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car review

2013 Mercedes-Benz B-Class.

My wife named our Mercedes-Benz B200 Snubby, shortly after we purchased it in 2008.

Be prepared, dear Lynda, the second-generation B200 that is coming to Canada in the fall of 2012 is snubby no more.

Be aware, exacting reader, that this review is necessarily personal. Of the dozens of journalists in Vienna, from throughout Europe where the new B200 is going on sale in November as well as we Canadians previewing the car, I was likely the only one with a Snubby in my driveway. Ownership must colour evaluation to some degree – perhaps making it more exacting.

A general impression, though, is that anyone who is now driving the original premium hatchback is certain to find the new vehicle hugely different, while maintaining the first B200's practicality.

Roads out of Vienna lead to Bratislava and Budapest, exotic destinations as survivors of Communist regimes. Turn off these multilane routes with their 130 km/h limit, though, and narrow two-laners wind among villages. It is here the new B200's new nature emerges. It's frisky and fun.

Why? It's snubby no more because the nose has been extended with the engine shifted forward. The roof and floor are lowered as a result of the sandwich-like platform having been discarded in favour of a more conventional construction. As a consequence its personality as well as the silhouette has evolved.

Lynda, you no longer step up when getting in. The new car feels more like a sedan than a van. It's still so roomy as to be capable of carrying a circus sideshow, but it no longer feels as though it's going to topple over whenever a corner proves tighter than anticipated. (I know, I know, with your gentler approach to driving you never found it even remotely tippy.)

The fundamentally different architecture of the new platform drops everything closer to the road. The centre of gravity has been lowered by 20 mm, the roof five centimetres. Even the seating is lower, by 86 mm. Here's a concern though: Current B200 owners who enjoy sitting high may be dismayed by the new car's more typical driving position.

Those weary of the B200's three-point turns will feast on U-turns and parking with the turning circle tightened to 11 metres. Our B200 requires 11.95 to reverse course, territory seldom available on busy Queen Street East where U-turns are as much a Toronto Beach signature move as the dip once was on the Balmy Beach Club dance floor. A Volkswagen Golf Wagon makes the move in 10.9 metres, whereas current B200s are less agile than Mercedes-Benz's large E-Class sedans or even the huge S550.

Another welcome casualty of the remake is raucous noise caused by the automatic transmission revving the life out of the engine. A slick seven-speed automatic replaces the continuously variable (read, whining) transmission that was quiet only with a light foot on the accelerator.

Which brings us to interior features. Advances are considerable. The centre console has been dedicated to storage now that the gearshift becomes a D-N-R lever beneath the steering wheel, as in Benz's top sedans. Twin cup holders are properly placed rearward in the console – whereas the current B200's second cup is jammed ahead of the gearshift and difficult to access.

A manual transmission no longer will be offered in Canada. According to Christopher Goczan, national product manager, only 2 per cent of B200 buyers chose to shift manually; a six-speed manual continues on offer in Europe.

Also gone is fabric upholstery. Our B200's seats stained like those in no other car we've owned. Man-made leather, branded as Artico by Mercedes-Benz, replaces the cloth, or the real stuff is optionally available. In the cars we drove, dashboards were newly handsome with large, round vents within stitched Artico, a large step forward from the current car's grained plastic, but we didn't see an example of the base interior of the model that will be sold in Canada.

Heating and defrosting is upgraded with a new generation of air conditioning. No telling from autumn in Austria whether this new system will better clear the view in a blizzard, where improvement was needed.

The front passenger seat back now folds forward, as in a Smart car, for hauling long objects like ladders. The rear seat slides fore and aft to maximize either cargo or rear legroom (of which there's a lot whatever the adjustment). These features likely will be optional, like the Sport suspension and steering.

The engine turns off automatically when at a standstill to save fuel. As for the engine, no details were revealed as it is still under development with its advanced homogenized combustion, but it will be a two-litre version of the 1.6-litre turbocharged gasoline engines in the cars we drove. A diesel is a possibility.

The ride is improved with a more complex and lighter rear suspension that, significantly, allows for all-wheel-drive in the future. A crossover built on the B-class platform is to be introduced in a year, a sedan destined for the U.S. market in two years. Hybrid or electric versions are a certainty.

"No model change in the history of Mercedes-Benz has ever seen so many new developments introduced in one fell swoop," according to Dr. Thomas Weber, member of the Daimler board of management responsible for development.

Hard to argue with that. Snubby no more, and how.

2013 Mercedes-Benz B-Class

Type: Five-door hatchback

Base Price: Not available

Engine: 2-litre, turbo four-cylinder with auto-stop at intersections

Horsepower/torque: NA, engine still under development

Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual function

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy: NA, premium recommended

Alternatives: Volkswagen Touran, BMW X-1, Lexus CT200h, Toyota Venza, Volkswagen Golf Wagon, Audi A3, Volvo V50