Is Stuttgart's Latest People Carrier Finally Ready For The States?

2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class

Much in the vein of Audi's Sportback models or BMW's slow-to-expand Gran Turismo range, Mercedes-Benz thinks it's time to get excited about various sizes of its "sports tourer" subgroup. Nearly all of the aforementioned are still trying to find proper footing in their bid to be first choice for the world's practical-minded customers, but the B-Class has had more success than most. Since the launch of the first generation in 2005, around 700,000 of these little boxes have been sold – despite the U.S. being conspicuously left off the list while both Canada and Mexico got theirs. The car's number one market by far has been the car's fatherland, Germany. Number two? China, where sales of the car rose 46 percent in 2010.

Frankly, this strain of Mercedes-Benz product has yet to set our collective car-aficionado loins aflame. That shouldn't be interpreted as a total failure, however. These people-toting premium German compacts drive all right and offer great interior space with flexible cabins to thrill our family-minded selves, but the unemotional R-Class and current thrill-free A-Class (as well as the "I don't have sex anymore" first-gen B-Class) could use some evening workshops in how to rekindle the passion in a relationship. Why can't people carriers also get on the scene like a sex-machine? (Bless you, Godfather of Soul.)

This second-generation B-Class we've just driven around eastern Austria came away from its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show showered in commentary. Our impressions at the reveal were mostly positive, but we had to hold off on the huzzahs until we actually drove it. The idea of something from Mercedes in this size is fine, but we've been craving some more excitement and a well-executed premium interior – it's only appropriate considering there's a large Three-Pointed Star collecting bugs out front. Otherwise, why not go for something like, say, the Hyundai Elantra Touring or its Kia Forte five-door sister car? The Mazda5? Why not splurge instead on a less spacious but far hipper Mini Countryman?

2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class side view2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class front view2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class rear view

First, there really is nothing in the U.S. market quite like the B-Class. (You might reasonably be tempted to rebut "Yeah, and maybe there's a reason for that!" Hold off.) We give Mercedes credit for hitting one where they ain't. Of course, BMW will soon hatch its own 3 Series GT, and there's little doubt that Audi will follow suit with something sharing an A3 Sportback chassis at some point, but they ain't here yet. The closest thing that's already out there and a lot like this is the European Ford C-Max that Dearborn has promised for U.S. consumption in hybrid and all-electric forms.

Following a few long drives of the current top-of-the-line B200 with its all-new, 154-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder, we still cannot freely use the word "passion" when it comes to talking about driving the B-Class, despite being fitted with a turbocharger and direct-injection.

As it turns out, the motoring-on-eggshells driving style seen on Austrian roads suits the B-Class, and/or vice-versa. As in the Netherlands or Scandinavia, the heavy hand of the local police has cowed one and all to driving either precisely at the posted speed or handsomely below it. Here, anonymous motorists will happily turn in your license plate if they believe you're a threat to the motherland when you pass them going more than 5 mph over said limit. Austria and the new B-Class are both very nice and safe places to be, but they aren't terribly exciting.

2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class headlight2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class wheel2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class rear window2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class taillight

Predictably, this B-Class is meant to be a much bigger player worldwide than the first generation. The most intriguing aspect of Mercedes' new modular chassis used for both the A- and B-Class ranges is that it's been engineered at great cost to work well globally, all while easily accommodating nearly every form of alternative powertrain with minimal modification. Hybrid electric, natural gas, full electric, hydrogen fuel cell, or good ol' internal combustion as tested here, you name it, the B-Class is meant to accept them all with cost-effective aplomb. The heart of all this is the structure beneath the rear seat passengers called the "Energy Space" concept.

The two, possibly three, things at which the B-Class absolutely must excel are here in this package. Passenger space for one to five people is no less than great. Overall exterior height in this generation is down by 1.8 inches, but interior headroom is up on what was already pretty good space in the outgoing model. Go for the panoramic glass roof and the head space actually increases even more. The new chassis provides a lower floor height, so the seat squabs all around can be mounted lower as well. At this point, it's basically possible to walk right into the B-Class' cabin without having to raise your feet that much off the ground, and egress is even less of an effort. Legroom is a prize-winning 38.4 inches in back, too, so it's practically nicer to lose the "Shotgun" war. Exterior length is up 3.5 inches, while the wheelbase has increased 3.1 inches and width is up marginally.

2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class interior2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class front seats2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class moon roof2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class rear cargo area

The next key point in this sort of vehicle is always going to be cargo space (and the flexibility thereof). In the best-case scenario with Benz's optional Easy Vario Plus setup (around $600) that allows the adjustable rear seats to slide 5.5 inches fore and aft, cargo is 17.2 cubic feet at a minimum. With the EVP's height-adjustable rear floor, the minimum in back can grow to 23.5 cubic feet and the maximum with rear seatbacks folded down explodes to 54.6 cubes. Include the front passenger folding seatback (another part of EVP) and effective cargo room hits 70.0 cubic feet. Load-in height is comfortably low, and the space into which things get slid is nicely squared off and open wide, though the seatbacks do not lock down to create a totally flat floor.

For us, the "third must" for this new B-Class to be successful was Daimler's need to improve the interior quality and appointments of the B-Class to true Mercedes levels, as the old one was a real letdown. Faux leather surfaces do a spectacular job in both look and feel here. For 2012, the B-Class receives a proper Mercedes option menu that includes four themed choices for exterior and cabin: Chrome, Sports, Night and Exclusive. Our white B200 was a Sports Package model, and its Artico synthetic hides and clingy seat fabrics were a treat, as was its three-spoke multi-function steering wheel stitched up in perforated leather. Nice touches like bright steel pedals and sill plates also helped our tester look and feel significantly finer than anything we've ever seen on a B-Class.

2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class dash vent2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class speedometer2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class shifter2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class navigation system

Starting up the new 1.6-liter transverse-mounted M270 four-cylinder turbo with the latest direct injection (as seen on Benz's V6 and V8 BlueDirect engines introduced last year), the sound is good and quiet. The previous B200 Turbo received a 2.0-liter four-cylinder good for 193 hp and 207 pound-feet of torque, so despite being 12 percent more efficient, this 1.6-liter turbo is actually down by 39 hp and 23 lb-ft. While the previous range-topper hit 60 mph in under in 7.5 seconds, this 1.6 takes about a tick longer. Fear not – a more advanced 2.0-liter turbo will be ready for when the B-Class goes on sale in the U.S. in early-mid 2014, in sync with the car's planned midlife facelift.

While pushing this B200 on hilly two-lanes and overtaking brisk Autobahn traffic, the 1.6-liter sounds like a very hard working little four-cylinder, which, of course, she is. It's a shame that noise-vibration-harshness concerns could not have been addressed even more so. Not that the noise is extraordinary, but we can't help but feel that it could be tuned more pleasantly for a Mercedes-Benz compact.

2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class engine

The Sport Package comes with 17-inch alloys and a (slightly) sport-tuned suspension that lowers the B-Class a further six-tenths-of-an-inch, alterations that make it handle like a Ferrari compared to the last B-Class. Still, the 3,075-pounder, sitting on the same platform that will carry the lighter and tighter A-Class, comes off chubby in its physics. Something's just not quite willing whenever pressed. The best solution is to back off and drive like a senior citizen. No offense meant; we all get older. It's no wonder that the average age of B-Class buyers has been 59 years. Daimler's goal for this sleeker and more premium and full-featured B-Class is to lower that average to 50 years of age. Think hip yet humble empty-nester.

Both the standard six-speed manual and roughly $1,800 new 7G DCT dual clutch automatic are complete redesigns. Either one mounts like a big flatter barnacle to the flywheel side of the engine, and seeing the whole assemblies out of the car proves just how tight the setup has been designed to be. We tried both and we can endorse either as valid choices, with the caveat that neither one excites us with its feeling of smoothness or sophistication. With the automatic or manual, there is an Eco mode for absolute dawdling efficiency around town or out on the highway, and the dual clutch in our trim adds a Comfort, Sport, Manual mode button on the middle dash. Apart from its noisy holding of gears, we preferred Sport mode while testing since it seemed mapped very well in the dynamic sense. Manual mode is slow to react and frequently we couldn't even notice if the shift had occurred yet.

2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class driving

Get us the forthcoming more powerful 2.0-liter and we'd probably like both lightweight gearboxes more, but they are still not as all-around pleasurable as the small-dimension premium goodness coming out of BMW, Mini, VW and Audi. Our preferred setup of the day was actually the six-speed manual as mated to the new 134-hp (and 221 lb ft of torque) 1.8-liter turbocharged diesel in the B200 CDI; the characteristics of all the parts in that combination just seem to feel right at home. Under harder acceleration, too, the noise was actually of a more pleasurable lower octave.

The braking on these sportier optioned setups is almost always a compromise when it comes to what is essentially a family car. The Sports Package includes fancy "Mercedes-Benz" branded discs that are vented in front and solid in back, but with nothing more interesting to speak of, really. The action after pedal input hasn't changed much at all from the previous B-Class. Having the electronic handbrake in this class of car is really nice, though.

Speaking of nice features, a lot of the things available on big boys like the CLS are available for the first time in this more practical segment. (i.e. You can make your B-Class as high profit margin percentage-wise for Daimler as an E-Class thanks to its massive options list.) Aside from the very latest direct injection technology, the B-Class comes standard with Collision Prevention Assist (complete with very enthusiastically beeping sensors seemingly everywhere), plus Attention Assist that warns when you're drowsy and shows you the steaming coffee cup graphic on the dashboard. Pretty much every single safety and communication option is available, too, in what Mercedes-Benz is calling "democratization of safety." That means you can outfit your B-Class with adaptive high-beam assist, blind spot assist, lane keeping assist, speed limit assist, brake hold function, Distronic Plus, and so on and so forth. It is a phalanx of safety soldiers on the march.

2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class rear 3/4 view

So, American buyers will first get the new A-Class on this chassis in 2012, followed by this B-Class sometime in 2014. The latter will be priced, according to our shrewd calculations, at around $28,500 for the more potent turbo four still to come (barring extraordinary swings in currency rates). If this medium-powerful B200 turbo we tested came over now, think roughly $23,900 before taxes and options.

As the first demonstration of the B-Class' Energy Space concept's flexibility, we also expect a range-extended variant that uses a 1.0-liter three-cylinder and lithium-ion battery pack to be available at launch. In between the A- and B-Class North American intros, Mercedes will also show a small crossover, a mini-CLS-like four-door coupe, and a shooting brake. The A-Class, B-Class, and four-door small coupe are definitely aimed at the U.S. market, but the little softroader and shooting-brake will likely remain outside our borders.

It's all part of filling the needs of our country, a nation increasingly willing to consider smaller and greener cars as long as buyers don't have to give up premium style and accommodations. As for this B-Class, it's reasonably good work, but we expect still more from the facelift to put our lingering American-sized questions to rest.