I arrived at the press drives of Mercedes’ facelifted A- and B-Class intending to come away with a review of the former, a family-sized, premium-badged hatchback which counts the BMW 1-Series and Audi A3 as its chief rivals.
It is hot property; easily attainable on a PCP deal for many, but with the sort of aspirational badge that’s all the rage. So much so that it regularly features in Britain’s bestseller lists and is the car most likely to be bought on finance, according to a recent survey. So a new one – even if it’s only a midlife tweak – is big news.
As for the B-Class, it’s always been something of a poor relation; its mini-MPV form about as far out of fashion these days as it’s possible to get. Even when it wasn’t quite so unfashionable, its gawky looks meant it struggled to come anywhere near the sort of chic desirability of its lower, sportier sister.
But Mercedes has stuck with it doggedly – and, as it turns out, with good reason. Because if you can bear not to follow fashion, it turns out the B-Class is the one to have. Here’s why...
Welcoming, airy interior
Surprisingly good handling
Not as versatile as rivals
Back seats could be more spacious
The fashionable choice
I began with the A-Class. The range starts with a 1.3-litre, 134bhp petrol engine badged A180. Next up is a 161bhp version of the same engine, the A200; there’s also a 2.0-litre, 148bhp diesel – the A200d – and a plug-in hybrid A250e.
There are four versions. Sport Executive is the entry-level, with heated front seats, faux-leather upholstery and a reversing camera. AMG Line Executive adds sportier looks and racier seats, AMG Line Premium gives red-stitched upholstery and dual-zone climate control, while the AMG Line Premium Plus adds adaptive LED headlights, a panoramic sunroof and 19-inch wheels.
I tried an A180 AMG Line Premium first. Inside it looks good but feels snug; there’s an odd contrast between the airiness of the low centre console and the tightness of the way the door handle and armrest intrude on the other side.
The large door grab rubs against your knee if you’re tall, which can be annoying, and the driving position could be better; the steering wheel doesn’t extend very far for reach, so if you’re longer of leg you have to sit with quite a knees-bent position.
In the back it’s even tighter, with barely enough room for a tall adult to sit behind another and more huge, imposing armrests which push you into the centre of the seat. The door apertures are small too, and the low, tapering roofline will make it hard to load children. At 355 litres, the boot is also tight.
Still, the facia is good, with lovely switchgear and a proper climate control panel (which contrasts with BMW’s recent decision to move the climate controls into the infotainment touchscreen). It all looks and feels pretty high-end.
On the road
The engine feels strained and coarse when pushed hard and lacks the lovely vibrancy of BMW’s 1.5 or the punch of Audi’s. You never really feel the extra urge from the turbo kicking in; the power delivery is linear, which is good in some ways, but it means there’s no glob of torque to access for decisive overtaking.
The ride is more comfortable than a 1-Series M Sport or A3 S-Line, but it’s still on the firm side. The A-Class lets you feel the bumps, but at least it does a decent job of rounding them off, while the body control is good with no float or wallow. The DS 4 is more comfortable still, left-field rival though it may be.
Handling? Well, it’s OK, with lots of bite from the front end and a pleasing amount of grip and traction, but the body doesn’t feel as well tied down as a 1-Series and the steering isn’t quite as intuitive.
From A to B
Somewhat underwhelmed, I wasn’t expecting great things. After all, if the revised A-Class is so middling, surely the dadsy B-Class will hardly stand a chance.
The B-Class range mirrors that of the A-Class. Sport Executive is again the entry-level version, though here it has dual-zone climate control; AMG Line Executive adds ambient lighting, on top of the sportier body and interior styling. From there on up, equipment levels are largely the same.
The same goes for the engines. The one exception is that the smallest A-Class unit, the 134bhp 1.3-litre petrol, isn’t available in the B-Class, so the range starts with the B200.
Comparing like-for-like, the B-Class is around £1,700 more than the equivalent A-Class, which makes it quite expensive; our test car costs almost £40,000, an eye-watering sum for an MPV.
Yet while the B-Class’s value proposition is questionable, it’s certainly worth the premium over and above the A-Class, as you realise almost immediately you climb aboard. It’s like you’ve just got back in the A-Class – except it’s much better. The key difference is the extra space and the raised seating. This means visibility is much improved, while the larger windows mean the interior feels lighter and airier.
The driving position still isn’t perfect – the pedals are set quite high, so you feel the urge to move your seat back to get your feet at a more comfortable angle. Again though, the steering doesn’t extend as far as you might like, so you have to find a balance between being able to reach the wheel and not getting a crick in your ankle.
It lacks the silly door grabs of the A-Class though, meaning there’s more room laterally. The B-Class also boasts more storage. As with the A-Class, the infotainment screen is good and not excessively vast, whilst the software that powers it generally works very well; the separate controls for climate are again much appreciated.
It’s in the back that the B-Class really pulls ahead of the A-Class. As a family car, there’s no contest. The higher seating and larger doors mean fitting a child seat is easier, while adult passengers will be glad of the extra legroom.
Granted, there’s a bit less space in the back of the B-Class than in a BMW 2-Series Active Tourer – the most direct competitor – and whilst the seat folds 40/20/40, it doesn’t slide like the BMW’s. With that being said, you can set the seat backs more upright to increase boot space at the expense of passenger comfort.
The B-Class’s 440-litre boot is larger than the BMW’s, so it has the edge in terms of outright luggage space. It’s also quite practical, with a low load lip and a useful, square shape.
This extra space is all very well, but it probably means a compromise on the road, right? Well, no.
Most notably, the B-Class rides bumps in a markedly better way than the A-Class. It’s also more comfortable than the BMW and most other small SUVs buyers have gravitated to instead of MPVs.
True, there’s a noticeable, albeit not intrusive, tremor over really rough surfaces but for the most part the B-Class is smooth and well-behaved, coping admirably with the sorts of potholes that are an ever-greater factor on our roads.
With its soft ride and high sides, you might reasonably expect it to go to pot in bends, but that’s not the case. Granted, the steering is also over-assisted and almost entirely lacking in feedback, but there’s lots of front grip and plenty of traction, so the engine’s power never overwhelms the driven front tyres. The body control is good, too.
As a result, the B-Class remains stable and assured, meaning that it always feels safe and confidence-inspiring – and can even be quite enjoyable if you press on a bit.
What about that extra power? This B-Class is still only a 1.3, but you’d never guess, given how broad the power band is. There’s instant response from fairly low in the rev range and a lovely, broad swathe of torque that carries you up the rev counter dial.
That means there’s plenty of urge whenever you need it. The B is quieter, too, only really raising its voice as the revs soar; most of the time, you’ll barely know it’s running. Except for a bit of wind rustle from the mirrors, there’s little other noise to speak of.
The Telegraph verdict
You might think the B-Class is a bit of an also-ran; the type of car that’s at death’s door. But only an hour in its presence reminds you why compact MPVs used to be so popular – and why, by rights, they should remain so, given they’re still hard to beat as family cars.
Next to the A-Class, it is obviously less instantly desirable, with its more bloated styling and fustier image. But there’s no escaping the fact that it is the better car.
Granted, the A-Class still has a place. If you’re childless and seek sleek, image-conscious transport that looks and feels the part, it fits the bill – though I’d specify the better engine and smaller wheels, which you can have in Sport Executive form.
If you require a family hauler with a Merc badge on the nose, the B-Class might be less stylish, but it’s vastly more useful and deserving of its time in the sun – rather than a life in the A-Class’s shadow.
Telegraph rating: Four stars out of five
On test: Mercedes-Benz B200 AMG Line Premium
Body style: five-door MPV
On sale: now
How much? £39,025 on the road (range from £35,125)
How fast? 139mph, 0-62mph in 8.4sec
How economical? 46.3mpg (WLTP Combined)
Engine & gearbox: 1,332cc four-cylinder petrol engine, seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, front-wheel drive
Electric powertrain: 48V mild-hybrid starter-generator motor
Electric range: 0 miles
Maximum power/torque: 161bhp/199lb-ft
CO2 emissions: 140g/km (WLTP Combined)
VED: £255 first year, then £165
Warranty: 3 years / unlimited miles
Spare wheel as standard: no (not available)
BMW 220i Luxury Active Tourer
168bhp, 47.9mpg, £37,200 on the road
BMW’s take on the same concept has been replaced relatively recently and it’s every bit as impressive as the B-Class. The ride is firmer, the boot smaller, but there’s more space in the back seats. They’re more versatile, too. The lack of a proper climate control panel is off-putting, but there’s little to choose between these two – they’re both very good family wagons and worthy alternatives to de rigueur SUVs.
Volkswagen Touran 1.5 TSI 150 R-Line
148bhp, 42.8mpg, £39,000 on the road
There’s something incongruous about the Touran R-Line – a car that exemplifies the phrase “worthy but dull”, tarted up with bumpers that look like they’ve been pilfered from a Golf GTI. It’s expensive too, but beneath it all, the seven-seat Touran – the last non-premium mid-size MPV left on sale – is extremely competent at transporting family. View it as that – and nothing more – and you won’t be disappointed.
Audi Q3 35 TFSI S Line
148bhp, 40.4mpg, £38,645 on the road
Audi doesn’t make an MPV – the closest you’ll get is this SUV which, by dint of being such a thing, delivers far poorer fuel economy. While it is a touch more affordable than the Merc, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as nice inside. What’s more, it has less equipment and isn’t as nice to drive or ride in. Your heart may tell you to buy it, but trust me – you’ll be better off in a B-Class.