With a range that starts at £13,680, most drivers in open choice schemes can now have a Mercedes-Benz badge on their drive should they want one. But there was a significant leap from this starting point to spending £21,000-plus on a C-class saloon, which until now had not been filled.
So with all the clear thinking of a primary school pupil, Mercedes-Benz took the gap between A and C and filled it with a B – the new B-class to be precise.
Priced to start from £16,995 on-the-road, it fits snugly in the premium alphabet, and pitches itself into one of the most active segments of the fleet market, mini-MPVs, with the Vauxhall Zafira, Ford Focus C-MAX and a range of other models including Volkswagen’s Golf Plus and Honda’s FR-V as rivals.
We’re testing the entry-level diesel, the £18,995 B180 CDI with a 2.0-litre 109bhp engine (a detuned version of the 140bhp unit in the B200 CDI).
What customers get for their money is a premium hatchback with a large imposing Mercedes-Benz star on the grille and a shaped bonnet that hints ever so slightly at the Chrysler PT Cruiser.
The interior is familiar Mercedes-Benz territory, including a welcome air of quality that has been lacking on some models recently.
Equipment levels on the base model C180 CDI are not overly-generous, but you don’t feel hard done by, with electric mirrors, air conditioning, electric front windows (surely it costs more money to put manual winders in the rear nowadays), a folding passenger seat for long loads, CD player, split/fold rear seats with removable seat cushions, height and reach adjustable steering, not forgetting a full range of airbags, traction control and anti-skid control systems. Throw in £950 extra and you get the rear electric windows, with a bit of leather and rain-sensing wipers.
And as with any other Mercedes, you would have to re-mortgage your house to buy all the extras available.
The interior is roomy and the seats are easy to fold down, but there is a bar that runs behind the rear seats which limits its capacity to carry flat loads.
On the road, the standard six-speed gearbox shifts well and the engine revs smoothly.
The suspension is firm, which means corners can be taken with relative gusto despite the high seating position it shares with the smaller A-class, but if performance is what you want, then dig deeper for the £22,795 B200 Turbo.
But even with just 109bhp, the B180 doesn’t feel under-powered, with the mid-range torque making pretty rapid progress possible.
The B-class arrives with a strong proposition just on brand alone, but drivers will have to decide whether sacrifices on practicality (some rivals offer up to seven seats, the B-class five) and equipment are worth a move away from the more generous world of volume rivals.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £18,822
CO2 emissions (g/km): 146
BIK % of P11D in 2005: 16%
Graduated VED rate: £115
Insurance group: 8
Combined mpg: 50.4
CAP Monitor residual value: £7,075/38%
Depreciation (19.57 pence per mile x 60,000): £11,742
Maintenance (3.08 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,848
Fuel (8.52 pence per mile x 60,000): £5,112
Wholelife cost (31.17 pence per mile x 60,000): £18,702
Typical contract hire rate: £407
Rental quote from HSBC Vehicle Finance
At a glance
We don’t like
Three rivals to consider
THERE’S plenty of choice in this sector for between £18,000 and £19,000, with high-spec offerings from Ford Focus C-MAX and Volkswagen Golf Plus, as well as the fully-loaded, top-spec Honda FR-V which comes loaded to the gunwales with leather and privacy glass. By contrast, the B-class is in entry-level trim and is sparsely equipped. It’s also under-powered compared to its rivals, with just 109bhp when the other three offer between 134bhp and 138bhp.
THE Focus C-MAX leads the way in service, maintenance and repair costs, with a likely garage bill of £1,524 over three years and 60,000 miles. The Volkswagen takes second spot with a bill of £1,620, narrowly beating the Honda FR-V on £1,674. The B180 CDI is well off the pace here, with its repair and servicing costs likely to reach nearly £1,850 over the same period. Obviously, these calculations will vary depending on the level of care your drivers afford their company car.
IF your drivers have a light right foot they could possibly match Mercedes-Benz’s claimed fuel economy figure of 50.4mpg for the B180. If they do, expect a bill of £5,112 for diesel over three years and 60,000 miles. The Ford is the next most economical, returning 48.7mpg from its 2.0-litre TDCi engine. Close behind is Volkswagen’s Golf Plus, in top 137bhp TDI spec, on 47.9mpg. This translates into a fuel bill of £5,376. The Honda, with its 2.2-litre diesel engine, returns a relatively lowly (for this test) 44.8mpg.
THE Volkswagen Golf Plus has the highest residual value forecast of this group by some distance and it is also the cheapest car at the front-end. CAP estimates it will retain 44% of its cost new after three years/60,000 miles, leaving a cash lost figure of £10,177 and a 2ppm gap between it and the second-placed Honda. The FR-V will retain 39% for a cash lost figure of £11,402. The B180 retains 38% and loses £11,747 while the Ford retains just 27%, losing £13,247.
WITH the lowest front-end price and the highest residual value prediction, the Volks- wagen Golf Plus easily wins this contest and will cost 2.5ppm less than the Mercedes-Benz B-class in second.
The Honda FR-V puts up a strong case in all but fuel costs, where it is penalised by its 2.2-litre engine. Depreciation is the Achilles’ heel for the Ford Focus C-MAX, with high volumes leading to a poor RV forecast.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
DESPITE having the highest front-end price, the Mercedes-Benz offers drivers the lowest company car tax bills. Thanks to its low emissions, the B180 will cost a 22% taxpayer £55 a month in benefit-in-kind tax, just £1 less than the Ford. The Volkswagen is also competitive here, costing the same driver £59 a month. The Honda is off the pace, with a monthly bill of £68. It’s worth remembering that all four cars will jump three tax bands from January 1, 2006, when the new tax rules come into force.
THE arrival of a Mercedes-Benz in this sector is good news for badge-conscious drivers, but the B180 doesn’t win this test. It costs too much and is less well-equipped than its rivals from volume makers. Both the Honda and Ford offer excellent solutions to drivers with families who still want some style and fun from their company car, but as an all-round package the Golf Plus wins, helped by low running costs and competitive BIK rates.