First off, I don’t own this car, but rather I am basing these comments on renting one for a weekend. I rent a lot of cars when I do contract work out in Europe. Recently, I was given a B180 for a weekend of mixed and challenging driving across two major European cities, Brussels and Amsterdam, plus the approximately 200km of highway between them – there and back again, for a total of about 7 hours in the car.
I am definitely a car enthusiast, and love keeping my ear to the ground when it comes to new models. I first saw an ad for the B-class Merc on a billboard in Brussels about six months ago. Like most Merc fans (my everyday drive is a 2000 CL 500, a.k.a the S-Class Coupe) my first reaction was confusion. Do Mercedes really need another model? Is this thing a supermini, a people carrier, front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or what? Such was my confusion, when I received the keys for the rental, the first thing I did was look under the car to see if there was a rear transaxle. There wasn’t, so I concluded the B-class is front wheel drive.
Looking around the car instantly draws you in to the quality of this latest creation from the men from Stuttgart. There are some achingly cool “light-tube” effect sidelights accentuating the style of the front headlights. My rental had 18,000 miles on the clock - rental cars have hard lives, and yet the interior looked perfect, suggesting high build quality throughout. Stepping into the thing was easy, given the high waistline and sitting position. Swinging my butt into my low-slung CL is difficult in comparison. Clearly, Merc have designed this car with families and older drivers in mind.
I recently rented a Mercedes C-class, and was glad to see that the designers have pretty much copied the exact same suite of instruments and equipment over. You most certainly will not complain about lack of toys. Pretty much everything is controlled from a central computer screen, which I notice, is not touch-controlled like some rivals are offering. I am now used to the scroll-wheel system (a.k.a i-Drive) that controls most of the functions, but I can see how a newbie could get seriously lost here. Merc have been good enough to complement this with a sprinkling of physical buttons (e.g. Sat-Nav, Radio) that jump you to where you want to be, quickly. I was able to change the language settings from French to English within a minute or so; not bad seeing as I was doing it all in a foreign language.
If anything, they may have gone a little too far with the toys – there are gadgets that tell you when you’re following another car too closely, over the speed limit, or have been driving too long without a break. I can see how after a bad day you might want to put your foot through the screen. That said, this car has nothing compared to some of the options you can tick on Merc’s S-class. That thing even has a system that monitors your eyes to see if you are nodding off. Welcome to 1984…
On the road, it’s not quite like anything I have driven before. Around town, you have to think of it as less of a sporty Golf GTi and more of a “mini – MPV”. The high profile, small wheels, and rather numb steering and braking give a distanced, detached driving experience. I had an automatic, but I don’t think that a manual gearbox would do much to remedy this. This is not a car for people that want to feel every corner. I do have to commend the way it performed on the highway though. It was much stabler and reassuring at high speed than a mid-sized saloon I used to own, a Volvo S40. The Volvo used to get buffeted around by heavy goods vehicles, whilst the B-class just stays firm and planted.
The engine was just fine for the vehicle. I didn’t know quite what to expect, stepping down from the 5.0 litre CL to the 1.8 litre B-class, but the little unit was more than adequate on the city and highway. It was also wonderfully efficient. 450km of mostly highway driving with some urban traffic on either end cost me about 35 litres in fuel, or about 45 MPG by my reckoning. More power would have been fun, and I think if you regularly are going to be carrying lots of people in the vehicle, you should go for the biggest engine you can. I would avoid the smaller B160, which I think would only have borderline enough guts for the job.
I noticed the fuel tank is pretty small, but this is offset by the good MPG.
Maneuvering and parking in city environments was not great. The high waistline and rather bulky bumpers means I was guessing more than seeing where the sides of the vehicle were. The B-class has big, thick pillars all round, which restrict the rear view. The rear window is also comically tiny, about the size of four legal documents laid end to end. If you’re thinking of buying one of these, take some time in the test drive to make sure you can park it.
In conclusion, I would recommend this car for anyone who wants something classy, practical, and frugal. It’s certainly not for boy racers, though.