You want to move a bundle of people in style and you only have about $40,000 in your pocket. A common problem, no doubt, but one made easier by the surprisingly inexpensive, efficient but decidedly pregnant style of the Mercedes-Benz B180.
On its own it's an appealing package. But it has driven into the lion's den of the industry - a swirling, dark and dangerous place occupied by compact SUVs, sophisticated hatchbacks and sports wagons. Its rivals put the B180 at an immediate disadvantage and though the German wagon fits the family, wears a prestigious star badge and is technically quite a clever piece of metal, it's not a strong swimmer in its new pool.
Very good. Until the A-Class arrives - a hatchback built on the same platform as the B180 - this wagon is the cheapest new Mercedes on the market. At $38,950 it comes with a turbocharged petrol engine, seven-speed automatic, lots of clever features, a sophisticated raft of safety kit and five-seat spaciousness with a big boot. It competes on price with SUVs such as the Mazda CX-5 and Kia Sportage which are less expensive to service and repair, but obviously lack the Merc's badge credibility.
It's rounded and a quite high in its successful aim to have fuel-cheating aerodynamic qualities along with lots of cabin room. Commendably, it achieves both but manages to look a bit rotund in the process. A long 2.7m wheelbase, low floor (the previous model was built on a higher sandwich floor), generous head room and low glass lines bring lots of light into the cabin so it's bright and airy and without a hint of claustrophobia.
The boot floor is flat and wide (there's no spare wheel) so it accepts a huge amount of cargo. Rear seats could have more thigh support. These seats are split and fold almost flat but Merc could adopt a more flexible seat arrangement, perhaps like Skoda's Yeti.
The highlight is also the low light. The B180 designation belies the wagon's techno-rich 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine that cranks out a modest 90kW/200Nm despite living on the more expensive 95RON fuel. The unit has direct-petrol injection, variable-valve timing, three driving modes and a stop-start system.
It drives the front wheels through a neat seven-speed dual-clutch automatic which is the engine's saving grace. The box has a diabolical right-hand, column-mounted shift lever (see Driving section). The park brake is electric (at last!) and steering is electric-assist while tyres are BMW-inspired run-flat, so there's no spare.
Lots to see here. The shell is a five-star crash rated body that has a multitude of alloy and steel derivatives to save weight and boost strength. There are seven airbags, electronic stability and traction control, brake assist with an emergency display (flashing tail lights when braked hard) and run-flat tyres with a tyre pressure monitor. It gets a driver attention detection system - nod off and it'll wake you up - and an automatic park assist function, front and rear park sensors, a hill holder, auto headlights and wipers, and a first-aid kit. All for $38,950.
I changed lanes on the freeway by indicating with the right-hand stalk and saw the faces of fellow motorists change colour - one because I was changing without actually indicating and two because knocking the stalk suddenly put the car into neutral gear. I understand that this experience early on the first test day was due to my inexperience and that Mercedes is aiming to free up centre console space by moving car controls elsewhere.
But it has the potential to be dangerous in novice hands. That aside, the performance of the little engine was commendable but hardly exciting. In fact, the combination of the turbo engine and the dual-clutch produced enough lag to make crossing a busy street a real heart-testing moment. But though initial progress is slow, the cruising ability is excellent. It lopes along just sipping fuel, is very quiet, very comfortable and has all the room inside to make possible a family weekender. Just like an SUV.
Great concept already in place (SUV) but the Mercedes badge makes the difference. Is it enough? No.
Price: from $38,950
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km, roadside assist
Service interval: 12 months
Safety rating: 5-star
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cyl turbo-petrol 90kW/200Nm
Transmission: 7-spd dual-clutch auto, front drive
Body: 4.4m (L); 1.8m (w); 1.6m (h)
Thirst: 6.1 L/100km; 95RON; 141g/km Co2
Mazda CX-5 MAXX Sport
Price: from $33,540
Engine: 2.0-litre, 4-cyl petrol, 114kW/200Nm
Transmission: 6-spd auto, front drive
Thirst: 6.4 L/100km; 91RON; CO2 148g/km
BMW X1 SDrive 18i
Engine: 2.0-litre, 4-cyl petrol, 110kW/200Nm
Transmission: 6-spd auto, rear drive
Thirst: 8.4L/100km; 98RON; CO2 195g/km
Peugeot 4008 Allure
Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl petrol, 110kW/192Nm
Transmission: CVT auto, front drive
Thirst: 8.1L/100km; 91RON; CO2 192g/km