First drive: 2013 Mercedes B-Class

Vienna, Austria • Since its launch in the fall of 2005, the B-Class has been a solid seller for Mercedes-Benz. Its design followed the time-honoured two-box theme — one box for the engine, the other for everything else. The 2013 version sticks to the basics, but it does so with much more dynamism. The face is jewelled, there are distinctive character lines through the side profile and the tail is neatly bustled. It’s a good-looking rig that also comes with more than its fair share of utility.

The platform that supports the two boxes is clean-sheet new — so much so that the sandwich-style platform used in the outgoing model has made way for a regular chassis … but with a twist. This platform was designed to accommodate all future powertrains. The first iteration will support the regular gasoline/diesel-powered models. However, by partially sandwiching the rear section of the platform, it will support the hardware and componentry needed for an extended-range hybrid, a full-electric vehicle and, down the road, a fuel cell derivative. Clever stuff, but it does not stop there. The first models will be front-wheel drive; however, the platform will also support an all-wheel-drive system (read a Haldex system). So watch for that option down the road.

The front box houses all-new powertrains. As it stands in Europe, all B-Class gasoline-powered models will come with the same 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder. It uses the latest direct injection and variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams along with an intercooled turbocharger. What’s up in the air at this point is what will arrive in Canada in the fourth quarter of 2012 (yes, a year from now!) — both power and engine size-wise. In Europe, the B 180 tested pushed 122 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque (insufficient for Canada), while the B 200 benefited from 156 hp and 184 lb-ft (good enough for a zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour run of 8.4 seconds). The latter is achieved by bumping the turbo’s boost pressure from 11.7 to 14.7 psi. Acceptable, but it’s well below the current B 200 Turbo’s 193 hp. As such, Canada will get a different engine, albeit from the same family. At this point, the engine is a state secret. However, the North American engine will use the same block but with a longer stroke. This means a 1.8L derivative. Regardless, the new B-Class engines will develop more power than the outgoing models.

All of that stated, the new 1.8L turbodiesel offered in Europe is a sweetheart. The B 200 diesel twists out 134 hp and significantly better torque — 221 lb-ft at 1,600 rpm. It pulls hard and fast (9.3 seconds to 100 km/h) and delivers a European rating of 4.4 litres per 100 kilometres (the 1.6L gas engines average 5.9 L/100 km). One can only hope the diesel will be available in Canada.

The transmission coming to Canada is a new seven-speed double-clutch transmission (DCT). It is M-B’s own design and every bit as good as any offered. The broad array of ratios spreads the power out nicely, and the shifts are quick and well coordinated. The models tested (both Sports) also featured three modes (Eco, Normal and Sport) and paddle shifters. This added a crisper feel to the test cars when driving quickly.

The Sport models also benefit from a variable ratio steering system and a sportier suspension (all models earn a new four-link rear suspension) that has been lowered by 15 millimetres and features adaptive dampers. The latter are mechanical and alter the damping characteristics according to the loads placed upon them. They worked very nicely on the drive — body motion was controlled, yet the ride comfort proved to be excellent. Ditto the steering. It is direct in a straight line and the progression when turned off centre brings a reassuring precision.

Now to the second of the two boxes. The interior materials are top-notch and, in the test car’s case, there was a nice splash of aluminum trim with a honeycomb pattern that brightened up the predominantly dark dash. The equipment on the test cars ran the gamut — everything from a heated eight-way power driver’s seat, large dual-panel sunroof and the usual power toys to a navigation system with a backup camera. There was also an optional 425-watt harman-kardon sound system along for the ride — it blasted crystal clear sound through 12 well-placed speakers. As with the engine, the manner in which the Canadian car will be equipped is a work in progress.

As for the rest of the second box, well, it offers utility. To begin with, there is plenty of space for five adult riders, along with the requisite utility. The rear seats not only recline, they slide back and forth by 140 mm. This increases the rear rider’s legroom or maxes out the seats-up cargo capacity at 23.5 cubic feet. Folding the 60/40-split folding rear seats down opens up 54.6 cubic feet of squared-off space and a flat floor. Beyond that, the trunk floor can be placed in two positions — the raised position flattens the floor when the seats are folded, while the lowered position increases the capacity height. Similarly, the front passenger seat can be folded forward, which allows longer items to be carried inside with the tailgate closed.

While the new B-Class is still almost a year away from hitting Canadian roads and what actually turns up is far from known, it is destined to hit the road running. It has a much keener style and significantly more substance. Power, sadly, remains a mystery, but the European models provided an enjoyable drive capable of delivering uncompromised utility.