Strengths and weaknesses:
- interior comfort and space
- great looks
- nice handling
- reasonable performance
- buyer perceptions
- can get pricey
Just like the winds that blow across the Straight of Northumberland to whip up the storm clouds over Prince Edward Island, the climate is fickle around the entry luxury market; so it was sort of appropriate to find ourselves on the wet, windy island for the changing of the Mercedes B-Class.
The B-Class was brought over from Europe in 2005 strictly for the Canadian market as an entry point to the Mercedes-Benz line. This marks a freshening of the styling in preparation for a new generation “B” expected in 2011.
In Canada, the B-Class is made up of the B200 and B200 Turbo. Both are powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and mated to either a standard manual (five-speed on the B200, six on the turbo model) or an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT) with seven programmed steps to simulate gears and let the driver totally bypass the benefits of a CVT.
The U.S. took a pass on the B-Class but is reportedly having a second look at it in light of the success of the Smart Fortwo microcar (which has been a runaway success in its first year of sales south of the border – it too was originally passed over when Canadian sales began in 2004).
Canadians love their hatchbacks and so the decision to make a hatchback model the entry level to luxury lineups such as Mercedes seemed a sound one, and companies like Audi also joined the fray (with its A3). The States still have this adverse reaction to small hatchbacks, though the current economic climate is making European companies there rethink their approach.
Still, whereas hatchbacks have done exceptionally well in lower markets, they haven’t taken off in the luxury market probably because the association with hatchbacks is still more in line with “cheap” rather than “sporty” as it is in Europe. As such, sales of the B-Class (as well as those of the A3) haven’t been as robust as one would expect in this age of truck-dumping, and even in Canada where we have a closer-to-Europe mind-set.
Now, Mercedes says it is perfectly satisfied with its 3,030 B-Class sales, calling them pretty much expected, but there’s no denying that if it took off as did the Mazda5, for example, it could pretty well be the leader and a pioneer in the segment.
The problem is that historically, hatchback buyers expect more for less and this market is attracting more attention from hatchback buyers than it is from luxury intenders. At between $29,900 and $46,600, the B-Class is not your traditional five-door hatchback, though and Mercedes-Benz is taking steps mid-generation to put a different spin on its entry-level car.
For 2009, Mercedes has freshened the nose and tail to bring it in line with the recently introduced C-Class sedans and coupes (the wagon was dropped from the latest generation since it was thought the B-Class would fit that bill nicely). It’s also improved the technology, since its younger potential buyer is into that sort of thing, and it’s attempting to do something about the car’s economic performance.
The main question posed to B-Class Product Manager Chris Goczan was “why not bring the diesel engine that is currently available in Europe?” His reply seemed terribly “American” … “We felt the power put out by the engine would not be tolerated by Canadians and tooling a bigger engine to fit in the B-Class would be cost-prohibitive.”
Yet, Mercedes does offer a B200 diesel that makes more hp and torque than the gasoline car in Canada. However that brings up a host of new challenges revolving around our dirty fuel. The emphasis on environmental emissions in Europe revolves around carbon dioxide (CO2) whereas ours concentrate on particulates. We’ve started moving in the direction of cleaner diesel but our gasoline needs a cleaning-up, too. Says Goczan: “Our cleanest gasoline is worse than their dirtiest gasoline. If we could get the ultra-clean gasoline here, we’d have a much wider choice of vehicles.”
And performance has always been a cornerstone of the Mercedes product offering. As such, the B-Class is sold as a sporty luxury vehicle than a luxury hatchback. It does its job getting some people to take notice of Mercedes, but Goczan himself admits that in our market, it is sometimes easier to sell a hatchback buyer on a fully-loaded Toyota Matrix than it is a comparatively priced B200 (or a like-engined, more powerful, more economical Chevy HHR SS as opposed to a B200 Turbo, for that matter …).
And buyers hoping to get a leg-up in the Mercedes lineup find it more attractive to get into the least expensive C-Class than the top-of-the-line B200 turbo that is comparatively priced (with better performance from the C).
And so, you either try to sell the sporty versatility of the hatchback design to buyers who don’t consider the B-Class a “true” Mercedes or to hatchback buyers who find Mercedes vehicles beyond their reach. Either way, it’s a tough sell.