When you think about multipurpose vehicles (MPVs), you probably think about the Renault Scenic that dominated the segment in the 1990s and beginning of the century. Alternatively, you might have been a fan of the Toyota Verso.
Both were seen daily parked outside schools across the country, but as the segment has declined, so has the number of options available. Neither of these models are locally available any more. Instead, school car parks are full of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and the modern phenomenon that is the crossover. Internationally MPVs are making a comeback, particularly in Europe where people are downsizing and seeing the practicality of a large hatchback with plenty of interior space and a decent dose of versatility. Of course they also need a vehicle that can fit into tight parking spaces and the MPV again fits the bill.
One of the stalwarts of the segment globally has been the Mercedes-Benz B-Class, which was first launched in 2005 and in both first and second generation guises has sold over one million units worldwide. The latest generation arrived in 2011 with a far more dynamic nature than the original and a massive leap in terms of exterior and interior design. Gone was the generic MPV styling, replaced by something a bit edgier and more Mercedes. Now the company has updated the model and even Thomas Weber, member of the board of management of Daimler AG responsible for group research and development, hinted at the reason: “It is perhaps no surprise that the competition is now discovering this segment.”
The competition? Mercedes flatly denied it, but there is no doubt that the update to the B-Class is in response to the imminent arrival of the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer, launching in Europe now and in South Africa in the first quarter of next year. The big guns were all in attendance at the international launch of the new model on the island of Mallorca. The fact that there was a launch at all is a little surprising given that I can cover all the updates in less than a paragraph, but the threat of BMW entering this segment clearly has Merc wanting to stamp its authority and referring to its B-Class as a segment pioneer.
So what are the updates? First, there are slightly revised front and rear bumpers. Second, there are new headlights that echo the design of those in the C- and E-Class models. These headlights will also be available as LED lamps. Inside there is a larger 8-inch infotainment screen available as an option or as standard if you take the Comand Online infotainment package. There is also a choice of 12 ambient lighting colours in the same vein as those on the new S-Class. There are three new equipment lines: Style, Urban and AMG Line. These can be further enhanced by adding Night, Exclusive and AMG Exclusive package options.
The final major addition is the inclusion of Collision Prevention Assist Plus. I got to test this at the Santa Ponsa harbour. Essentially it compensates for the distracted driver, which I was as I stared at the $150-million (R1.6-billion) Amevi super yacht moored in the harbour. As I was gawking, the car continued at a steady 30km/h, then suddenly braked to a stop in front of an obstacle bearing the picture of another B-Class. It is an impressive system that uses camera technology to detect that the driver is not paying attention to a car in front. The technology is still in its infancy, so for now it works only with cars because it has to see a reflective surface. But you can expect it to be able to react to pedestrians and livestock sooner rather than later.
My drive around the twisty coastal roads of the island were all in cars equipped with the 4Matic all-wheel drive system, which is not coming to South Africa, but is increasingly popular in Europe. It’s even set to become legislation in some parts of the US where roads are slippery in winter. I did get to experience the B220 CDI turbodiesel with its 125kW and 350Nm and the B250 petrol with 155kW and 350Nm. When the cars arrive in South Africa in the first quarter of next year there will also be a 100kW B200 CDI and a B200 petrol. Pricing will start at R390 762 for the B200.
The all-wheel drive obviously added slightly to the weight, but as I found with the pre-facelift version, the new B-Class is a very different animal to the first generation. The tight and narrow roads gave little opportunity to really test the dynamics of the car, but it is responsive and provides handling that the average driver will never really explore the limits of. The steering is a little overcompensated though, and in the twisty turns it was requiring far too much turn to provide the required angle of steering response. The interior matches up to many of the other Merc models, particularly those with which it shares a platform such as the A-Class and GLA.
On that note, the company is not done when it comes to new models on this platform. Next month it will reveal the new CLA Shooting Brake, a car that is squarely aimed at the Audi A3 Sportback. Sadly, particularly in view of the popularity of the four-ringed favorite, Mercedes South Africa will not be bringing that model here at this stage.
The Shooting Brake will be followed by a CLA convertible, although no dates have yet been given for the official announcement of this. For now, Mercedes is hoping to steal a little of BMW’s thunder with its minor update to the B-Class. Whether it works remains to be seen, but it’s been a while since we have had a proper fight in the MPV market, so I am planning to settle in and watch the battle with interest.