Model tested: Mercedes-Benz B180 CDI
Price as tested: $54,800 (CVT $2500; luxury pack $3900; louvered sunroof $2400; Metallic paint $1100)
Distance covered: 445kms
Road tester: Russell Williamson
Date tested: August 2006
Mercedes Benz has a long history of selling diesel cars in Australia but along with the rest of the European marques has, of late, dramatically increased the number of diesel models it offers.
Among the latest additions is the compact B-class diesel. The petrol variants of this bigger brother to the A-class were launched late last year but the third diesel version only arrived in Australia in June.
Priced from $44,900 for the five-speed manual version, the B180 CDI shares its recommended retail price with the entry level B200 petrol version and after a 180-odd km drive on the press launch through country Victoria in June (for more click here), we wondered why anyone would opt for the petrol engine. With the diesel offering greater fuel economy and better driveability, it seemed the natural choice.
But after spending a week in the CVT automatic version of small five-door hatch and clocking up 445 km with an even split of city and country driving, some of those first impressions have changed. Not dramatically, but there are some areas where our opinion has moved after spending more time in the car.
First of these is in the refinement of the engine. At highway speeds on the original country launch drive, it seemed relatively quiet and refined and for CarPoint's more recent stint on a freeway/country drive to Phillip Island, that impression remained. However, at lower urban speeds and at idle there is a very discernible diesel tick both outside and inside the B 180 CDI. It is still a far cry from the truck-like diesels of old, but having driven a range of other maker's diesels recently, the B180 CDI's 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel is not among the quietest.
It does, however, do a good job of motivating the little hatch with acceleration off the line being quite perky.
Factory figures say maximum torque of 250Nm is on tap from just 1600rpm. This translates into strong low to midrange power which makes it easy to get ahead of the traffic flow around town. It is also quite frugal and against the official ADR 81/01 combined consumption figure of 6.2lt/100km, CarPoint achieved a commendable 7.2lt/100km average.
Without any gear ratios as such, the CVT is delightfully smooth as the revs climb and if you feel the need to get a semblance of a more traditional automatic transmission, it does offer seven electronically-determined "shift points" that can be manually changed via the shift lever.
Around town the manual shift pretty much falls into the ‘why bother’ camp but out on the highway, it becomes more useful. Despite the CVT's willingness to get the car off the line, for overtaking it is decidedly sluggish to scroll back and raise the revs sufficiently to make the most of the engine's midrange grunt.
What this means is that in auto mode any overtaking manoeuvres require an extra degree of careful consideration before moving out into the oncoming traffic. Using the manual shift, you can determine when and where the transmission sets itself and although the response is not lightning quick, it is better than leaving the transmission to figure it out for itself.
Like the smaller A-class, the B-class uses Mercedes' sandwich concept construction to create a car that is compact outside, yet spacious inside and as such it rides almost as high as a compact SUV. In order to counteract any adverse body roll due to the increased height of the vehicle, the suspension setup is on the firm side. It features variable dampers that automatically adjust for road and driving conditions but it is definitely biased towards providing solid handling.
And on the road, the B-class does handle quite well under moderate provocation. It feels sturdy and secure on the road and doesn't suffer from any excess body roll through corners.
The B-class is a family tourer and as such it is not likely to be driven too hard but it remains a competent and predictable handling car that is only slightly let down by its light and lifeless steering. If things do get a little out of kilter there is the requisite complement of safety nannies including ABS, ESP and traction control to ensure you stay on the tarmac.
On the flip side, the ride quality of the car varies quite significantly depending on the road surface. On the smooth freeway and over undulating roads it is well controlled and comfortable -- helped by very good supportive seats -- but small sharp, pitted tarmac tends to upset the ride quality quite a bit.
It only becomes harsh over really poor surfaces but even on typical patchwork country and urban roads it feels less than comfortable as it jiggles along.
Where our impressions haven't altered is with regards the B-Class’ interior space and versatility. Everything is where it should be and there is a decent list of standard kit including an excellent single-CD audio system. Our test car was fitted with the optional luxury pack including wood and leather trim and a range of chrome highlights that added to the quality ambience of the cabin.
Space up front and in the rear is good for adults and the rear 60/40 split seat back folds easily to expand the already good-sized luggage area.
As a grown up A-class or as an alternative to the ubiquitous compact SUV, the fronmt-wheel drive B-class does a good job. It’s also a lot more stylish and classy.
It might be let down a little on the ride front and the diesel engine is not the quietest but if you are in the market for something small and suitably upmarket with plenty of flexible space, then it is worth a look.