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.