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The next-generation B-Class was unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show. (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
The next-generation B-Class was unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show. (Michael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

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Benz's little B on backburner Add to ...

Although the redesigned Mercedes-Benz B-Class unveiled last week in Frankfurt goes on sale in Europe by November, the current B hatchback sold in Canada won’t be replaced until next fall, a company rep said in Frankfurt, leaving only leftover 2011 Bs on dealer lots for the next year.

The expected 2012 B-Class was the victim of a production delay that pushed back the 2.5-litre, four-cylinder engine expected to power the next-generation version of Benz’s entry-level model. This couldn’t be better timing for rival BMW, which has introduced two small crossovers for 2012 that would compete with Benz’s little Bs, the Mini Countryman and the BMW X1.

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Mercedes-Benz officials in Germany and North America have long said that the next B-Class would be engineered for sale in the United States, and Benz officials again confirmed last week that the B-Class Fuel Cell is expected to go on sale in both countries in 2015.

There still seems to be some question over whether M-B USA wants the next B at all, as it struggles to relaunch the pint-sized Smart fortwo nationally. There are no plans for the United States to receive any gasoline or diesel-powered B-Class models, said JoAnne Caza, director of communications for Mercedes-Benz Canada, though she concedes that it’s something the U.S. arm is studying.

The U.S. decision could impact the choices available on the next Canadian B-Class because the cost of certifying engines and models are so high – especially when they must be spread out over a much smaller customer base, i.e., in Canada only. If the United States does decide to import the B, not only could it finally make it financially viable to offer, say, a diesel engine option in Canada for the first time, it could also mean the cost of certifying it for largely identical safety and emissions could be spread between Canadian and U.S. operations, potentially bringing down the cost of each Canadian B-Class.

This is what happened when the Smart fortwo went on sale in the United States, chopping thousands off the Smart’s Canadian price, and that was on an inexpensive, sub-$20,000 two-seat city car. The B-Class starts at $29,900 in Canada, and with the dollar at about par with the U.S. dollar, there would be a considerable amount of consumer pressure to keep Canadian prices reasonably close to the U.S. sticker price.

So there’s a rooting interest for small crossover fans on this side of the border to hope that American Benz product planners see the light on this small but city-friendly hatchback. And there are various respected American media outlets reporting that the B-Class is indeed headed to the United States. Trade journal Automotive News reported this week that Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche is considering selling both the B and the lower-roof A-Class hatchback in the United States, and that the first model would go on sale in 2013.

This platform will also be used to introduce a swoopy four-door “coupe” that’s slightly smaller than a C-Class sedan, a more SUV-like all-wheel drive variant that would more closely tackle the BMW X1, and a station wagon version as well.

Saab’s fate still hangs in the balance

It’s not looking good for Saab, but there were glimmers of hope early this week, when Swedish courts ruled that Saab had the right to appeal a verdict that refused the company court protection from creditors.

Still, the future of Saab depends on an urgently needed infusion of cash flow from Chinese companies and the okay from its government, plus enough time from the courts to allow it to arrive, said Chris Budd, dealer principal of Budds’ Saturn Saab, vice-president of a GM dealership in Oakville, and one of the dealers who worked hardest to resurrect Saab in Canada after it left the market early in 2010.

“The reality is, that at this juncture, Saab will either manage to raise the funds to get to the partial Chinese ownership and cash injection into the company, or the worst will happen and bankruptcy will prevail,” wrote Budd in an e-mail. “I know Saab management is working tirelessly to get Saab to the next step of viability, and the rest is in the hands of the Swedish courts and the Chinese governments decisions.”

The lifeline of the company, cash flow, has been cut off with halted Saab production in Sweden. And since Saab has a cash deal with General Motors to pay for every 9-4X crossover that comes off GM’s Mexican assembly line, Saab hasn’t been able to generate cash flow from the sale of that new product either, said Budd.

“The 9-4X has not arrived in Canada and will not until they restart world production with a more stable business model,” he wrote. “My guess is that the courts do not like to make judgments of this sort, without all the cards on the table, and they risk further depleting cash in the company, if they were to grant reconstruction and then the Chinese government turned down the investment.”

End of an era in St. Thomas

The last Ford Crown Victoria rolled off its St. Thomas, Ont., production line last week, nearly 32 years after the full-size, rear-wheel drive Panther-platform vehicle was first launched, sending about 1,000 workers home for good, with the remaining 200 or so to stay on until early 2012 to decommission the 44 year-old plant.

Ford is the sales leader in Canada, but among auto companies that build vehicles in Canada, Ford is neck and neck with Honda for producing the fewest vehicles in this country.

“The fact they sell so many more than they will make here, is offensive,” Ken Lewenza, national president of the Canadian Auto Workers union, told the London Free Press recently. “You do not see Korean manufacturers pulling out of Korea, but you see Ford moving out of North America – and it pisses me off.”

Ford argues that it is far from abandoning North America, even with the closing of 28 plants on the continent. It is simply addressing overcapacity to ensure its survival. As for St. Thomas specifically, in light of upcoming fuel economy regulations and the declining market for traditional full-size, rear-wheel-drive body-on-frame cars, the plant and its products were no longer competitive, or sustainable, with no flex capability and running a single shift.

It’s not easy being green

The Union of Concerned Scientists has released its second annual hybrid scorecard and the results peg the Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid and the BMW X6 ActiveHybrid as the worst offenders.

The U.S.-based non-profit environmental group – which criticized hybrid car manufacturers for not delivering on the technology’s promise and for adding options that make them unnecessarily expensive – gave the Touareg Hybrid, which isn’t sold in Canada, the lowest Environmental Improvement Score. The group found that it is “the first hybrid vehicle to achieve less than a 10 per cent reduction in global warming pollution compared with its conventional counterpart.”

The BMW X6 ActiveHybrid received the next lowest EIS. It is more of a performance hybrid, the electric engine more geared to adding power and torque than reducing fuel consumption, at least compared to gas-only six and V8 versions of the X6.

This and its X6 M-equalling cost may be why the X6 M will only be produced until the end of the year. BMW Canada confirmed this week that there’ll be no 2012 X6 ActiveHybrid available in North America.

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