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April 4, 2006

Review: 2006 Mercedes-Benz B 170

Visions of Mercedes-Benz usually involve long stately limousines, flashy roadsters, or Kimi Raikkonen’s own chrome-plated weekend drive.  What to make then of this, a stubby hatchback that proudly displays a large three-pointed star on its snout?  Mercedes’ ad campaign ostensibly states that this car is for everybody—moms, dads, families, lovers, young and old.  That immediately raised the alarm: any such formula usually results in a muddled product suitable for nobody.  Those contemplating a first purchase of a Mercedes via the B-Class can take heart: the ad planners may be sending out mixed messages, but the product itself is well suited for its particular audience.

The entire program began with the first-generation A-Class hatchback.  This was an innovative car packed with technology, yet priced to compete with the likes of the Volkswagen Golf.  Innovation came primarily in the packaging.  The A managed to squeeze a cabin several sizes bigger than its compact exterior would suggest.  It did this by packing the engine and transmission tilted slightly backward and projecting into the car’s floor.  A two-layer “sandwich” floor allowed the car to achieve crash test safety at par with the E-Class sedan.  In a frontal collision, the engine and transmission would be driven downward into the car’s floor, instead of into the cabin.

The B carries on with that construction concept, and expands on the A’s appeal by, well, being an extended version.  The increase in length translates directly to an even roomier cabin and increased luggage space.  The B may have similar proportions to subcompact hatchbacks like the Honda Jazz, but it’s nearly half a meter longer.  A sizeable luggage area can be enlarged by utilizing the 60-40 split-fold rear bench.

The driver’s seat is mounted high, mainly because of the sandwich floor.  A slight hop and you’re settled into the part-leather seat.  The middle part of the upholstery is checkered cloth, a throwback of sorts to the seventies.  The cabin is airy and logical, in the current mold of the M and SLK-Class.  Controls are solid and ergonomically placed.

The 1.7 liter inline-4 under the hood produces 114 hp and 155 Nm.  The continuously-variable transmission may erase all traces of shift shock, but it seems to sap the power of the engine.  With 1310 kg of car to carry, the acceleration is leisurely.  During testing for the Car of the Year, the B 170 could barely keep up with several hatches that even put together, would not equal the price of a single B-Class.

The B lacks some features that we might expect to be standard at this price range.  The steering wheel tilts but doesn’t telescope; seats and aircon are manually operated.  One feature that is available, but you have to pay extra for is an enormous panoramic moonroof.

On the plus side, it doesn’t skimp on safety: it has dual airbags, and ABS and electronic stability control to help avoid triggering them.

With that, what do we make of the B-Class?  It’s not a toy car like the BMW 1 Series, which sacrifices nearly everything in pursuit of a dynamic drive.  It’s evidently not a comfortable long-distance cruiser like Mercedes’ other products either.  The B excels in providing stress-free city driving, where its light steering and tall driving position makes it a welcome companion.

So we come to the last question, perhaps the only one for most people: is it a Mercedes?  In style, solidity and ownership prospects, apparently yes.  In performance—best to go for the B 200, and make sure to save a little extra for the moonroof.

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