After a concept version of the car did the rounds of the Shows in 2004, the production version of the Mercedes B Class was launched in March 2005. A front wheel drive car, this was based on the second generation of the smaller A Class, and was intended to offer more space to the family person who wanted a practical hatchback with all the attributes of Mercedes. A light facelift appeared in 2008, and since then there have been some changes to the engine options available, but in essence the car that is available now is very similar to the one that was first shown 6 years ago. Mercedes describe the car as a Compact Sports Tourer, which I found to be something of an exaggeration when I had my first experience of the W245 back in early 2008, with a Swiss spec B170 petrol engined car. It was pleasant enough, but I found little to make it stand out over and above its market competitors. As sales of the B Class have not exactly set the world on fire, it would seem that the market did not really disagree with my conclusion. Although I had booked something different for my Easter sojourn in Ireland, as the car allocated to me was beyond grubby, I found the keys to a 2011 model being offered to me, with the promise that this was a “nice upgrade”. So, the question is: was it?
Mercedes offer the B Class with a choice of petrol and diesel engines, as you would expect. The more potent petrol models were deleted a while back, leaving just 2 engine choices for each fuel type now, with 160 and 180 petrol cars and 180 and 200 CDi diesels. In days gone by the model number denoted the engine capacity, but now that is no longer the case, so the petrol cars actually have a 1.5 litre engine and the diesels have 2 litre units, with just the power output altered. There is a choice of manual and automatic gearbox and a number of trim levels, which adopt different names in individual markets, being called SE and Sport in the UK. The test car was a 180CDI diesel, fitted with the automatic gearbox and in SE trim.
Anyone who has not experienced the latest diesel engines is generally positively surprised by the progress that has been made in the past few years, with most of them now having the distinctive tractor like rattle on start up and idle well subdued, and there being little extra noise once underway. Not so for this Mercedes. This is a coarse sounding engine, which is unacceptably loud when you fire it up, and it sounds dreadful at idle and low speeds. All the evidence suggests that despite the tweaks that Mercedes have made to this car during its 6 year production life, they have not paid much (indeed enough!) attention to making the diesel civilised enough to match evolving standards. With just 107bhp at its disposal, the B180 is unlikely to be fast, either. Indeed that is something of an understatement, as I would have to declare that this proved to be one of the most sluggish cars I have driven for a long time. Part of the problem doubtless lies with the Autotronic gearbox. In full automatic mode, this operates as a continuously variable transmission, thus ensuring, so Mercedes claim, that you are always in the right sort of ratio. How wrong could they be? It is pretty hopeless when accelerating, as even if you are brutal with the throttle, the B180 struggles to get underway with any alacrity at all. It is even worse when you slow down to a stop, as there are no gear ratios for the transmission’s brain (supposing it has one?!) to shift through, so it is nigh on impossible to make a smooth stop, as you lose speed faster than the ratios can adjust to what is appropriate. It does mean that when you are cruising on the motorway, the B180 is smooth and a relaxed cruiser, though, with 120 km/h (75 mph) requiring only about 1700 rpm. Things do not really improve if you push the lever sideways into manual mode. Doing this gives you 7 predefined ratios, but having struggled to make things any better by changing the gears myself, I can’t really see the point. There is a button to the left of the selector which allows you to choose between “Comfort” and “Sport”. The idea of the latter is something of a giggle given the way the B Class drives.
Once underway, the limited performance was less of an issue, but in town driving, moving off from traffic lights and roundabouts required a grim determination, and you had to be truly sure that there was a big gap in traffic into which you could slot. All this gave an average fuel economy of 45.5 mpg, which considering most of the test miles were done at a steady speed on the motorways, has to count as rather disappointing. The driving woes do not end there, as the steering is also not very good. Around the straight ahead position, it is light to the point of vague, and as you turn the wheel a bit more, although it weights up somewhat, the amount of feel does not really improve. There is plenty of understeer, too, so assuming you had manage to wring enough momentum out of the car, then cornering is not something you are going to enjoy much either. At least the B180 rides quite well, so you will be reasonably comfortable while you are not having fun. The brakes were effective enough, though the difficulties caused by the transmission just rob the operation of any finesse and smoothness. There is a conventional pull-up handbrake between the seats. You can see out of the car, though. A large glass area, and deep side windows which are lower than the scuttle, coupled with a decent field of view from the door mirrors despite their relatively small size, mean that the cabin is light and airy and it is easy to judge the car in its environs.
The inside of the B180 looked very familiar from the car I tested three years ago, and a comparison of the photos from that experience showed that it would appear not to have changed at all. The ambience of the cabin does say “Mercedes” quite clearly, not just because of the three pointed star on the steering wheel, but to judge by the square edged design at the ends of the dashboard, which makes no pretence at flowing in swooping curves into the door trims. A thin line of metal effect goes across the dashboard, but otherwise this is largely an all black affair, though there is also a satin grey backing to the instrument dials. There are four of these, with larger rev counter and speedo augmented by fuel level and water temperature, and there is a large are in the middle for displays of digital data. You can cycle through the disparate information points by pressing one of the buttons on the left hand steering wheel spoke. Like all Mercedes cars, there is one chunky column stalk, mounted low on the left of the wheel, with a smaller one mounted higher up for the cruise control. Usually, I instinctively go for the wrong one at least a few times on a Mercedes test, but this time, I had no issues. You rotate the end for the wipers, which is a bit of a clumsy operation, and you press the end in hard to get the washers. The B Class ended up as an insect graveyard, so I needed to try to clean the screen several times, and found that the washer operation was even more clumsy than the wipers. Lights are operated by a rotary dial to the right of the wheel. The centre of the dash contains the audio system and the air conditioning controls, this latter operated by three rotary dials. There are buttons on he wheel for some audio unit functions. It is all quite neat, but with no flair at all. However, everything did feel quite solid as if it would last a long time.
There is no question that you do sit higher in the B Class than in other cars in its class, thanks to the unusual construction of the vehicle, and that is something that you will notice when you first get in, and also when sitting alongside a similarly sized car upon which you would seem almost to be looking down. That said, once I had adjusted the column and manually set the seat to where I wanted it, the driving position itself is no different to other cars. There is plenty of headroom, and with a lumbar adjuster for the seat as well, I found it quite a comfortable place to be. The seats themselves were finished in a mixture of MB-tex and some cloth of the type that you find pretty well ubiquitously on non-leather trimmed cars. There is lots of space in the back of this car, with ample leg room, though as it is not all that wide, three passengers might find the shoulder room less generous. There is a false floor in the boot, which can be set in one of two positions. The upper one is called for if you want a completely flat load bay when the rear seats are folded down. In this mode, there is a shallow stowage area available underneath. Perusal of the handbook suggests that you can actually remove the rear seats entirely, and this would clearly give you even more cargo space, but I did not try this, and suspect that it might be a slightly awkward task. In the cabin, there is a recessed cubby hole at the bottom of the dash, a cup holder alongside the handbrake, and a long tray which slides forward from under the central armrest, as well as door pockets which are moulded so they could house a bottle at their front, and a moderate glove box. There is also a net on the passenger side of the centre console.
You would not call the B Class luxurious, at least not in the specification of the test car. Aside from the optional autotronic gearbox, it comes with air conditioning, a decent, but quite simple audio unit with wheel mounted controls, cruise control, and after that all the features that are listed on the Mercedes web-site start to look like the bottom of the proverbial barrel is being scraped a bit. Sport trim adds 17″ alloy wheels, silver highlights around the headlights and on the rear bumper and man-made Artico leather on the seats, gear lever knob and handbrake.
Rumours abound that we will see a new B Class later this year, and on the evidence of this test, it is clearly needed. Whereas the packaging of the current W245 model is good, the engine and transmission are far from competitive by the standards of 2011 and need an urgent update. As to whether I could recommend the current model, I would have to say that in B180 CDi guise at least, the answer is “definitely not”. And that is before looking at the price. This is not a cheap car, with the entry level SE model retailing at well over £21,000. You could buy quite some Golf, Focus or Giulietta diesel for that money, or if you wanted more space, a C-Max, Mazda 5 or Zafira. You would have to want to be driving a three pointed star pretty badly to think that the B180CDi was a better deal than any of those, or a long list of other cars.