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car review

The 2013 B250 is lower, sleeker and more stylish than its predecessor.

Every so often, along comes a "wow" car. The 2013 Mercedes-Benz B-Class is one of them.

Let's start with the price. The base price of a 208-horsepower turbo B250 starts at $29,900. How good is that? The 2011 B200 with its wimpy 134-hp four-banger listed for exactly $29,900 when last it was sold in Canada more than a year ago.

And that 2011 B had a fairly primitive five-speed manual gearbox; those who wanted the Autotronic automatic faced a $1,500 extra charge. The 2013 B comes out of the box with a seven-speed automatic – a fancy dual-clutch one with behind-the-wheel paddle shifters for do-it-yourselfers – and it's a smooth shifter.

The result: Mercedes says this little 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, even with that sort of power, the combined fuel economy number is an impressive 6.8 litres/100 km. That's better than the 148-hp Mazda3 hatch (7.5 combined), Nissan's Versa hatch (122 hp, 7.5 combined), Toyota's Matrix hatch (132 hp, 7.4 combined), Chevrolet Sonic hatch (138 hp, 7.1 combined), and Ford's Focus hatch (160 hp, 6.8 combined).

Oh, wow.

Now I don't want to let this transmission story just slip by. I know, it's gearhead stuff, but bear with me. You don't need to know the nuts and bolts to appreciate a flexible, compact-sized gearbox that allows the driver to dial up one of three shift modes: Manual, Sport and Economy. You want to control the gearing yourself, there's Manual. Downshifts are rev-matched in Sport and in Economy the tranny's gearbox thinks its way through its work to maximize fuel economy.

Wow, and that's in what is really an entry-level runabout that is so downmarket – by Mercedes' standards – that Daimler's sales arm in the United States won't even stock it for fear of degrading the Mercedes brand.

On to safety. Remember, back home in Germany where this B is built (and was designed), the Green Party holds great sway. This means fuel economy and emissions issues get plenty of attention by Germany's most important, richest exporters – the car companies. As we all know, the "green" lobby goes hand in glove with the safety advocates, which means the 2013 B has nine – yes, nine! – airbags. Front, knee, side, window: airbags will pop out all over if needed.

But they probably won't be because another standard item is something Merc calls Collision Prevention Assist. This doo-dad uses radar to monitor what's going on in front at speeds between 30 and 250 km/h. (Yes, 250; the B is sold in Germany with its autobahns, after all.) If things start looking grim to the computer brain in charge, if a collision seems in your future, you get a warning. If you start on the brakes, but not enough to please your electronic master – let's call him Hal – then Hal takes over and applies the brakes enough to avoid a crash.

And, of course, the standard gear in the B also includes stability control, anti-lock braking, traction control, a tire-pressure warning system, hill hold and hill start assist. f you really want to go nuts for safety, then you can buy the even more intrusive Distronic Plus (full automatic braking whether you hit the binders or not for $2,400); automatic blind and lane position warning ($800), parking assist ($900) and that always handy rear-view camera ($480).

Oh, wow, can a B250 buyer ever load up with expensive options. That $29,900 B can easily turn into a $40,000 B if you add all the safety nannies, plus Bi-Xenon headlamps ($750), the power seats and so on in the Memory package ($1,200), and a premium package that includes a panoramic sunroof, dual zone climate control, heated seats and a few other odds and ends. Oh, and a Sport package adds $2,000.

Oh, wow, the B-Class can climb to a price close to a Mercedes-Benz GLK350 ($41,300).

But at least it's prettier than the rigidly upright design of the last B – as much the look of a postal delivery van as an upscale city car. This one is lower, sleeker, more stylish. The side windows are frameless, which is an attractive design twist. The smallest wheels you can get are 17-inchers, so what's in the wheel wells fills them up nicely. There are swoopy cuts and lines in the doors to dress up the look and at the rear is a small roof spoiler.

Oh, wow, the new B is a looker.

Inside, things are better, too, other than the colour display (5.8 inches standard, 7.0 inches optional), which looks like someone stapled an iPad to the top of the dashboard. I'm saying this looks like an afterthought, but Merc officials say buyers like it more than an integrated pop-up design. Really?

Other than that, the B's cabin is a vast improvement. For such a small box, the interior fits big people, four of them, well. Ambient lighting here and there gives the appearance of richness sorely lacking in the past. The materials look and feel expensive, as well. The seats, alas, just aren't comfortable over the long haul, even with power-adjustable lumbar support. Cost-cutting? That said, the instrument cluster makes a useful and upscale presentation and there are functional buttons on the steering wheel that are easy to learn and manage.

And oh, wow, does the B ever hold a lot of stuff.

The rear seatbacks fold almost utterly flat, creating a cargo hold big and open enough to fit a full-size washing machine. Merc has built in tie-down hooks all over the place and because there's no spare tire – run-flat tires are standard – you'll find a nifty little storage space below the cargo floor.

Add all of this up and oh, wow, Mercedes has a winner here. Especially for those buyers who aspire to own the three-pointed star. That would be people 30-45, with a family income of $100,000-$140,000 a year.

The truth is, BMW's main rivals, BMW and Audi, really don't have anything to compete with the new B-Class. BMW's Mini brand does have the Clubman and Countryman, but both are aimed at a buyer more interested in the Mini image and the Clubman in particular is not nearly as functional as the B. Audi has the A3 hatchback, but again, it's not as functional and starts at $32,300 to boot.

Ford's C-Max aims for functionality similar to the B, but in Canada Ford sells it only as some form of hybrid – including a plug-in hybrid called the Energi. Volkswagen's Golf wagon does most of what the B does, but the VW brand isn't nearly as powerful as Mercedes. And Merc says some "fringe" competitors include the Lexus CT 200h, but again, like the C-Max, it's a hybrid only. Sport-ute/crossover rivals might include the BMW X1, VW's Tiguan and even Toyota's Venza. But the X1 and Tiguan are little truck-like designs and the Venza is really a Camry station wagon aimed a completely different buyer.

So yes, Merc is going to wow the Canadian market with this new B. Oh, wow, Mercedes may not have enough of them to meet demand. Oh, no, you shouldn't expect dealers to offer discounts on the new B.

Tech specs

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

Drive: Front-wheel

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, Toyota Venza