The B-Class is a long way from being the most stylish, or sexiest, Mercedes around, but this third-generation model is practical, comfortable and useful. The new diesel engines are good (and apparently still what Irish buyers want) while the cabin gets the same high-tech gloss as the A-Class.
In the metal
Just as football is a game of two halves, so the Mercedes-Benz B-Class's visual appeal is divided into two distinct areas. And for one of those, the exterior styling, it's hard to get away from the disappointment.
OK, to be fair, the previous B-Class was no oil painting and this one is an improvement. If you squint a bit, there's a faint hint of the late, lamented (in some quarters at any rate) big R-Class MPV about the styling at the front. Sadly though, for the most part, the B-Class's exterior design is at best amorphous, at worst downright bland. From a distance, and from any angle that hides the big three-pointed star grille from your view, it could almost be any medium-sized tall hatchback. Such is the aesthetic penalty of an MPV - in maximising interior volume, you inevitably end up with something that looks a bit like an egg. Our test car's shimmering silver paint, 'Night Package' option that blacks out the chrome and the big AMG-style alloy wheels do their helpful best with what's on offer, but ultimately this is a style-free zone.
Thank heavens, then, for the cabin that is nothing short of a triumph and which really, hugely, lifts the B-Class's rating in this category. The basics of the interior are lifted directly from the current A-Class, so you get the same all-digital widescreen setup for the instruments and MBUX infotainment, and the same line-up of cool, complex-looking air vents that look more like jet engine components than items of a ventilated nature.
You also get excellent quality levels. Yes, it's true; the column stalks (one for lights, wipers and indicators, the other for the gear selection) look and feel cheap and nasty, and there are some distinctly Aldi-spec plastics around the lower reaches of the door panel, but pretty much all the rest of the cabin looks and feels brilliant.
We've said it before, but it bears repeating here, that the MBUX screens in front of the driver are a genuine game-changer in how you design and lay out the interior and instruments of a car. The graphic design is handsome and expensive-looking (a factor that a surprising number of car makers, switching to digital displays, still get wrong) and the flexibility and customisability of the layouts is both amusing to play with and genuinely useful. There is a bit of a faff while you're learning which is the best combination of steering wheel controls, touchscreen and centre-console-mounted trackpad to use to get to the menu option that you need, but it's worth the effort in the end.
Then there's the 'Hey Mercedes' voice-control digital assistant. Now, this little slice of AI suffers from the same problem that you'll find with the likes of Apple's Siri, or Amazon's Alexa - sometimes it just doesn't understand what you're saying, and you have to work out what to say to get the response you're looking for. At other times, it's eerily sci-fi. Simply say 'hey Mercedes' and the system responds with a calm, soothing, feminine voice who inquires as to how she may be able to help you. 'She' can fiddle the satnav, work various infotainment functions and even open the sunroof, but as ever it can be a bit hit-and-miss. She has a sense of humour, though. When we decided to mess around by asking 'Who's your daddy?' she answered 'Karl Benz' with perfect, HAL9000 deadpan delivery.
One of the best features of the MBUX system is the new augmented reality for the satnav. This can overlay big, blue arrows onto a live image taken from the forward-facing parking camera, so you've no excuse for a missed junction anymore.
Away from the microchips, the practical basics of the B-Class's cabin are solidly sorted. There's plenty of room for heads and legs, although the centre rear seat is probably too narrow for that third child safety seat, something that highlights Merc's decision not to create a longer, seven-seat, B-Class to compete with the BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer. That decision, says Mercedes, was driven by the desire of customers to keep the B-Class to a relatively compact size (it's 4.4 metres long), and likely too to the fact that the target audience generally skews older, rather than young, expanding families. At 455 litres, the boot is decent, rather the outright generous, but it's flat of floor and square of shape. And, from next year, there'll be an option to have a sliding rear seat for the B-Class, which can move through 140mm fore and aft, and which can boost boot space to more than 700 litres. More traditionally, the rear seats fold 40:20:40 to allow for maximum flexibility.
On the safety front, the B-Class's cameras and radars can scan the road up to 500 metres ahead, and autonomous emergency braking comes as standard. There's also a driver attention monitor, and optional items such as active cruise control, lane-keeping steering (a lane departure warning system is standard) and a blind spot monitor that continues to work when you're parked, sounding a warning if it detects you're about to open your door into the patch of an oncoming car or cyclist. There's even the option of active emergency steering, which detects if you're suddenly trying to swerve the car out of the way of danger and boosts the steering system to help you put just the right amount of lock on.
Also, potentially, adding to the B's safety credentials is the 'energising comfort' system. This can use a combination of air conditioning, music, lighting, even cabin scents, and small movements of the electric seats to help keep you alert and free from cramp on a longer journey.
Let's face it, a B-Class is never going to be your choice for that brain-cleansing, early Sunday morning strop over the Wicklow Gap. It's just not that kind of car. That said, within the limitations of its focus on being a practical, comfortable, safe, family car the B's not too bad on the driving front, and might actually be better than the A-Class on which it's based. I say 'maybe' because the roads around the island of Mallorca, where Mercedes brought us to test the car, are incredibly smooth, almost glassy, and so it's all but impossible to tell if the B-Class erases the A's bugbear of a too-firm ride quality.
Certainly, on this experience it does - the ride comfort is impressively smooth and comfortable, and it makes the B-Class a genuinely relaxing car to drive. Will that translate to Irish roads? We'll start finding out in February when the first models arrive here.
As for the handling, it's fine. For a tall, relatively softly-sprung, front-drive car, it's not bad, and the steering's weight and speed initially has you thinking that there might be some fun to be had. There isn't, though. Press on and the B-Class leans and understeers, and you soon realise that while the mountain roads around Palma look like the best rally stage PlayStation never designed, there's no point in trying to drive this family bus like Colin McRae. Better to back off, relax, and let the torque do the work.
There is torque, but perhaps not as much of it as you might think. The B-Class gets first dibs on Mercedes' 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine in front-wheel-drive form (we've already driven it in rear-drive format in the C-Class and E-Class). It's strapped to a new eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (lower-power engines, which will arrive in due course, get the old seven-speed DCT) and it manages to be very smooth, with decent mid-range oomph and some solid official economy figures. That oomph is only decent, though. Despite having 150hp to play with, the 200 d version of the engine has a mere 320Nm of torque, a figure achieved by some rivals with their 1.6-litre engines.
That said, it might be folly to trade-up to the 220 d, powered by a 190hp version of the engine. We had a brief spin in that too, and it seemed noticeably noisier and gravellier than the 200 d. Given the B-Class's mission in life, it's probably better to put up with the torque deficit and gain better refinement.
Should we be driving a diesel at all? There are new B 180 and B 200 petrol models available, using the latest 1.33-litre turbo engine co-developed with Renault and Nissan, but according to Mercedes Ireland, diesel is still where it's at when it comes to Irish buyers. While diesel sales, across the board, have shrunk, for Mercedes, apparently, there's no mad dash away from diesel power by its customers. Not yet, at any rate. When it does happen, the B-Class will probably be ready - mild-hybrid, plugin-hybrid and fully-electric versions are in the offing, but not for a while.
What you get for your money
Mercedes Ireland won't be announcing prices for the new B-Class until closer to the February on-sale date, but we do know that the ball-park starting price is around €31,000. That makes it somewhat expensive for a five-seat family wagon - most rivals, aside from BMW, are well into seven-seat territory at that sort of price point. Standard kit will include a lot of the safety equipment (not all, though) and the smaller versions of the MBUX digital dash, but doubtless, as this is a Mercedes, the options list will be long and ruinous.
With the best will in the world, the new Mercedes B-Class was never going to be one of those sparkling, summer-morning-favourite-drive cars. It is what it is - a stoic, sensible, practical, family (or downsizer's) car that maxes out on space and comfort and doesn't bother overmuch with rewarding keen drivers. Within its wheelhouse, it's impressive, competent, and hugely useful.