I sat anxiously in a showroom Mercedes CLS while the salesman processed my paperwork for a test drive. Even in repose, the CLS is a magnificent machine. Soaking in that heady blend of luxury and gravitas, I wondered if my spin in the B200 (available in Canada and Europe) would capture any of that Mercedes quintessence. Sometimes, brand extension works (Bentley Continental GT) and sometimes, it doesn't (VW Phaeton). So does the B 200 fit in Herr Doktor Daimler's pantheon of pomp and circumstance?
The B 200's rakish styling is a farrago of Mercedes' styling cues. The diminutive people mover's front sports the familiar three-bar grill with a giant Merc badge (Yo! Yo!). The B's rear echoes the C-class and M-class, while the side profile offers up the same rakish swoops as a CLS– squashed between two Mack trucks. On a tall glass of water like the B 200, the coupe-style lines are distinctly Picasso-esque.
The B 200's interior has less Mercedes-ness than a Ford F-150. The Benz' seats are as firm as an old German frau, fabricated from a fabric that's coarser than her husband's three-day beard. The center armrest is made of an odd rubbery plastic carefully designed to remind Gen X of their childhood Ninja Turtle action figures. To make room for the e-brake, the armrest is truncated on its right side– exactly where my elbow sought relaxation. German engineering has apparently overlooked the fact that I'm not apt to use the e-brake whilst driving.
On the positive side, the B 200's controls operate with silky-smooth precision. And the radio delivers wikkid beats, with the added satisfaction of one button per function ergonomics. Beyond that, Mercitude is strictly (and expensively) a la carte. Heated seats, Bluetooth adapter, Bi-Xenon headlights with "active curve illumination," sunroof, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel; it's all gonna cost ya. Bottom line: even a fully-loaded B doesn't have enough luxury to earn the right to wear the Mercedes moniker.
Thanks to B 200's "sandwich concept," there's plenty of room for four real adults. Like Ye Olde VW van and Toyota Previa minivan, the B 200's engine sits under the floor, beneath the passenger cell, inclined downwards. The arrangement frees up space for passengers. More importantly, it provides more snout for crash deformation and helps in lateral collisions (occupants are seated above the impact zone). It also raises passengers up, in accord with the mini minivan gestalt.
Once underway, the B 200's family DNA finally asserts itself. Though the petite four-door isn't even on speaking terms with the word "fast," it goes about its business in the traditional stately Mercedes fashion. Bizarrely enough, most of the credit's due to the mini-Merc's Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT or "rubber band job"). Hooked-up to a 143hp in-line four (a 193hp turbo is… more money), the tag team motivate the 2900-lbs. car with genuine grace.
The CVT seamlessly serves-up the optimal gearing ratio as the situation demands. Accelerate slowly and the CVT keeps the mini mill at the ideal torque point. Floor it, and the CVT seamlessly gets taller while the engine revs get wilder. Depress the Sport button beside the shifter and seven virtual gears keep performance on the enthusiast's preferred side of the oomph / fuel economy trade-off.
Like Mercedes' A-Class models, B 200 is a front wheel-drive machine. And a damn fine one it is too. The electromechanical power steering is sharp and direct, on the same level as an Audi A3. The B 200's handling is a delight. Throw the lightweight into the twisties and it's equal to the task, easily dispatching turns, on-ramps and curves without a squeal. All hail the B's low slung engine and suspension, blessed with a new parabolic rear axle in back and McPherson struts and wishbones up front (both with twin-tube gas-pressure shock absorbers, coil springs, and torsion bars).
The ride quality is excellent. The B 200 exhibits zen-like calm as it glides over most of the road's imperfections, transmitting very little of the commotion to its blissful passengers.
So what we have here is a de-contented Germanic budget luxury car with snobby aspirations. I'm not sure if it works. Everyone knows the B 200 is a Merc, but it's not a "real" Merc– which is the only fathomable reason someone might pay $32k for the non-turbo stripper. Seriously, in the same price point you have similar Eurosnob value and better handling in a BMW MINI or a Golf GTI– neither of which would dare insult you with such low-tech seating and unacceptably rubbery, plasticky interiors.
That said, the B 200 is a capable, pleasant, fine-riding small automobile. It brings no dishonor to the Mercedes brand. But in a field crowded with credible competitors, it's simply too expensive for a relatively clunky-looking machine with a pedestrian interior.