the sides in fresh patterns and the air vents sprout out like something you’d find in the interior design of a boutique hotel. The centre command screen isn’t buried in the dash anymore, its higher up and free standing for better interaction. The gear lever is still on the steering column as before and this ensures some freed up space in the centre console. Head room is improved too of course because there is only one floor. The car appears to sit lower to the ground as a result too.
Engines in the new vehicle come in the form of two petrol and two diesel derivatives. The petrol’s will only be available later in the year and they are turbocharged 1.6-litre units making 90 kW & 200 Nm in the B180 and 115 kW & 250 Nm in the B200. The two diesel derivatives are 1.8-litre turbo diesel units and produce 80 kW & 250 Nm in the B180 CDI and 100 kW & 300 Nm in the B200 CDI. Pricing ranges from just below R300 000 for the petrol up to R358 000 for the most powerful diesel.
Mercedes-Benz will also offer you an option of a 7-speed dual clutch, M-CDT gearbox for the first time in one of its cars that’s not the SLS. It’s been changed to be less focused on performance and while we only experienced it briefly in the CDI models, which were slightly laggy with their power delivery, the shifts did seem sharper and more intuitive than the 7G-tronic automatic of old. When in manual mode using the paddles, down changes weren’t lightning fast, but up changes were silky smooth on the redline, we’ll need some more time with it to see if it can hold up against a Volkswagen DSG system.
The B-Class is offered with a Mercedes-Benz Sports Package (not called an AMG package – but it’s the same sort of idea) which lowers the ride by 15 mm, gives you 17-inch wheels, cool honeycomb details to the interior, a black roof liner and adds R10 000 onto the price. The ‘Night Package’ is a further R1 600 over the Sports and gives you 18-inch wheels, tinted windows and adds high gloss black finishes to the detailing. The packages add a lot of zest to the otherwise mundane car, but we drove a vehicle with the 18-inch wheels and it did spoil the otherwise excellent ride quality. We also aren’t convinced that a traditional B-Class buyer will want the big wheels and blacked out windows look. With those details in place it really does look like a housewife who’s lost her way in life, turned to drink and now finds herself cavorting in the wrong side of town.
That brings me to my only misgiving with the new B-Class after our brief introduction to it last week… the looks of the thing. I’m sorry, but I defy anyone to look at it and say that’s a vehicle designed with flare. The rear end is deliberately square, the front styling is simply enormous and the whole thing has no shape, scale or proportion – I could Photoshop a person into one of the pictures you see on this page and I could make him ten feet tall or one inch tall and both would look correct. Then there’s that line along the back door, which looks like my nephew put it there because he knew the rest of it was awful.
We’re excited about the A-Class because it looks great. It’s a summer dress or a collared shirt with cuff-links. That must mean the B-Class is a tracksuit or week old pyjamas. Some people just want to be comfy I guess.
|Pricing (incl. VAT and CO2 Tax)|
|Mercedes-Benz B180 CGI||R299 600|
|Mercedes-Benz B200 CGI||R319 600|
|Mercedes-Benz B180 CDI||R325 000|
|Mercedes-Benz B200 CDI||R358 000|
Prices include a 6-year / 120 000 km maintenance plan and a 2-year / unlimited km warranty.