With the arrival of the B Class, Mercedes is well on the way to commandeering half the alphabet to describe its exploding range of new cars. We have the A Class, the new B, the C, E, S and CLS saloons, the SL and SLK sports cars, the ML four-wheel drive, the CL and CLK coupés, the V Class MPV and the SLR supercar. Shortly, an R Class – a cross between estate car, MPV and four-wheel drive – and a renewed heavy-duty off-roader called the G Class will be joining this phalanx of machinery.
Apart from the sheer scale of its range, Mercedes has become well known lately for quality troubles that have fouled a reputation founded on dependability. The company has acknowledged its failings and is battling to overcome them, but that hasn't stopped it applying bold price tags to its products, the new B Class suffering particularly from this policy.
A tall, wide, five-door hatchback, it offers much the same format as the A Class, but on a grander scale. So you get relatively lofty seating for five, a decent boot and a choice of six engines (four petrol, two diesel) propelling the front wheels. It's a multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) in the mould of the Renault Scenic and Ford C-Max. B Class prices start at £16,995 for a 1.5 litre petrol, which is over £3,000 more than you'd pay for the cheapest 1.6 litre C-Max, and the Ford is at least as well made and equally powerful.
Mercedes sees the B Class as a premium MPV (ie, you pay more), and although it's true that this car is tidily put together, no more craftsmanship is evident in the construction of its cabin than in the Ford. Still, the Benz cabin is an undeniably pleasant place to be – a clean and logical dashboard layout lifted by slices of decorative (and real) aluminium. There's luxury in its plentiful space too, and in the seating position, which provides all occupants with a commanding view. But forget about carting a fifth person for long distances – the hard hump in the centre of the back bench will soon have them begging to leave.
Surprisingly, the calm of the cabin is undermined by the petrol engines, which are rather noisy at this money, making the diesels the more attractive buy if you can afford them. The cheaper 1.8 CDI costs £18,995 and provides 109 bhp, an average output for an engine in this class, especially as it's a 2.0 litre rather than the 1.8 that its badging implies. But it proves to be rather agreeable, pulling effectively in any gear.
The B Class Mercedes is a versatile, well-presented family holdall, and it would be a rational choice were it not for the price. It rides well too; you won't be rising to indulge in a for-the-hell-of-it dawn drive in this car – the steering is too vague, its agility less than deft – but that is not the point.
Price £18,995 (Mercedes Benz B 180 CDI)
Max power 109 bhp
Max torque 184 lb ft
Max speed 114 mph
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Fuel consumption 50.4 mpg
CO2 emissions 146 g/km
Ford C-Max 1.8 TDCi Ghia £17,420
Cheaper than the Mercedes, at least as well made and a more enjoyable drive; only the badge will deter some.
Vauxhall Zafira 1.9 CDTi Club £17,835
Also well made, an excellent all-rounder and with seven seats. As with the Ford, badges aren't everything.