You might wonder what a Ford Focus and Mercedes-Benz B-Class are doing together here. It's not so strange, really. Ford's small car has really moved up the scale in terms of sophistication and quality and has the awards cabinet to prove it. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz has moved the latest B-Class away from idiosyncratic engineering/packaging and more into a conventional small-car mould.
More importantly, the Ford and Mercedes here are the most exciting, driver-focused versions of each available. The Ford we know well already: the Focus ST has taken the hot-hatch world by storm, with its rorty 184kW/360Nm EcoBoost engine and brilliant chassis.
The Mercedes? The B250 is interesting because it's a bit of a sleeper. It has a turbocharged 2-litre direct-injection engine just like the Ford, and it might surprise you to learn that it runs the ST pretty close on engine output: 155kW and 360Nm, the latter just 10Nm shy of the feisty Focus. It also has special lowered suspension and 18-inch wheels - just like the Ford.
Hot hatches both, then. Although the execution is different. The Focus ST was delivered in a hue called Tangerine Scream (no explanation necessary), which extends to the trim inserts on the sports seats. No question about the high quality of the Focus cabin generally, but this particular colour combination combined with a fair bit of cabin bling means the ST is not exactly strong on what you'd call good taste. You can tone it down with a different colour ... but the general effect remains the same.
The Mercedes B250 takes a totally different approach. The new model has all the interior quality Merc and Ford battle it out you'd expect of a Benz and comes with full leather upholstery (all in black, of course), familiar Mercedes switchgear and a prominent information screen atop the dashboard that looks like a mini-iPad. Very cool and classy.
This is reflected in the price, of course. The Focus ST is something of a performance-car bargain at $52,490. The B250 is much further up the price scale, at $64,900. The premium badge and premium feel will partly justify that to some; question is, can it keep pace with the brash Ford on performance, handling and driver appeal?
That's a tall order, because the ST's Ecoboost engine is simply brilliant. There's a surge of torque from the most paltry engine speeds, an exhilarating whoosh of turbo boost and enough power to set the front of the car twitching from side-to-side (torque steer) should you abuse the throttle - which you sometimes can't help doing, just for fun. There is some unique suspension hardware and traction software in the ST, but ultimately that 184kW will still prevail. Hang on, laugh out loud.
The B250 is almost as quick as the Focus ST: 6.8 seconds to 100km/h versus 6.5. The engine is impressively linear too, even if it doesn't quite have the creamy surge of power that the Ford delivers on demand.
The steering isn't as incisive as the Ford's, despite having Benz's Direct Steer variable ratio system. The Mercedes has more grip, but it's at the expense of some chassis fluidity. The ST has a brilliant blend of handling and ride that makes it a car for all occasions. The B250 is noticeably firmer (and noisier on coarse chip), often crashing into mid-corner bumps that the Ford simply soaks up. Fluid versus frantic.
Much of the character of these cars comes from their transmissions. The Focus ST is only available as a conventional six-speed manual and it's a beauty, but also demands full involvement. The B250 boasts a dual-clutch seven-speeder which is capable of lightning-fast shifts in Sport or Manual modes, but can also play cruisy automatic in its Economy setting. It's also about a million times better than the CVT fitted to the previous B200 turbo.
It stands to reason that both cars offer excellent accommodation and luggage capacity relative to their size. After all, that's the beauty of the hot-hatch genre. The B-class reveals its mini-people-mover origins (although Mercedes now likes to call it a "sports tourer") with a long wheelbase, loads of legroom and a much larger boot than the Focus: 488 litres compared with 316 litres.
The ST might not ooze class and space like the Mercedes, but it does have a few tricks up its sleeve. It features Ford's outstanding Sync voice-control system for media/communication functions, which makes the Mercedes look positively archaic. And while sat-nav is standard on the ST (albeit on a minuscule screen), it'll cost you $3190 extra on the Benz as part of the COMAND package.
Verdict? You can't beat the Focus ST for driver appeal. It's a stunning machine that rises to the occasion no matter what you ask of it. It's also $12,410 cheaper than the B250.
The B250 is likeable, though. Classy enough to feel like a proper Benz, but rough enough around the edges to raise the pulse. What it lacks in dynamic sophistication compared with the Focus ST, it makes up for in surprise factor.
Sure, both make cool noises, as you'd expect from hot hatches, but the Ford's happens on the inside thanks to a sound "symposer" that produces a prominent growl in the cabin. The Mercedes doesn't sound anything special inside, but from the outside the exhaust pipes emit a deep and satisfying burble.