MIAMI BEACH, FL – It's not often that an automaker chooses to sell a car in Canada that isn't also sold in the United States. Without the economies of scale that the larger market provides, it's a very expensive proposition to do so, particularly considering the costs of emissions and safety certification.
Nevertheless, Mercedes-Benz Canada felt so strongly that its new B-Class model, introduced in Europe in 2005, would resonate with Canadian drivers, it chose to sell the vehicle here even though the U.S. passed on the opportunity.
It was a wise decision, for that first-generation B-Class became one of the brand's best-selling models in Canada.
But when a new second-generation B-Class was introduced in Europe in the fall of 2011, and the U.S. passed on it again, Canada was left out in the cold – temporarily. There was no 2012 model sold here.
Now that void has been filled. After a 14-month hiatus, the B-Class is back, all new and better in almost every respect than its successful predecessor.
My first impression of the second-generation B-Class, when it was introduced at the Frankfurt auto show in 2011, was that it's much more attractive than its predecessor.
It has a more contemporary form with a bold upturned accent line on the side and it seems better proportioned overall – primarily because of its lower roof-line.
The first-generation model was built on a unique platform with a sandwich-construction floorpan – said at the time to be an accommodation for a possible battery or fuel-cell powered version in the future, which never came.
As a result of that construction, the vehicle had a high roofline that made it look more like a mini-minivan than the compact hatchback it really was.
Built on an all-new platform shared with the A-Class (not sold in Canada – yet), the 2013 B-Class suffers no such impediment. It's a stylish five-door hatch that incorporates many of the styling cues and features of its bigger brethren, including a massive three-pointed star in the middle of the grille.
The other big difference from the first-generation model is in the powertrain. Rather than the previous choice of either a 134-hp, four-cylinder engine (B 200) or a 193-hp turbocharged variant of the same (B200 Turbo), there's only one engine offering in the 2013 model, which is now designated B250.
Waiting for availability of that new engine is one of the reasons the new B-Class didn't get here sooner, according to Mercedes-Benz Canada.
It's an all-new, turbocharged 2.0-litre four (designated M270), with ratings of 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. As well as being more powerful than the previous engines, it is smoother, quieter and a whole lot more fuel efficient.
Combined with a new, Mercedes-designed and built, seven-speed DCT (dual clutch) automatic transmission, in place of the previous CVT, and a standard ECO automatic stop-start system, it provides an 18% improvement in the B250's combined fuel-consumption rating.
Official NRCan numbers are 7.9 L/100 km, City; 5.5 Highway; and 6.8 combined – good enough that there's really no need to offer a diesel option in this market.
To put those numbers in perspective, the B250's combined rating is better than those of the Mazda3, Nissan Versa, Toyota Matrix and Chevrolet Sonic and equal to that of the Ford Focus.
And that's combined with the ability to accelerate from 0-to-100 km/h in 6.8 seconds, according to the company's figures. The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) recorded average figures of 7.2 seconds in real-world conditions at its annual TestFest.
Even more impressive, AJAC documented an 80-120 km/h acceleration time of just 4.5 seconds. Well more than adequate for passing slower traffic or merging onto expressways!
Like its predecessor, the B250 is the only Mercedes-Benz branded model with front-wheel-drive to be sold in North America. While the nature of the car seems a perfect application for all-wheel-drive, it is not offered in any market – yet.
Safety features standard
Being a Mercedes-Benz, the B250 includes a wide array of safety features as standard equipment, and offers even more as options.
Standard fare includes nine airbags (front, front-and rear-side, side-window curtain and driver's knee), Collision Prevention Assist, Attention Assist, Adaptive Brake Assist with Hold function, and more mundane but worthwhile fare such as rain-sensing windshield wipers and a heated washer system.
Of course, as with all new cars now sold in Canada, Electronic Stability Control, which includes ABS and traction control, is also standard.
Collision Prevention Assist is a new offering for Mercedes-Benz and the B-Class is its first application. It comprises some of the features of the Distronic Plus package introduced in more expensive models, including Forward Collision Warning and Adaptive Brake Assist.
Forward Collision Warning warns the driver, audibly and visibly, if the probability of collision with another moving vehicle ahead exceeds a critical value, at speeds from 30 to 250km/h.
If the driver applies the brakes in response, Adaptive Brake Assist ensures that the optimum braking force is applied. That function also includes a Hold function to prevent the car from rolling forward or back if the brake is released when stopped on an incline, as well as Hill Start Assist, Predictive Brake Priming and Automatic Brake Drying.
The new B250 also features a more upscale – more Mercedes-like – interior. Even the base model now features ARTICO faux-leather seat covers and there's a choice of either textured metal or two different wood trims on the instrument panel (IP).
Front and centre on the IP are three big, bright vent outlets, flanked by two others, that are cribbed from the SL and look either classy or tacky, depending on your point of view.
Above the centre-vents is a free standing information screen that looks a lot like an iPad sitting on its edge. According to the company, customers prefer that treatment to one that retracts.
The centre console is now free of a shift lever, given that it's become just an electronic stalk on the steering column.
Circular instruments are well placed and easy to read, the leather-covered steering wheel is home to a dozen different buttons and there's a host of others on the centre stack. Owners of other Mercedes-Benz vehicles will feel perfectly at home – others may need some time to adapt to them all.
One thing that has changed from past practice is the cruise control stalk. It's moved from its much-maligned position above the turn-signal stalk to down below it.
There's plenty of room for my 95th-percentile-plus frame, both front and – surprisingly for a compact vehicle – rear. The split-fold rear seats fold down to provide an almost-flat load floor, increasing cargo capacity from 486 to 1545 litres.
Standard features include multi-adjustable seats, tilt-and-telescope steering column, power windows and heated mirrors,100W audio system with CD/USB/Aux-In interfaces, a central COMAND control system for secondary functions, and much more.
Behind the wheel
My first stint behind the wheel of the B250 came at night, alone, trying to follow detailed instructions to get from the Miami airport to South Beach through city streets. It's a tribute to the generally intuitive nature of the car's controls that I was able to do so without any miscues or drama.
Further opportunities to drive the car in and around the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area over the next couple days left me generally impressed.
As noted above, it's a strong performer, especially when Sport is selected on the three-way mode switch. The difference in response from the default Economy mode is, in fact, quite amazing thanks to reprogrammed electronic throttle and shift programs.
That said, it's perfectly competent in Economy mode and, particularly in city traffic conditions, there's little real need for a higher level of performance.
There's also a Manual mode, in which you can shift for yourself with steering-wheel mounted paddles but, frankly, the 7G-DCT is so slick and effective it's wasted effort to do so.
The car itself is exceptionally quiet – so much so that tire noise from either the standard or optional Sport-package run-flats can get a bit disconcerting on expressways with recurring expansion joints.
Although the company says the ride quality of the second-generation run-flats is improved, they seemed to be the source of the only ride harshness I encountered on Miami's sometimes less than perfect streets, as the suspension system itself seemed quite supple.
Steering feel is agreeably weighted, although the feedback through the electrically-assisted power steering system seemed noticeably artificial at times – par for the course in today's cars.
While I didn't have a chance to push the car's handling limits, it seemed capable enough for any normal use, if not overtly sporty. In AJAC's testing, it received the highest score in the Family Car (over $30K) class for both steering and handling.
And it's an accomplished freeway cruiser.
Gripes? Not many. Despite its many seating and steering wheel adjustments, I never seemed to find a driving position with which I was comfortable.
And I found the head restraint to be positioned too far forward for me, keeping my head and neck from extending as far back as needed for comfort – an unfortunate situation in too many of today's cars, resulting from the need to minimize injuries in rear-end collisions.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the B250 is its value proposition. In spite of what is said to be $7,000 worth of extra features and equipment, Mercedes-Benz Canada has kept its base price at the same $29,900 mark as the previous models.
Combine that price with the brand's strong residual value and you've got a genuine bargain.
For many buyers, there's no real need to even look at the option list. But of course, like a dessert menu, that list is extensive and once you do look it's hard to resist.
For $2,650, there's a premium package that includes a panoramic sunroof, dual zone automatic climate control, heated front seats and more.
A $1,200 memory package adds powered 14-way front seats with 3-position memory, power lumbar support, auto dimming mirrors (rearview and driver’s side) and power folding exterior mirrors.
Then there's a $2,000 Sport package, with more direct steering, led running lamps,tail lamps and bi-xenon headlamps with headlamp washers, 18" bi-colour 5-twin-spoke wheels, summer performance tires, lowered suspension, perforated front rotors with MB logos on the calipers, stainless steel pedal covers and some unique exterior trim.
The lamp package can also be had separately for $750 and there's an $800 driving assistance package that adds blind spot assist and lane keeping assist.
Standalone options include parktronic parking assist, a navigation system with larger video screen and upgraded audio system, and a separate $480 rear-view camera option – the one additional feature I think should be standard in a car of this ilk.
All-told, it's an impressive package for the price – a Mercedes-Benz, worthy of the name, for under $30,000.