Jude P. Morte / Jude P. Morte | September 18, 2006 00:00
Compact beautifulWith seemingly never-ending rise in gas prices, even the luxury car market has focused more towards bang-for-the-buck vehicles. BMW first broke ground with the said maxim via the 1-Series cars in December 2004, and has enjoyed relative sales success since.
The sales sensation runs of the 1-Series didn't escape the eyes of Mercedes Benz. But instead of going head-to-head with their Munich rivals, the Stuttgart auto folk took compact hauling, touring and frugality to new levels.
This is what its B Class series (the B 170 Sports Package) for this test in particular) brings to the terra incognito of luxury compact vehicles.
Handling stuff in small packages
More shaped like Hyundai's Matrix MPV (multipurpose vehicle) than BMW 120i, the B 170 focuses on a more space-saving design. The rear (and for some folks, the front too) is reminiscent of a shrunken ML 350 (its SUV brother), while the sides display flared wheel arches that house massive 17-inch wheels and Continental Sport Contact 2 215/45 R17 wheels.
Much like the Ford Focus, the interior is all black, with silver trim on the steering wheel, dashboard, center dashboard area, the automatic transmission (a/t) shift knob and the trim around the a/t area. The air conditioning provides Arctic-cold blasts or decent heat (especially during rainy weather and you enter the car soaking wet) while the Harman Kardon (a respected home audio tuner)-tuned audio treats rival listening pleasures of the Audi A4 and the (Boston Acoustics-tuned) Chrysler 300C.
The front seats (though lacking in power assist) are comfortable and (for some) feel like racing buckets, thanks to the wide side bolsters and the great-to-the-touch "Maastricht" fabric. Also, the front passenger backrest folds down flat to swallow long-shaped cargo. The rear seats can handle two adults and a toddler, offer the same high level of seating comfort and its backrest split folds down (either one-third or two-thirds of the seat) to swallow odd-shaped load.
The B 170 offers a deceptively high amount of storage. Case in point: during another car company's event, this writer was tasked to haul a 21-inch TV and two accompanying TV racks in the B 170 back to his house. He managed to store (with Business Mirror account manager Aldwin Tolosa as witness) in the B 170's luggage compartment the said three appliance pieces IN their respective boxes, WITHOUT folding the rear seats and sacrificing rear vision.
Compact luxury touring
Mercedes Benz brands the B Class "compact sports tourers," meaning they were designed for frequent out-of-town jaunts. The four cylinder 1700cc nets 116hp and 155NMs of torque, mated to a seven-speed continuously variable a/t (CVAT) billed as Autotronic. Although the engine takes a bit of effort to get into the powerband (3400 rpm onwards), this writer got a (Pakil, Laguna) tested 185kph. And with the small displacement, this writer got 11.22 kms/l on 3.5 days of mixed (half city, half highway) driving.
The drivetrain comes with two options - Comfort and Sport - and both can be found in a hard-to-find button beside the a/t stick. Access "Comfort (‘C')" and the CVT shifts at a moderate 2500-3250 rpm; access "Speed (‘S')" and the a/t's shift points become higher. This writer just stuck to the Sport option in getting the said top speed and consumption figures, as he felt that the "Comfort" option prevented spirited driving.
Engaging the "manual" option on the Autotronic merely requires putting the a/t stick on "(D)rive" and moving the stick to the right (for upshifts) or to the left (for downshifts), aided by an indicator on the large but narrow menu screen between the speed and rev counters. Although the last three gears are a bit taller, the lateral motion of the Autotronic (aided immensely by the tall center console padding) CVT felt that shifting gears was faster as compared to the up-down sequential shifting of BMW's 3-Series or Audi's A4 sedans.
Handling is either a like-or dislike matter. On flat roads the car's height (1603mm) greatly adds to some slight yaw during hard cornering, but during mountain passes the said yaw is nonexistent. There's some slight pitch during hard turns and hairpins, but its electronic stability program (ESP) comes on quickly (60-78 kph) to help maintain even tire footing. Get greedy with the throttle (80+ kph) and the ESP begins to regulate driving, with heavy steering and reduced throttle output. The suspension absorbs road flaws quietly, but for some the aforementioned 17-inch wheel/tire combo may be too firm. Steering is light (for some it may be way too light) but gets slightly heavier at 60+ kph and tends to provide a wide turning arc, even with all 3.5 turns lock-to-lock executed.
Despite the ride height it's tricky to judge parking distances in front, no thanks to the waterfall-type front end. The lack of front and rear parking sensors greatly exacerbates this problem. The good news is that with tall ride height comes wide front and rear view.
The B 170 Sports Package is great for those who want to impress their Broad C neighbors with the fact that they have a Benz in their possession. No doubt it's bang-for-the-buck, but for Php 2.25M, a few more luxury items should come standard. Nevertheless, the B Class lives up to its name as a "compact sports tourer," a new classification that can be aptly described as compact beautiful.