'A thoroughly enjoyable compact MPV'...and our motoring expert never imagined he'd be saying that about a Mercedes B-class

Odd car, the outgoing Mercedes B-class.

Its maker tried to promote it as a "sports tourer", a shrunken companion to the vast R-class, some of whose styling features it shared in the hope of attracting US buyers who might later aspire to the R-class which had been created especially for them.

But it went slightly wrong. A change of plan meant the B-class did not, after all, go Stateside. And here in Europe it could be seen for what it was: a Mercedes take on a compact MPV, a Renault Scenic rival with a price-tag about £3,000 higher than it could really justify.

So I approached the all-new B-class with suspicion. It is the first in a family of five compact Mercedes-Benzes, of which the second will be a new A-class. The other three family members are unconfirmed, but are likely to be a coupé, a longer MPV and a compact SUV.

This new B-class has lost the old one's double-layer floor, so the driving position is now normal instead of legs-outstretched. It has lots of headroom, which is useful because future hybrid and electric versions will have a raised rear floor and seats with batteries beneath, yet will still allow sufficient head space.

As well as the body design, everything mechanical is new. This includes the engines, one of which, the lower-power turbodiesel, actually has a capacity which matches the car's designation. This now-rare coincidence is performed by the B180 CDI, which produces an unimpressive-sounding 109bhp from its 1.8 litres. The same-capacity B200 CDI makes 136bhp yet its official CO2 output is the same 115g/km. Two new turbocharged petrol engines, both of 1.6 litres, produce 122bhp (B180) and 156bhp (B200). A new double-clutch (DCT) gearbox, with seven gears, is optional with all engines.

I've tried all the engines, both the gearboxes and both SE and Sport versions, the latter with slightly firmer and lower (by 15mm) suspension and "direct steering" which speeds up the steering response as you turn away from straight ahead. Fortunately, I didn't try the "Collision Prevention Assist" which warns you if you're approaching the vehicle in front too quickly, and applies the right amount of crash-mitigating braking once you press the pedal. With all sampled B-classes returned intact, I can report that the two best B-classes are at the power extremes of the range.

I'll begin with the B180 CDI SE, comfortable and welcoming with dark-tinted wood trim, an iPad-like display screen and the quality and finish of a proper Mercedes. Strong pulling power (184lb/ft) disguises the lack of ultimate horsepower, and this B-class feels keen and lively in a way I had not expected. The engine is particularly smooth and quiet, the six-speed gearchange is light and precise, and the steering is accurate, responsive and convincingly weighted.

There's more. This B-class rides smoothly and quietly over bumps, it flows beautifully through bends and the whole car works in harmony with itself and its driver. After this version, the petrol B180 feels more frenetic but no livelier, but the test example's DCT gearbox worked very well with quick, smooth shifts. Next, the B200 CDI in Sport guise, with optional 18in wheels. Predictably the ride comfort suffers and some of that lovely flow is lost; it's a poor trade-off for a small increase in agility, and this more powerful engine is noisier than the gentler turbodiesel.

This Sport trim, with an aluminium dashboard trim, is the sole specification offered with the petrol B200, but the example I drove was running on more sensible 17in wheels. These, the Sport suspension, and the lighter petrol engine, make a good combination, riding bumps smoothly but giving terrific bite and poise in corners. This engine feels very sweet and strong, too, and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable compact MPV.

I never thought I would say that of a B-class, but times have changed. It's still expensive – at up to £26,160 – next to rivals, however. Such, it seems, is the magnetism of that badge.

The Rivals

Citroën DS4 1.6 HDI: from £19,945, 110bhp, 122g/km.

A tall coupé sounds like an oxymoron, but that's the handsome DS4. Good to drive but rear side windows don't wind down.

Ford C-Max 1.6 TDCi: from £18,695, 115bhp, 119g/km

A taller, roomier Focus, looks good and lacks the hatchback's air of claustrophobia. Handling and ride are particularly impressive.

Volkswagen Golf Plus 1.6TDI: from £19,380, 105bhp, 126g/km

A taller, roomier Golf with frumpier image than it deserves. An excellent family car, practical and pleasing to drive.

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