Think of a Mercedes-Benz in India and the first things that come to mind are long sedans, convertibles, SUVs and even a van or two. Despite having a sizeable number of cars in its portfolio, the marque is falling behind its German rivals. Internationally, Merc competed with BMW and Audi in the compact car segment with the A and B-Class. Merc never dared to bring these cars to India. Why? Because no Indian in their right value-for-money-mind would buy a hatchback for more than Rs 7 lakh. But that was then. Now times have changed. And the entry level luxury car pie is what Merc wants a piece of. Enter the newest members of the Merc family the all new A and B-Class. The two cars that have now been reworked to fit in the pie and are all set to take the game to the next level. Among the two, the B-Class will be the first to make its entry in India and we got our hands on it right here.
MPVs can be desirable too, look at the B and you will agree with me. The new design language used in the latest generation B-Class transforms it from being a boring family van to a more modern MPV (actually an overgrown hatchback) with a dash of sportiness and youth added to it. In fact the Mercedes Benz design team has aimed at making the car emotionally appealing. It's an attractive car, viewed head on it looks very car like, the nose sits low with the only give away being the bonnet sweeping up till the windshield quite rakishly. Similar to most of the newer upper end models from the Merc stable, the B too gets LED strip lighting that blend well by following the upper part of the sleek headlamps. The front bumper though looks rather small, smartly houses the air dam and day time running lights. The twin slat grille is prominent while the large three-pointed star takes centre stage. Speaking about the star, I like the transparent flat badge with the three dimensional star incorporated inside rather than the one we are otherwise familiar with in a Mercedes. The side profile is like most modern European MPVs but what really stands out in the B are the lines that run around it. Inspired by the concept A-Class, the shoulder line begins at the front fender and sweeps downwards to the middle of the rear door while a low side line runs parallel and shoots up all the way till the rear taillamp. This gives the side a very sporty feel and character to an otherwise conventional MPV look.
The car we drove featured 18-inch wheels with low profile run flat tyres that add to the sport quotient. However, the Indian production model will feature smaller wheels with higher profile rubber and a spare tyre. The outer mirrors are borrowed from the existing Mercedes parts bin. From the rear, the taillamp resembles the E-Class and ML-Class and this ensures the distinctive family look.
Step inside, and one will notice the layout has also evolved directly from the A-Class concept. Three centre air blowers and a tablet like centre-mounted multimedia screen are perfect examples. In fact the control knobs and propeller-like aluminum-finished blower vents are shared with the all new production model A-Class (Both being from the same MFA family). The design complements the modern exterior, the satin finish centre panel (India spec may have other trim options) exudes a fresh cool look especially with the neat honeycomb pattern trim. The steering wheel looks like it came straight off an AMG model especially with the added support and brushed aluminum detailing. The quality of the interiors is top notch while soft touch materials along with leather covered door pads give the B a very premium feel. We drove the left hand drive demonstration variant that featured all black interiors but expect the Indian version to feature dual tone black and light beige interiors.
The B-Class is 4.36 metres long and 1.8 metres wide (which slots it in between the Ertiga and Innova in terms of length but it is wider than the two MPVs). As expected, there is adequate space to seat five adults in comfort. One sinks into the seats but the rear middle passenger tends to sit higher because of a small bump in the seat though there is no centre armrest. The rear however offers quite a bit of kneeroom, 900mm (maximum) to be precise which makes it just 65mm short of the much larger S-Class. The only negative being the transmission tunnel at the rear (really don't know why it's present in a front wheel drive car with no four-wheel variant in the pipeline!) that intrudes into valuable space for the middle passenger. The boot offers an ample 666 litres of boot space with the rear seats slided forward, enough to carry luggage for a small holiday and if needed the space can be increased to 1545 litres by folding down the rear seats further highlighting the B's practical side. There is also a glass panoramic roof that adds to the spacious feel.
Unlike the previous B-Class, the engine is transverse mounted with the gearbox alongside like a conventional FF layout car. Talking about the engine, we drove the B200CGI powered by the new series of petrol engines, codenamed M270. The 1.6-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged direct-injection petrol engine uses some of the design features of the latest third generation direct injection Mercedes V6 and V8 units. This will be the same engine option available in India. A diesel variant has not been confirmed as of now. The B we drove was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission but the Indian version will feature a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that shares a lot of components with the six-speed manual. The undersquare SOHC engine puts out 156PS of maximum power at 5000rpm and 250Nm of torque available as low as 1250rpm. On the road, the engine feels very quiet and refined. There is hardly any turbo lag and the power delivery actually feels like a naturally aspirated engine. Mid range power is impressive and the engine felt responsive. The gear shifts took very little effort and fell nicely into place.
In terms of performance, the B200 with the dual-clutch auto box crosses the ton in 8.4 seconds while the top speed is 220kmph. In terms of fuel efficiency, the B has an overall fuel economy of 16.14kmpl (all data being claimed figures)
The B is based on the new compact car platform developed by Mercedes-Benz. Codenamed MFA (Modular Front Architecture) which will spawn five different body styles including a compact SUV to take on the likes of the BMW X1 and Audi Q3. The B-Class MPV being the first of the range followed by the new A-Class hatchback that is also heading to India. The B claims to be the most aerodynamically efficient family car, with a drag coefficient of 0.26, a remarkable figure considering the shape of the vehicle.
The B features a MacPherson strut front suspension and a four-link independent arrangement at the rear, anti-roll bars and electric power steering. The car went around corners without complaint (a lower centre of gravity compared to the older B also being the reason) and only when we do a full road test will we be able to check if there is any noticeable understeer. The steering is responsive and well weighted even at higher speeds. The ride quality is one of the B's plus points, though our car featured 18-inch wheels with low profile run flat tyres, the ride was impressive even on cobbled roads. The car feels well settled and though the wheelbase has come down from the previous B, the car is able to absorb bumps and bad roads better. The smooth ride over smooth and bad roads ensures that the car lives up to trademark ride quality Mercs are known for.
The B-Class will be launched as early as August 2012 and is expected to start at Rs 20 to Rs 22 lakh, ex-showroom and will boast of a long feature list. At this price it will make it the most affordable Mercedes-Benz available in the country until the A-Class arrives. Will the new 'affordable' Mercs help the German giant to reclaim lost glory? Only time will tell but they sure do have the right weapons.