Mention Mercedes-Benz, and most Americans envision luxurious full-size or mid-size sedans, or perhaps the successful ML crossover sport utility vehicle.
They probably won't imagine a compact five-door hatchback with a three-pointed star on the nose, but that car--or a coupe or crossover derived from it--is likely to appear in U.S. Mercedes-Benz showrooms within a couple of years.
At next month's Frankfurt Motor Show, the German maker will formally take the wraps off its 2012 Mercedes-Benz B-Class. The front-wheel-drive, five-door hatchback is roughly the size of a 2012 Ford Focus--but will be considerably more expensive, especially in the States.
Mercedes now offers both clean Bluetec diesels and hybrid-electric models in the U.S. to boost its fuel efficiency, but the company will need to do more to meet the 54.5-mpg CAFE requirements that will be in place for 2025-model year vehicles.
So it will most likely bring its second-generation B-Class to the States for the first time (though the earlier model was sold in Canada, so U.S. residents in northern States may occasionally have seen one or two running around).
The B-Class could appear in sedan form for the U.S., rather than as the hatchback style that Europeans prefer--although Ford for one has sold more hatchbacks and fewer sedans than it projected for the Focus, so U.S. tastes may be changing.
The new model is lower than the outgoing B-Class, and should provide drivers with a sportier experience behind the wheel. It's 14'3" long, just over 5 feet high, and 5'10" wide, and Mercedes-Benz claims a drag coefficient of just 0.26, admirably low for a relatively short car.
Despite a lower height, the upright driving position is retained for visibility and a feeling of confidence on the part of the driver, according to Mercedes-Benz.
For European markets, the B-Class will be offered with a 1.6-liter inline-four gasoline engine--in various tunes, ranging from 122 to 156 horsepower--and a 1.8-liter direct-injected turbodiesel four as well, with outputs from 109 to 136 hp. All European models will be fitted with engine start-stop systems as standard.
The more powerful gasoline engine is likely to appear in the U.S. B-Class, perhaps accompanied by a Bluetec clean-diesel alternative as well. A seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission is likely to be the default, though Mercedes-Benz may choose to offer a six-speed manual option as well.
Later on, the B-Class will also be offered with a natural-gas option, and as a plug-in hybrid, a battery-electric vehicle, and a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. The company has said that it plans to launch a fuel-cell vehicle in 2014, and it will most likely be based on the B-Class platform.
Four trim levels--named Chrome, Sports, Exclusive, and Night--are offered in Europe, but all include features not found on lesser compact hatchbacks.
Radar-based collision warning and adaptive brake assistance are fitted to all models as standard, a distinction no other vehicle in the world shares at the moment.
Called "Collision Prevention Assist," the system's radar sensors measure closing distance to objects ahead, and apply the brakes automatically if the driver is not responding to an imminent collision. It includes logic to differentiate close stop-and-go traffic from high closing speeds toward stopped objects.
Mercedes-Benz has surveyed its U.S. customers about their views of the new B-Class since the start of last year, and it's possible that as many as four small-car models--one of them no doubt a crossover utility vehicle--could be offered as part of the new compact range.
[Mercedes-Benz via MotorAuthority]