The Mercedes-Benz B-class has been a modest sales performer in New Zealand to date (just 150 cars sold last year) but the German brand hopes the all-new model launched this month will be the start of something big.
Not only has the B-class been launched at a start-price just under the magic $50,000 mark (a reduction of $4000 over the previous generation), but it's on an all-new platform that will also provide the base for up to five different future models, including the next A-class in 2013, an off-road-style crossover and even a four-door coupe - a baby CLS if you will.
The B-class is a radical departure from the previous model by being, well, a lot less radical. While the outgoing B-class and A-class were built around a bespoke double-floor (sometimes called 'sandwich platform') construction, the new car is based around a more conventional design that reduces costs and allows more sharing of components with other Mercedes-Benz models.
The new B-class retains the monobox profile of the old, but the car and occupants sit lower. Overall the vehicle height has been reduced by 50mm, but the driver's seat is actually 71mm lower. The legs-outstretched driving position (necessitated by the high, flat floor of the old car) has been made more upright - in response to customer feedback, says the maker.
What do you get for your $49,900? A car that's small on the outside (at 4400mm long, supermini size), big on the inside (the star-statistic is rear legroom that's just 12mm shorter than the luxury S-class) and surprisingly engaging to drive.
The base B180 has a 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine with 90kW/200Nm, returning 6.1 litres per 100km.
Step up to the $56,900 B200 and you get the same engine with 115kW/250Nm and exactly the same fuel efficiency. For the same money as the top petrol you can have the B200 CDI, which has a 100kW/300Nm 1.8-litre turbo diesel and 4.7 l/100km capability. Stop-start technology features on all.
They're all good to drive, thanks partly to crisp engine performance but even more because of a new Mercedes-Benz-designed dual-clutch robotised transmission, which the company calls 7G-DCT. It's standard on all models and does a marvellous job of interpreting the engine's power delivery, clicking between gears with absolute precision and giving superior performance and fuel efficiency to a conventional manual.
The fact that 7G-DCT signals the end of the previous B-class's gearless continuously variable transmission (CVT) makes it all the more sweet. It turns the car from a nicely packaged appliance into something that's actually fun to drive.
The muscular torque characteristics of the diesel, combined with the fact that it's offered at no price premium over the equivalent petrol car, make the B200 CDI a no-brainer if you're shopping higher than B180 level.
Despite the sharp pricing, the B-class comes with some high-tech equipment. All models have automatic parking, a radar-based collision-warning system and Mercedes-Benz's Pre-Safe pre-emptive crash technology (previously only seen on larger models). The B180 runs on 16-inch wheels, the B200 brace on 17-inchers.
Also standard-fit, even on the entry car, are Thermatic air conditioning control, rain-sensing wipers, a media interface with full iPod control, Bluetooth and cruise control.
The point being that you could happily drive away in a sub-$50k B-class and be happy. But not many who choose the Three-Pointed Star will do that of course, which is why the brand is also offering four specific option bundles: Vision, Comand (hey, that's how they spell it in Stuttgart), Exclusive and Driving Assistance.
The Vision package ($3150) gives you bi-xenon lights, the all-important daytime running lights and a panoramic glass roof. Comand ($3800) offers a larger dashboard control screen with sat-nav, Internet connectivity and a reversing camera, as well as an upgraded Harman Kardon stereo. Exclusive ($3150) is only available on the B200 versions and brings lots of leather, heated front seats, dual-zone climate air conditioning and higher-quality trim detailing.
Finally, Driving Assistance ($3150) gets you cutting-edge stuff such as Distronic Plus (cruise control that automatically keeps you the right distance behind the car in front, even right down to 0km/h), blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assistance.
They all sound good, right? Adding all four packages together could give you arguably the most high-tech, luxurious small car on the road, but would also add $13,250 to the price.
So a $70k B-class is entirely possible. And entirely likely I would think, because despite the value it's well-known that early adopters of new European cars go for the top-shelf stuff.