MIAMI, Fla. -- "No model change in the history of Mercedes-Benz has ever seen so many new developments introduced in one fell swoop," says Thomas Weber, member of the board of management and responsible for group research and Mercedes-Benz cars development.
That's a bold statement coming from a company known for the machine-gun pace of its product development and whose catalogue of electronic advancements is diverse enough to rival NASA for mind-numbing acronyms. Indeed, I would have thought Mercedes' list of electronic nannies, chaperones and assistants is so complete nothing could be added. Of course, that just means I underestimated the ingenuity of German engineers to festoon their cars with ever more gadgetry.
So the B-Class sees the first incorporation of Mercedes' new Collision Prevention Assist in any of its cars. As described by Chris Goczan, Mercedes-Benz Canada's chief product planner, the new system, incorporating the company's Forward Collision Warning and Adaptive Brake Assist systems, can automatically stop a vehicle from any speed up to 250 kilometres an hour if it detects an impending collision. It's an impressive bit of kit, expanding the envelope of similar systems beyond just preventing low-speed contretemps. Throw in nine air bags (dual fronts, front and rear sides, side curtain window bags and knee air bag for the driver), Mercedes Attention Assist (which alerts you if you're a balding old codger in southern Florida and you become distracted by the, er, scenery) and a Blind Spot warning system, and you have an impressive list of safety gadgets for any Mercedes, let alone one costing just $29,900 (exactly the same as the last generation B-Class despite having what Mercedes-Benz Canada says is $7,000 in upgrades).
Indeed, when scoping out the reasons why Canadians bought the previous-generation B, that last paragraph pretty much sums the sports tourer's attraction to its clientele -- namely that it comes complete with the most prestigious of hood ornaments, doesn't cost a banker's ransom, and that, thanks to its incredibly sturdy construction and manifold safety systems, your survivability in any kind of automotive holocaust will be exceeded only by Keith Richards and the proverbial cockroach.
What has changed for 2013, however, is that the new B-Class is now a much better automobile. For instance, the B250 is 50 millimetres lower than before (the seats are 86 mm lower), putting the centre of gravity closer to terra firma. It alleviates what Mercedes Canada claims was the most common complaint with the previous car, namely that it felt like it was driving on stilts. Even without upgrades to the Sport package -- recalibrated steering, lowered suspension and 18-inch (versus the standard 17-inch) summer performance radials for $2,000 -- the B250 no longer corners like a rhinoceros on roller skates. No, the B250 is not a "hot hatch" nor will it chase a Golf R down a twisty road, but it more than fulfils its mandate as a comfortable people hauler while still maintaining at least a modicum of the sportiness its newly aerodynamic styling promises.
The same applies to the all-new turbocharged engine. Peruse the mini-Merc's powertrain specs -- 208 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque and its new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission -- and you might think the B250 is sporty. And, indeed, pedal to the metal, the little hatch responds as if Mercedes has laced its Wheaties with a little Clenbutoral. Mercedes claims a zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour acceleration time of just 6.8 seconds, proficient by any standard and absolutely stellar for a little family-oriented hatch.
But, it is not really sporty. Fast? Yes. Sporty? Not quite. That's because even though Mercedes was adamant about adding some oomph to the B-Class' wheeze, its pump-it-up program was equally focused on fuel economy. Yes, the completely redesigned 2.0-litre four gets a massive boost from its fairly large turbocharger. But, the DCT seven-speed manumatic, especially in its Eco mode, is calibrated for reluctant shifting -- the better to reduce gas-wasting downshifts -- and the result is an often tepid response to small to medium throttle applications.
Of course, you could just paddle-shift the gears or switch over to Sport mode, but, while both alternatives will get the desired acceleration, throttle response then becomes a little too abrupt. Certainly, the calibration doesn't allow for the fine throttle control that is absolutely necessary for any car to be considered truly sporty. The biggest improvement Mercedes could make to the B250 is a middle-ground transmission calibration that allows the kind of firm, but moderate, acceleration used in most passing situations.
The B250 does, however, manage to marry its outsized performance with surprisingly frugal fuel economy. Mercedes-Benz Canada claims a 6.8 litres-per-100 kilometres combined (city/highway) NRCan rating, sufficiently parsimonious to catch anyone's attention (and also about 20 per cent reduced from its much less powerful predecessor). And even though we averaged 9 L/100 km, that was in mostly incredibly slow stop-and-go traffic that perusing Florida beach wildlife engenders. Credit the engine's new direct-injection system for allowing the B250's elevated 9.8:1 compression ratio that greatly improves part-throttle efficiency. And, of course, that seven-speed transmission that so assiduously tries to minimize engine speed.
Most importantly, the new B250 is now the mini "sports tourer" Mercedes always intended it to be. The lowered floor, for instance, allows a more upright seating position, another accommodation previous B-Class owners asked for that generates class-leading spaciousness. Despite the sit-up-and-beg driving position, there's more headroom than ever before, 1,047 mm, in fact. Mercedes also claims that, at 976 mm, the B250's rear-seat legroom exceeds that of the E-Class and even its S-Class behemoth. The new B250 also offers an optional system that allows 140 mm of fore and aft adjustment of the rear seats to increase luggage capacity from a significant 17.2 cubic feet to seriously spacious 23.5 cu.ft., still with the seats up. Fold the rear seats down, and the cargo capacity grows to a positively cavernous 54.6 cu. ft.
Cost-wise, the B250 offers tremendous value, especially for something wearing Mercedes' three-pointed star. That (barely) sub-$30,000 MSRP includes not only the aforementioned boosted engine and its accompanying high-tech transmission, but some excellent Artico faux leatherette, LED daytime running lights, an onboard infotainment system with an LCD screen, run-flat tires and steering wheel paddle shifters. Even the optional packages are (mostly) fairly priced. Adding wood and leather to the interior boosts the price by $1,700. A Premium package replete with a panoramic sunroof and dual-zone climate control air conditioning (not to mention heated seats) costs $2,650. The exception is the $2,400 Mercedes-Benz Canada wants for the Distronic Plus system, which essentially costs a tenth of the cost of the whole car to merely add distance control (to the car in front of you) to the already standard cruise control system. Someone in Mercedes' pricing department dropped the ball on that one.
It's one of the new B's few foibles other than its sometimes-recalcitrant DCT transmission. The new car keeps all the previous version's utilitarian pragmatism, throws in a heaping dollop of performance, packages it all in a more stylish silhouette and prices it so we, the hoi polloi, can enjoy the wonders of Mercedes without further weakening our household debt-to-income ratio. Not only is it now a true Mercedes, it's a cost-effective Mercedes.
-- Postmedia News