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First drive: Mercedes-Benz B-Class - on sale September 15



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Mercedes has decided it is time to hit back at the volume brands that have narrowed the quality gap to its premium products.

Its B-class is being pitched squarely at drivers of hatchbacks, MPVs and SUVs. In fact, everything from Toyota Rav4 to Vauxhall Zafira; Golf Plus to Mondeo estate.

By introducing the range at £16,995 for the B150, Mercedes is expecting to tempt motorists to trade in their current car for the chance to upgrade to a large hatch bearing the coveted three-pointed star. It expects to move 1,500 units this year, and 6,000 to 7,000 in 2006. At least 75% of these sales will be conquest sales.

The B-class’s target audience is young and well educated, and Mercedes expects 65% of its customers to be aged less than 40. Unlike its smaller A-class sibling, mostly bought as the second car of the household, this model is designed to be the customer’s main car.

Six powerplants are available, comprising two turbodiesels (B180 CDI and B200 CDI, both 2.0-litre) and four petrols (B150, B170, B200 and B200 Turbo), all of which are currently offered in the A-class.

The range includes two trim levels, standard and SE. Buyers will be underwhelmed by the standard trim, which includes steel wheels and black exterior details, so many are expected to spend £950 upgrading to the SE.

At this level the B-class has a more eye-catching appearance, gaining 16in alloy wheels, chrome body details and a chrome radiator grille. Inside, the SE gets leather steering wheel, gearknob and handbrake lever, plus automatic headlight and wiper controls.

Both B200 models automatically get SE specification, and the B200 Turbo receives even more equipment and a sports pack.

Depending on the depth of the buyer’s pocket, the B-class can benefit from a list of more than 50 extra-cost options, including a removable passenger seat system and two choices of panoramic sunroof.

In the versatility stakes the five-seat B-class is left behind by volume MPVs like the seven-seat Zafira or six-seat Mazda5, with their ample storage areas. Yet its passenger seats can be folded down easily, creating luggage space 60 litres larger than a C-class estate.

Naturally, the car has an array of safety systems too, including ABS with Brake Assist, ESP, traction control and six airbags. The B-class also benefits from Mercedes’ new steer control system. When the car begins to oversteer, this automatically increases resistance in one direction to encourage the driver to correctly steer against the skid.

Mercedes expects it to perform well in EuroNCAP crash tests later this year. The A-class, with which it shares some architecture, gained five-stars for adult occupants and four stars for child passengers. A similar sandwich floor concept is used on the B-class, ensuring that in a frontal collision the engine and transmission is pushed down beneath the cabin rather than back into the occupants.

Strengths: Premium brand, quality, huge array of options
Weaknesses: The options soon push the price tag up
Opportunity: Turns the aspirations of the young and successful into reality
Threat: Other mini-MPVs beat it on value and versatility
The USP: It’s a Mercedes family hatch
Prices: £16,995-22,795
Engines: B150: 1498cc; B170: 1699cc; B200, B200 turbo: 2035cc; B180 CDI, B200 CDI: 1992cc common-rail turbodiesel
Transmissions: Five-spd manual, six-spd manual, CVT auto
Performance: 0-62mph: 7.6-14.2secs; top speed: 108-140mph
Efficiency: 34.4-50.4mpg; 146-95g/km CO2
Rivals: VW Golf Plus, Vauxhall Zafira, Ford Focus C-Max

Behind the wheel

The B-class is another step away from Mercedes’s saloon-led heritage but it promises to help restore the marque’s reputation for build quality.

The top-class craftmanship works with its elevated driving position to give occupants a strong sense of security, boosted by the accurate speed-related power steering and confidence-inspiring brakes.

Despite its high outline, the car does not generate excessive wind noise at motorway speeds and remains a capable, comfortable cruiser. And thanks to its standard selective damping and speed-sensitive power steering, it copes well during bends and never feels unsettled on rough roads.

Of the two diesels AM has driven, the B200 is a favourite, offering torquey, flexible and refined performance.

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