Monday, 30 January 2012

Once Around The Block:- New Mercedes-Benz B-Class, LHD Flavour.

The New Mercedes-Benz B Class is scheduled for UK release very soon, but MB took the initiative, unusually, to bring a handful of European market machines over so that their sales network could have a play. It’s a sensible move, really, to ensure that your sales drones are basically familiar with the product before you expect them to commence shifting units.

It’s also great to be able to offer your valued customers a sneak preview of what lies just around the corner. All this, though was partially lost on me. Truth is, I didn’t really care about the corporate justification of the whole endeavour. I was too busy revelling in the fact that I had a car to hoon about in that was Left Hand Drive.

So eager was I to try the car out that I ran straight out to it, my mind so focussed on its left-hand-driveness that I marched straight to the wrong door and attempted to drive it from the passenger side. Howling with laughter, tears streaming down my face, I heaved myself around to the drivers side, installed myself, and gazed with wonder at my surroundings.

The interior of the old B-Class, for all its feeling of quality, straightforward presentation and ergonomic accomplishment, had all the appeal of a stag night at the British Library. It was simply somewhere to sit while you went about the necessary evils involved in the process of driving. There were things to press, controls to twirl and levers to manipulate, but none of them were connected in any way to the muscles that contort your face and make it smile.

That’s all radically changed, but fortunately stopped short of going too far the wrong way, only the faux iPad arrangement that looks after radio display and telephone duties, is a bit contrived. Ventilation is achieved by five identical cast-alloy nozzles, cold to the touch and rewarding to adjust. Materials, for the most part, are straight from the top drawer. I gag slightly, though, at the peculiar hexagon pattern treatment (they call it honeycomb) applied to the big swathe across the dash, plain metal or gloss black would have been far preferable. The walnut finish of the Exclusive pack looks a must to avoid, though.

Whenever I drive a southpaw car in the UK, I struggle with my road positioning for the first ten minutes or so. Usually, my instinct is to stay well away from the kerb for fear of damaging whatever ostentatious set of alloy wheels the car I’m driving is saddled with. But in an LHD machine I run far more of a risk of grinding the rims on the other side. Pretty soon I realise that I’m driving right down the middle of the road and make a conscious effort to recalibrate my steering habits, and all is OK after a while. I do, though, have to shrug off my frustration over not being able to see past the car in front.

In British traffic you have to have your wits about you as people will overtake you at the earliest opportunity. In a left-hand-drive car the right hand door mirror becomes your closest friend and your eyes learn to live in it. It’s quite a distance away from where you’re sitting; the B-Class is quite a wide machine, or certainly feels it in these circumstances. Having the gearbox to the right is strange, too. It suddenly occurs to me that all the LHD stuff I've driven so far has been automatic. Persuading my right arm to carry out gearshifts didn't come naturally, my arm needed to learn how to move in that special, gearshifty way. 

I’ll have to put some miles in on of these when the UK spec B-Class turns up, as on first acquaintance I found the seats strangely unsupportive. At some point I may even take the trouble to avail myself of a tape measure because, from where I’m sitting, strange things are afoot in the cars interior packaging.

In any left-hand-drive car I tend to feel that I’m sitting closer to the interior wall than I do when I drive from the more familiar starboard seat. In the B-Class, though, my shoulder is literally pressed against the B-Pillar as if there were an invisible force pushing the driver and passenger apart, but my passenger confirmed that he was experiencing a similar sensation. For whatever reason, Mercedes-Benz have chosen to place the occupants right at the very extremities of the footprint.

Not only does it feel weird, but it feels cramped:- sitting right up against the wall has the knock-on-effect of reducing headroom. There’s a pronounced tumblehome to the glass surfaces and the side of your head finds itself very close to the door window. This all seems to be to aid the installation of an enormous centre-console and storage compartment, replete with the inevitable mouse-style COMAND controller, this being fresh to the B-Class and, is of course, completely necessary.

Of course, this rampant buttonry and brazen, gung-ho attitude to technology is to allow the B-Class to benefit from COMAND On-line, the Mercedes mobile internet service. This is a system born of the fact that it would be idiocy to suggest that anybody should have to go un-connected for a single minute of the day. Personally, I’d rather sit comfortably and go on the internet when I get home, but I’m probably alone on that.

At least the co-pilot can travel in relative comfort and silence while they Google all that vital trivia they literally cannot go another minute without knowing. Ride comfort is markedly improved over the outgoing car, and road noise seems to be kept nicely in check despite the “you have to be kidding?” massive wheels you’re perched upon.

Also, while I was concentrating on not crashing horribly and therefore reluctant to put the thing through any real dynamic tests, it did seem joyfully less keen to understeer than the old B-Class was, with notably less body roll, although you can still sense that it can’t quite live with the dynamics of a Ford C-Max. 

I’d say that probably doesn’t matter in the least to anybody likely to buy one, the interior space, image and actual bona fide good build quality will be enough for the B-Class to sell itself, and do it rather well. The old one found quite a few appreciative homes, and that was a far inferior car and far more expensive than it should have been.

This time round, the twenty-four grand admission charge for a manual, quick-ish (156hp) petrol-fuelled Sport merely feels hellishly expensive, rather than being absolute daylight robbery.

Having said that, as an exercise, opt for Sport spec, Automatic and a half-decent diesel engine (136hp!). Tick the boxes for COMAND navigation, Panoramic Roof and heated leather seats. You, sir, have just spent thirty thousand quid.
So Mercedes haven’t swerved too far from their old pricing strategies. It’s reassuring to know, in this volatile, ever-changing automotive landscape, that some traditions refuse to die.