2006 Mercedes-Benz B-Class
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Review and photos by Laurance Yap

Barcelona, Spain – Your first reaction to seeing a B-Class on the road here in Canada is likely to be, “This is a Mercedes?”

You’ll probably react that way because of the way the B-Class looks: it’s unlike anything else in the company’s line-up. To begin with, it’s small – a lot shorter than the company’s sedans – and tall, almost like a shrunken minivan. It has neither the flowing, formal lines of Mercedes’ mainstay models like the C, E, and S-Classes, nor does it have the low-slung swoopiness and Formula 1 styling cues shared by its sports models. As such, at least in North America, it’s a case of one of these things being not like the others.

That’s okay. Mercedes figures you’ll get used to it, for three reasons. First, the Europeans did; the A-Class, on which the slightly-larger B-Class is based, is now a mainstay on continental roads, and indeed is one of the more popular premium-branded cars in its compact family-car segment. Second, because the little B is only the first of the Mercedes people-movers we’ll get this year, with the gigantic R-Class to follow later this year. And third, because frankly, the packaging is so brilliant that it’s impossible not to love.

Fundamentally, managing to find so much room in such a small car wasn’t rocket science. When people sit more upright, in higher seats, their legs stretch more below them than in front of them; this means an increased feeling of roominess without a consequent increase in footprint.

2006 Mercedes-Benz B-Class
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But with the A-Class, and now with the B, Mercedes went a step further by packaging the engine and other drivetrain components under a “sandwich” floor, meaning the cabin could now extend almost right to the front of the car. For something that casts a shadow smaller than a C-Class sedan, the B-Class is amazingly roomy, with more interior volume than the much larger E-Class.

The sandwiched floor pays more dividends than just interior space, however. It makes this compact MPV incredibly safe, too: in a frontal collision, the engine slides underneath the cabin rather than intruding into it, making for superb crash-test scores that are on par with any other big Mercedes. The dual floor also facilitates the introduction of alternative drive-trains in the future. Mercedes has built several variations of the A-Class on which the B is based with hybrid drive-trains and fuel cells, all of which conveniently fill the space between the two floors, and leave the cabin and the roomy cargo area untouched.

2006 Mercedes-Benz B-Class

2006 Mercedes-Benz B-Class
Click image to enlarge

That cabin is one of the nicest in the Mercedes line-up, even when stacked against the ultra-luxe fittings of an S or a CL. What makes it special is the combination of space, quality, and atmosphere. In addition to enough room to truly stretch out, the plastics, fabrics, and leathers used in the B’s interior are equal or superior to those used in other Benzes, especially those, like the S-Class, which were released some years ago in a time when the company’s interior quality was slipping. What’s cool is the interior architecture: airy and open, with big windows and bright instrument graphics, it looks decidedly modern, with the quality finish and solidity of all the fittings simultaneously giving it an upscale feel.

If you’re a Mercedes traditionalist, you’re more likely to be bothered by the B’s front-drive architecture than by its innovative packaging or bright interior. Not only is the B200’s four-cylinder engine mounted transversely, and not only does it drive the front wheels, but it also comes standard with a manual transmission, an option which has been less than popular on Benzes of the past. To the company’s credit, most of the time you can’t really tell which end of the car’s doing the driving, thanks to a distinct lack of torque steer (despite all the torque) and steering whose feel remains remarkably uncorrupted given the front wheels’ dual duties.

2006 Mercedes-Benz B-Class
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Part of that pleasure comes from two impressive powerplants: the base engine is a 2.0-litre engine generating a strong and smooth 136 hp, while the up-level B200 turbo adds a turbocharger for 193 hp and a strong, elastic surge of torque. Both of them are silken as can be, quiet when you’re cruising, and delightfully snarly if you’re being a hooligan. But the best part may be the manual transmissions (five-speed in the B200, six-speed in the Turbo): shift feel, once one of the primary reasons NOT to order a Mercedes with a manual, is as good in the B as it is in the excellent SLK. It’s a pleasure to row the little B through its gears.

Drive aggressively, and you’re never going to mistake the B for a sports car, but it is as comfortable, secure, and responsive as you would want for a people-carrier. Once you acclimatize to the high-set driving position, you realize that it only feels like the body rolls a bit because you’re that much further up, and that the multi-link suspension keeps the tires glued resolutely to the ground no matter how bumpy the corner. Cornering grip is impressive even with the base wheel-and-tire package (a sport pack with bigger, stickier tires will be available).

2006 Mercedes-Benz B-Class
Click image to enlarge

Like all Mercedes, the brakes are superb, and are augmented by traction- and stability-control systems that can’t be switched off, but whose thresholds have been raised enough to allow fairly spirited driving without undue intervention. The only downside is a marked sensitivity to crosswinds thanks to the car’s tall architecture; it was noticeable at the elevated highway speeds at which I was traveling in Spain, but might be less of a problem on our slower, more congested roads.

How the B-Class will fare in Canada – in terms of sales and in terms of its perception as a Mercedes – when it goes on sale later in the summer will depend in large part on how the pricing works out. With C-Classes starting at under $40,000, the same number would seem to be a natural place for a B200 Turbo to end up with a few options; figure on $35,000 for the Turbo and, if we’re lucky, the base model for around $30,000, or maybe even under that magic mark. At that price point, it’ll not only serve as a brilliant way to bring new, younger buyers into the Mercedes family, but will also be a very attractive option for forward-thinking urbanites who would never have considered the brand before. As such, it would be a win-win proposition.

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