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Can the MPV shrug off its awkward aesthetic and offer much more than an A-Class?

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The progressive metamorphosis of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, from a cleverly packaged box on wheels into a conventionally formed luxury hatch, is no doubt one of calculated execution.

Not only has it seen the original ‘baby Benz’ become increasingly competitive against the established premium hatchback set, but the transformation has also granted its previously unloved more practical sibling - the Mercedes-Benz B-Class - some much-needed breathing room, allowing it to fashion itself a more distinct, confident identity within Mercedes' small-car line-up.

Grille styling is one of the easiest ways to tell which B-Class trim you’re looking at. Black ‘diamond pins’ mean it’s a cheaper Sport, like this; chrome ones mean it’s an AMG Line

The original B-Class of 2005 was, in essence, an extended version of the second-generation A-Class. But as the contemporary A-Class offered a comparatively superior drive with only a small compromise on cabin space, the ill-proportioned B-Class fell flat with critics and buyers alike.

In 2011, the second generation of this compact MPV gained a new platform (later shared with the third-generation A-Class), a boost in premium appeal, a more coherent exterior design and even greater interior versatility. Unfortunately, unimpressive road manners and poor refinement were arrows to its Achilles heel.

Now the B-Class is back for a third generation. And while the mechanical similarities to its hatchback sibling are as strong as ever, the chances of that relationship bearing fruit have never been so promising. To say the fourth-generation A-Class is the most convincing iteration of the breed we’ve seen in its 22-year history is no overstatement.

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As with its sibling, the B-Class’s cabin has had its luxury credentials amplified, while driver assistance features have also trickled down from the S-Class limousine. Meanwhile, a new platform and engine line-up might just remedy the shortcomings that marred its predecessor. But have these changes finally allowed the B-Class to rise above the relative mediocrity that’s characterised its existence thus far?

Price £26,975 | Power 134bhp | Torque 148lb ft | 0-60mph 8.4sec | 30-70mph in fourth 11.5sec | Fuel economy 32.9mpg | CO2 emissions 126g/km (WLTP) | 70-0mph 45.9m

MERCEDES-BENZ B-CLASS RANGE AT A GLANCE

Mercedes offers seven flavours of B-Class: four petrols and three diesels, all turbocharged and with a capacity no larger than 1950cc.

Unlike in the A-Class, whose more powerful models compete with the best hot hatch rivals, there are no plans to bring an AMG-badged B-Class to market, so the quickest car is the B250, which will hit 62mph in 6.4sec.

That price jump beyond the B200d is because, from the 250 onwards, AMG Line is the most basic trim level and brings an independent rear axle rather than a torsion beam.

DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz B-Class 2019 road test review front grillle

It’s a rare occurrence that the often bulbous, inflated proportions of an MPV – even those at the smaller end of the size spectrum – lend themselves to visually appealing design. The original B-Class wasn’t a looker by any means, but fast forward to 2019 and this W247 model could just about pass for handsome.

From a distance, its aesthetic relationship to the lower, sleeker A-Class is readily apparent, but closer inspection reveals notable stylistic differences. The larger, more rounded headlights of the B-Class complement its augmented proportions and lend the compact MPV a gentler front end that’s not quite as pointed as that of its range-mate. A comparatively gentler tail-light design, meanwhile, helps to minimise the visual impact of its taller roofline.

AMG Line trim brings more garnish and definition to the rear bumper styling, notably by the addition of imitation lateral air scoops and a mock diffuser

Beneath the familial exteriors, the relationship between the two is as close as ever. Their shared MFA2 architecture means that, for the most part, the A-Class and B-Class are dimensionally identical. Both are 4419mm long and 1796mm wide, with a shared wheelbase of 2729mm.

Height is, rather obviously, the main point of difference; the boxier roofline of the B-Class means it stands 122mm taller, at 1562mm. The introduction of this new architecture made the A-Class one of the largest cars in its segment – a possible point of contention for buyers after a compact hatch. In relation to the B-Class, though, this dimensional increase should add to its practical appeal.

As for engines, our B180 Sport test car’s downsized 1.3-litre four-cylinder turbo is the product of a Renault-Nissan and Daimler collaboration. It is also found under the bonnets of the Nissan Qashqai and Renault Kadjar, as well as the A-Class. In the nose of the B180 Sport, it makes 134bhp, while its 148lb ft is developed from 1460rpm. The B200 makes use of the same engine, but here power and torque are upped to 161bhp and 236lb ft. The B200d and B220d models, meanwhile, feature a 2.0-litre diesel that develops 148bhp and 187bhp respectively.

All B-Class variants are front-wheel drive, but petrol and diesel models employ different gearboxes to direct their motive power to the road. With the exception of the B180d, those fuelled from the black pump feature an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic ’box; petrols and the bottom-rung diesel have a seven-speed dual-clutch auto.

Unsurprisingly, the B-Class follows its A-Class sibling in being suspended by a torsion beam arrangement at the rear axle, with MacPherson struts up front. Pricier AMG Line variants swap the twist beam out for a more sophisticated multi-link set-up, while ride height is also dropped lower to the road. Adaptive dampers are available in markets other than ours, but it’s looking unlikely that these will make their way to the UK any time soon.

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz B-Class 2019 road test review dashboard

If stylistic concessions to the exterior are made to allow for a more practical car overall, the interior takes almost full advantage of that. There is only about an inch more head room for passengers in the front and rear seats than the A-Class, but that car is far from cramped, and the cleverly lowered beltline of the B-Class gives its cabin a genuinely pleasant, airy ambience unmatched among its rivals.

It’s a feeling exaggerated by seats that set the hip point of front seat occupants a whole 90mm higher than in the A-Class, and while the trade-off for this is a driving position that feels more MPV than hatchback, it also makes for satisfyingly effortless ingress and a commanding view of the road ahead.

You can option Mercedes’ new ‘Energizing’ seat system, which subtly alters your driving position to maintain comfort during long hours in the saddle.

Indeed, there’s barely any need to drop yourself down into the confines of the B-Class, and with the increased width of this new platform, there’s now also even more space for knees and elbows. Elsewhere, we measured (allowing for a driver of average proportions) rear leg room at 740mm – just 10mm shy of what you can expect in an E-Class saloon – but due to an intrusively raised section of floor and firm cushioning, middle seat passengers won’t appreciate longer journeys. It is worth noting, too, that there are only two Isofix child seat points in the rear, whereas some rival MPVs offer three.

If its ergonomics impress, the B-Class also succeeds as a luxury proposition because, by the standards of this obstinately sensible class, the interior design and materials used are opulent. The B-Class borrows much from the A-Class – a class leader in this respect – including MBUX high-resolution displays, ‘turbine’ air vents plus high-gloss and soft-touch plastics. Ambient lighting shines crisply across the dash and into the door cards, not only remedying our test car’s monochromatic interior palate but also making this cabin particularly cosseting at night.

However, while the Mercedes scores highly for effortlessly ferrying a family of four, when it comes to their luggage it lacks the versatility of rivals. Unlike the Volkswagen Golf SV and BMW’s 2 Series Active Tourer, there is no option yet of a sliding rear bench (arriving mid-2019) and, at 455 litres, boot space with the rear seatbacks up is also slightly poorer.

The B-Class uses Mercedes’ new MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) touchscreen infotainment system. As standard, this incorporates two 7.0in screens: one for features such as the sat-nav and radio, the other replacing the traditional analogue instrument binnacle. However, our test car came with the £2259 Premium Package option, which employs a larger, 10.3in display along with a ‘mid-range’ sound system. Our car was also equipped with the £495 Advanced Navigation Package, with augmented reality for the navigation and traffic sign recognition.

It’s possible to get the larger screen – controlled by an unusually effective touchpad – with the £1395 Executive Package, and you should. The quality of the graphics is excellent, as is the fluidity with which it responds to your inputs. The ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice control generally works well, too, as does the augmented reality, which neatly overlays camera images with direction arrows.

Our only criticism is the absence of a conventional USB socket, with Mercedes relying exclusively on USB-C sockets – irritating if you don’t have the right cable or adapter.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz B-Class 2019 road test review binnacle

For the kind of driving in which most B-Class owners will engage, the 1.3-litre four-cylinder petrol in the B180 Sport performs creditably well. Throttle response is crisp in the context of downsized engines prone to turbo lag, and what limited power there is gets served up in a linear fashion. But bear in mind that outright performance for this entry-level model is modest, even if our B180 Sport did exceed its manufacturer’s claims in sprinting to 60mph in 8.4sec.

That puts it among comparably powerful premium hatchback rivals, although with relatively little torque, in-gear acceleration is uninspiring. The fourth-gear 40-60mph dash takes 5.7sec, necessitating the need to stray into the coarser, upper reaches of the rev range for any impromptu overtaking. And although it will spin all the way to 6300rpm, there’s little additional propulsion to be gained by pushing this engine past 5000rpm.

While the entry-level 1.3-litre petrol lent our B180 test car respectable pace, I think you’d soon tire of its harsh, rough-edged soundtrack. Mars an otherwise smartly packaged car.

As in the case of the petrol-powered A200 we’ve road tested previously, Mercedes’ seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox can put a fly in the ointment. Granted, in gentle driving, cycling through the middle gears, shifts are often almost imperceptible, but it will enthusiastically downshift a cog too far when only moderate acceleration is called for, serving only to highlight the engine’s poor refinement beyond 3500rpm.

Equally, this gearbox can operate with frustrating indecision during town driving and hesitate when stepping off the mark, as though the clutch has failed to engage properly. There is a manual mode, which can be temporarily engaged by pulling one of the wheel-mounted paddles or permanently set via the mode selector digital display, and with it the driver has more control of the gearbox machinations, but the extra effort required rather undermines the hassle-free brief of the B-Class.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz B-Class 2019 road test review cornering front

How much precision, stability and handling panache a family hatchback-cum-MPV like the B-Class needs is debatable, but any owners that do decide to explore its dynamic potential beyond steady-state cruising and trundling suburban excursions won’t be unduly disappointed.

Even supported by the most basic suspension Mercedes offers – passive springs and dampers with a torsion beam rear axle – the eco-centric Michelin Green X tyres grip well, and considering the raised centre of gravity, there’s less body roll than you might expect. Moreover, any movements are for the most part elegantly controlled, although the independent rear suspension that comes with AMG Line trim would improve matters further.

Low-geared steering becomes awkward through tight hairpins, where armfuls of lock are required to get the car into and out off the corner

Admittedly, with 3.2 turns between the lockstops, this chassis has plenty of time to set itself for any direction changes, and although the set-up is accurate enough, there’s a frustrating lethargy to steering inputs. Frustrating enough to pour cold water on a bout of spirited driving? Inevitably yes, and such a numbing dearth of road feel is downright unpleasant if you enjoy driving – although even if it is a joyless experience, the basic B-Class will carry good pace along most roads, and it will do so with poise and security.

But for a certain sort of driver – indeed, the one for whom this new B-Class is intended – the slow steering and general sense of mechanical detachment becomes one of the B180 Sport’s strongest attributes. Its low gearing makes this car among the least nervous motorway cruisers, even though this is an exceptionally light set-up. And it is because the set-up is so light that the B-Class simultaneously remains effortless to guide along tighter urban routes. Along with the raised driving position, there are few, if any, cars of comparable size that are easier to put up a claustrophobic NCP car park.

Overall, the B-Class plays well to its audience, and although the heavier steering of the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer gives greater confidence, that might not be a trade your typical MPV owner will find worthwhile.

On the famous Hill Route at Millbrook Proving Ground, the B-Class ultimately conforms to type, although in the process it demonstrates more than enough capability for its given role in life. It takes committed cornering to expose the large degree of body roll you’d expect a car this tall to adopt more readily, and such composure allows the tyres to grip keenly through even the slower, tighter bends.

Eventually, it is vertical movements that become wayward, although the point at which this happens is far beyond what might be experienced on the road. Of greater note is the respectable balance this chassis summons, which allows it to be driven with surprising speed.

This engine lacks guts on the circuit’s several inclines, however, and this lack of firepower is felt that much more because of its strained – and slightly thrashy – tones at higher revs.

Comfort and isolation

Beyond matters of practicality and cost, the area in which this B-Class must succeed is in its ability to provide day-to-day comfort and isolation for what are most likely to be four-member families.

And it does. The B180 Sport could probably afford to trade a larger portion of its body control for a ride that's even more compliant, although by and large it excels in this regard, doing enough to get the better of any direct rivals. It is difficult to know just how much the relatively small, 17in wheels contribute to the car’s supple good manners, but the difference they make could well be significant.

On motorways, the B-Class summons the kind of pliancy that low-profile tyres have robbed from many modern MPVs and SUVs, and with cabin noise recorded at just 67dB at a steady 70mph cruise, the ambience is commensurately serene. Larger vertical movements are almost always conspicuously well cushioned, and this chassis rides rougher surfaces well – if with more of an acoustic drone than we’d like.

The B180 Sport’s low-speed ride also has much to recommend it, although it isn’t quite as dismissive of sharper inputs, such as those elicited by potholes, as it might be. An example fitted with adaptive dampers – and operating in their most relaxed setting – might do better, but this is only a small blemish on an otherwise convincing performance.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz B-Class 2019 road test review hero front

Mercedes has opted for a simpler and more streamlined range of model trims here than it did with the A-Class last year; there is no equivalent for the entry-level SE derivative of the lower-roofed A-Class, so the B-Class range kicks off with this B180 Sport test car, priced from a whisker under £27,000.

It looks like a bold strategy, given that the similarly powerful BMW 218i Active Tourer can be had for less than £25,000 and the equivalent Volkswagen Golf SV is cheaper still. Moreover, our sources suggest the B-Class will only enjoy a very marginal advantage over its rivals on residual value. This plainly won’t be a cheap car to own.

B180 Sport expected to hold its value fractionally better than BMW and VW rivals, though the benefit is very slight

Still, some of Mercedes’ typically well-supported monthly finance deals ought to make the car more competitive on the pocket than that list price might lead you to expect.

Most B-Class buyers will use one or more of Mercedes’ options packages to boost the equipment level of their cars. They start with the Executive Package (£1395), which upgrades your central infotainment display and includes a few added convenience features – but if you want digital instruments as well, you’ll need to go at least as far as the Premium equipment line (£2259).

As for fuel economy, our test car recorded 51.3mpg at a steady 70mph. That's neither outstanding nor disappointing and matches almost exactly what we would expect a Volkswagen Golf SV equipped with the 1.5-litre TSI Evo engine to return. Those for whom long-distance economy is especially important, however, might want to consider this car’s hatchback sibling; our A200 returned 56.7mpg, thanks to its lighter mass and smaller frontal area.

VERDICT

Mercedes-Benz B-Class 2019 road test review hero front

Few people will buy a Mercedes-Benz B-Class for what we might refer to as emotional reasons. The A-Class with which it shares so many components is the better steer and more conventionally attractive, while you can hardly claim there exists a yawning chasm between the two cars in terms of practicality and raw ergonomics.

But what differences there are add up to alter the proposition significantly and, as highbrow family transport, the B-Class is more serene not only than the A-Class but also its chief rivals – the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer and Volkswagen Golf SV. It hits its brief, in other words, and the spacious interior is a rare treat for passengers, with a generous glasshouse, luxurious finishing and a digital array almost as intuitive to operate as it is eye-catching.

In an ever-shrinking niche, this MPV deserves consideration

Mercedes might have done more to provide greater luggage space, and a sliding rear bench is still a work in progress, but elsewhere the B-Class is mostly impressive.

The driving experience leaves something to be desired – this downsized engine is insipid and, at times, the steering feels desperately indirect – but working within its laid-back, refined comfort zone, the B-Class does enough to outshine almost every rival.