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Baby Benz on a budget

MONCTON, New Brunswick — Why did Mercedes-Benz choose Moncton as the venue to launch it face-lifted five-door hatch?

MONCTON, New Brunswick — Why did Mercedes-Benz choose Moncton as the venue to launch it face-lifted five-door hatch? Because it’s the “New B” in New Brunswick! Get it? No? Okay, so the Germans are far better at engineering than cracking jokes.

Actually, that Teutonic technical savvy has been a big part of M-B Canada’s message in convincing cash-conscious Canadians that its $30,000 B-Class Compact Sports Tourer is worth spending a little extra coin on.

You see, for all the Audi A3s, Volvo V50s and Mini Clubmans the Benz has been shopped against since bowing into Canada in 2005 (but not the U.S.), it’s also rolled in with the considerably less expensive Pontiac Vibe, Mazda5 and Kia Rondo crowd too.

So why spend the extra moolah? Well, admittedly that three-pointed star on the hood carries a lot of cache, but Chris Goczan, the B’s product manager, says the badge also brings the automaker’s reputation for safety, comfort and road manners.

The front-drive Benz shares a platform with its Euro-only cousin, the A-Class, both employing “sandwich” construction. No, not a German panini press, but a clever way of installing the four-cylinder engine almost on its side, so that in a front-end collision it’s forced under, and not into, the passenger cabin.

Standard on all ’09 Bs are ESP, traction control, ABS with brake assist, front, side and side-curtain airbags, active head restraints and a new feature that automatically activates the interior lights in a collision, making the vehicle easier to work on for emergency services.

Cosmetic upgrades on the revised B-Class are minimal: New front and rear bumpers and a new hood, grille and alloy wheels. Customer feedback led to a larger rear window and a revised tailgate handle, too.

Inside, the Benz continues to offer class-leading space versus its physical footprint. The seat cushions, fabrics and trim are revised for 2009, along with a new entertainment/telematic system with a colour display, Bluetooth connectivity, MP3 compatibility and available iPod integration. A 500-watt Harman Kardon system is optional.

The B-Class’ height adjustable cargo floor and fold-flat rear seats (with pass-through) remain standard, though Europe’s folding front passenger seat is still not allowed in Canada. We’re not sure why, as the much smaller Smart Fortwo can perform the trick.

The powertrain in the base B200 remains a 2.0-litre inline-four making a somewhat paltry 134 hp and 136 lb-ft of torque. The B200T lashes a turbo to the engine for a far more spirited 193 hp and 206 lb-ft. Good on Mercedes for keeping a manual gearbox standard too, even though 95 per cent of customers sadly opt for the optional CVT automatic.

All the preceding aside, it’s the at-the-wheel experience in the B-Class that justifies its premium sticker. It has that solid, planted, confident feel only the Germans seem to be able to breed into their automobiles. We’d even forgo the $1,500 sport package, as the stock suspension is much more compliant, without being sloppy.

Mercedes Canada has been adding content and lowering the B’s price since ’05 (the first base model was 30K-plus and wore hub-caps, black door handles, etc.)

For 2009, the base model’s price is unchanged at $29,900, while the Turbo jumps slightly to $34,400.

2009 Mercedes Benz B-Class

Type: Compact
Price: from $29,900
Engine: 2.0-litre inline-four
HP: 134
Torque: 136 lb-ft

Highlights

• Mercedes luxury at an affordable price
• Solid feel at the driving wheel

 
 
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