Better with a capital B

Iain Dooley, PA senior motoring writer, says the second-generation Mercedes-Benz B-Class is a family for those who enjoy the fineer things in life.

After what many industry observers thought was something of a false start with its original B-Class, Mercedes is back with a new version boasting improved ride and handling, a reworked, more versatile cabin plus entertainment and safety technology already available in the latest generation of its premium models.

It's not often a car-maker admits to a less than perfect car. However, with the rise in popularity of compact people-carriers – think Ford C-Max, Renault Scenic, Vauxhall Zafira – walking away from such a popular market sector was never an option.

If you're in the market for what's often promoted as an activity or lifestyle people-carrier but find conventional estate cars and sport utility vehicles too limited or too big respectively, this second-generation B-Class is worth a look.

Noticeably more elegant to look at, this latest B-Class rides on a new platform that's set to spawn a variety of bodystyles in years to come. For now, though, it's the five-door people-carrier angle Mercedes wants to cover, and the car's long, low-slung profile does much to convince you that its five-seater layout will be just fine.

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Unlike the aforementioned Ford and Renault offerings, this B-Class is being pitched higher up the affordability ladder. As such, its maker is keen to stress at every opportunity that its premium cabin should appeal to both down-sizers from luxury cars and those seeking to move up into something more attractive.

Certainly, this is true from the array of trim options available, be it wood or metal effect materials for the doors and fascia. Predictably leather is also an option, while the optional panoramic glass roof adds a welcome touch of glamour.

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With the option to slide the rear seats fore and aft to vary the space available to rear passengers plus the ability to fold them almost flat, it's family-friendly. Oddment storage space in the cabin is also good, while the infotainment system can be upgraded to include a well-thought-out and centrally-mounted iPad-esque glossy screen.

Alas it isn't a touchscreen, but it's big enough to deliver a rewarding user experience. Driven by the car's Comand system, everything from the radio and MP3 integration, navigation to mobile internet access is available for, predictably, a price.

It's clear even from sitting in this new B-Class that Mercedes has learnt a lot from its past efforts. The same is true out on the road, as the car rides and drives like a completely different machine. More composed on rough roads and a willing performer when the road turns twisty, it's much easier to feel more confident behind the wheel.

Both manual and dual clutch auto gearboxes are offered, with the former the default option along with the familiar foot-operated parking brake. The automatic is the more civilised approach to motoring and better suits the car's relaxed personality. Factor in the redesigned column stalks, something Mercedes is rolling out on its new models, and there's a welcome grown-up feel to the way the B-Class drives.

This feeling is cemented with the performance of the various engines. As with the rest of the industry, Mercedes has managed to deliver a line-up that is more economical yet delivers improved levels of power, torque and driveability. The first petrol engines to appear will be 1.6-litre units. The all-new motors come bristling with technology first seen on Mercedes's luxury models, and boast direct injection and low CO2 ratings.

The same is true of the diesel engines. Initially 1.8 litres in capacity, these units promise tax-friendly emissions performance plus a good turn of speed despite their modest outputs. Crucially, all engines come with a fuel-saving stop-start function as standard regardless of the transmission.

It doesn't take long to appreciate the progress made by Mercedes to improve on its previous compact people-mover.

On the road this new B-Class is a different – and better – machine, while the car's extensive under-the-skin improvements should enable it to compete head on with some very competent rivals. Generously equipped and easy on the eye, the B-Class is a family car for those who enjoy the finer things in life.

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