The complex minds that run German car companies often leave me awestruck and impressed by their ability to hold two or more apparently opposing thoughts at the same time.
Take the case of the 2013 Mercedes-Benz B-Class and the always interesting and decorous Prof. Dr. Thomas Weber. He's the head of research, sustainability and development at Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG.
"We invest more than five billion euros each year in research and the development of our passenger car portfolio – about half of that in green technologies. That pays dividends. We were able to achieve sizeable CO2 savings in all vehicle segments," he said recently.
The B-Class is one the vehicles helping Mercedes down the road to reducing "the average CO2 emissions of its entire fleet of new passenger cars in Europe to 140g/km in 2012 – the equivalent of a mere 5.6 litres per 100 kilometres." We, unfortunately, do not get the A-Class in Canada, but late last year Canadian dealers started selling the 2013 B – at a sub-$30,000 starting price. That was a shot straight across the bow of Audi and BMW, neither of which has a model priced within $4,000 of the $29,900 B250.
Let's recap: So Mercedes is driving its competition a little nutty – I have this first-hand from a senior BMW boss – with fuel-thrifty, low-CO2 models that are priced so low they risk offending other premium car companies. It's cars like the B, says Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, that will send Mercedes-Benz soaring past No. 1 BMW and No. 2 Audi, to the top of the premium car heap. By 2020.
On the one hand, Mercedes has zeroed in on the "green" side of the car business and is backing it up with billions in investments. On the other, Merc is publicly positioning itself as a ferocious, relentless competitor. In today's world, a responsible, competitive company of any sort – let alone a car company – seems a bit of an oxymoron, but there you have it. Car buyers, meantime, benefit.
This brings us back to that 208-horsepower turbo B250 with its fancy dual-clutch automatic transmission that can be shifted via behind-the-wheel paddle shifters. Small and unassuming on the outside, the B is a tidy little package, one easily parked in a sliver of a space. Parallel parking in the city? Easy for even a learner.
The cabin has room for four big adults and, at the rear, is a cavernous space for luggage, golf clubs, IKEA furniture crates and so on – tie-downs and fold-flat seats standard. The switchgear looks about right for a $35,000 car. The only piece in the cabin that seems out of place is the dashboard-mounted display screen. It looks added-on, not integrated – almost as if designers had a "whoopsie" moment, forgetting the need for a screen in a 21st-century car. Their fix is this inelegant iPad-looking thingy sorta glued or stapled onto the dashboard.
The engineers, meanwhile, didn't forget about performance, despite the fixation on fuel economy and low CO2. Mercedes says this wagon (with a hatch at the rear) will do 0-100 km/h in 6.8 seconds, thanks in large part to its impressive torque number (258 lb-ft). Yet the combined fuel economy – using premium fuel – is an impressive 6.8 litres/100 km.
Mercedes types are quick to point out their super B uses less fuel than a long list of what we'll affectionately call econoboxes, from a Mazda3 to a Ford Focus hatchback and many in between. They then argue the case of the B250's road manners.
The engine is a key part of that story and so is a compact-sized gearbox. Drivers can dial up one of three shift modes: Manual, Sport and Economy. Downshifts are rev-matched in Sport, which is fun. In Economy, the computer brain maximizes fuel economy.
The B is nimble enough, with a 5.5-metre turning radius. Not bad for a compact with not only more cargo space than a mid-size Toyota Camry, but more front head and legroom, too. It is a bit noisy, however and, at times, the suspension feels clunky.
For the safety part of the B-quation, this little rig surrounds you with airbags – front, knee, side, window – nine in total. Also standard is Collision Prevention Assist, which will take over the braking if you ignore an imminent collision.
That, and stability control, anti-lock braking, traction control, a tire pressure warning system – on and on. All standard. If you must, Merc has a bunch of optional safety technologies, too. Be careful, though; loading up can tip the price past $40,000.
All the Bs look exactly the same, no matter how equipped. While still boxy, the B is a tidy design, one relatively low to the ground considering the mandate is to provide lots of space inside. I like the frameless side windows, and standard 17-inch wheels have helped Mercedes avoid producing a small car that looks like a toy.
An affordable, entertaining, fuel-efficient Mercedes for the masses – a mass of seeming contradictions that together make perfect sense.
2013 Mercedes-Benz B250
Type: Compact wagon
Base price: $29,900 (freight $700)
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 208 hp/258 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed dual clutch automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.9 city/5.5 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Mini Cooper Clubman and Countryman, Audi A3, Ford C-Max, Volkswagen Golf wagon, Lexus CT 200h, BMW X1, VW Tiguan