Think of a vehicle that you can take to work, for a party, out on a road trip or even to a race track. Well any car or bike will take you there but can one bring a smile on your face? A sports tourer maybe? There is one. But before you think it's a motorcycle, let me tell you it's not. It's the newest Merc in town, the B-Class. Mercedes likes to call it a sports tourer so we went out to find out if it really is one. Not just anywhere but to India's best race track and expressway, the Buddh International Circuit and the Yamuna Expressway. It's going to be a road and track test then. Let's roll.
From the old family van like styling in the previous generation model, the B-Class has actually transformed into a more grown up hot hatch. But since the old B was never sold in India, it doesn't really matter what it looked like. Let's focus on the new model then. Viewed head on, the most striking, sporty element is the blacked out headlamps. It's not just mean to look at but also features a neat projector unit with bi-Xenon lamps. The new design LED daytime lights, like in most new Mercedes-Benz models, flows along the upper side of the headlamp making it a serious attention magnet. The three-point star takes centre stage and though the Indian model doesn't get the blacked out front grille, the twin slat unit is quite a looker. From the sides, the A-Class concept inspired angular shoulder lines give a lot of character to an otherwise clean profile. The five-spoke, 17-inch wheels and 45-section tyres add to the sport quotient. The sport intent doesn't end there, the rear end boasts of a small mock diffuser that's complemented by a chrome tip exhaust on either side.
Step in and the steering wheel looks like it came off an AMG model, thanks to the added support and use of brushed aluminum. Speaking of AMG, the standard race pedals are borrowed from the Mercedes tuner's parts bin, they not only look great but offer good grip as well. It doesn't end there, the propeller like SLS AMG inspired air vents also catches ones attention and highlights the car's sporty intent. Quality of materials used is top notch while fit and finish is on par with bigger Mercs. Coming to space, the cabin offers enormous room (more than the BMW X1 and AUDI Q3 SUVs), enough for five adults to travel in comfort. Since the gear selector is placed behind the wheel and there is no mechanical handbrake, a lot of space is freed up on the centre console. The seats offer good support and headroom and shoulder room are impressive. The rear offers quite a bit of kneeroom, 900mm (maximum) to be precise which makes it just 65mm short of the much larger S-Class, if one needs even more space, the rear seats can slide backwards too. Bigger windows also mean there is more visibility than the average sedan. There's also a sunroof and a panorama roof at the rear that give the cabin a very airy feeling. There's lot of boot space too, 666 litres to be exact. And if you want to go fishing or golfing, the seats can be folded to offer 1545 litres. This makes the B not just sporty but very practical too.
A diesel engine may be the need of the hour but Mercedes has given the oil burner a miss and instead offers the B with a petrol engine. Now that's a sign of its sporty intentions but also the wrong strategy for India. There may be a B180 badge at the back but it's an all-new 1.6-litre turbocharged engine that does duty. 122PS of max power and 200Nm of peak torque may sound low on paper but on the road, it is a smooth and very relaxed highway cruiser. One can choose between three driving modes (economy, sport and manual) by pressing a button on the centre console. We selected economy mode since we drove from Delhi to Agra and back on the new Yamuna Expressway, an arrow straight road that travels a total of 165km. On the road, the engine is ultra refined. The 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox shifts seamlessly and in top gear the car effortlessly cruises at 170kmph with the tacho reading a little over 3000rpm! Since the engine is stress free even at these speeds, one can cruise for hours making the B a genuine mile muncher. We ended up reaching Agra in less than two hours, much before schedule. Fuel economy is impressive too, in the city it returned 12.8kmpl while on the highway the figure went up to 20.4kmpl resulting in an overall figure of 14.7kmpl. This means on a full tank, the Merc is capable of doing close to 750km.
After a visit to see the mighty Taj Mahal we were back on the expressway to Delhi, it was time to head to the BIC. On the track, even a fast car can feel slow, but that said the B-Class is quite capable. It does run out of steam on the long back straight but around corners there is enough grunt to keep you occupied. In sport mode, the engine revs neatly all the way to 6500rpm. The strength of the engine lies in its free-revving nature, it stays refined while working hard too. The twin-clutch gearbox matches the engine for enthusiastic driving and since the B gets paddle shifters, it's a boon especially on the racetrack. In our tests, 0-100kmph came in 10.8 seconds while the quartermile was crossed in 17.1 seconds. The car went on to max out at 182kmph. Respectable figures indeed. In terms of performance, the B is then a capable car both on the road and track.
Unlike most Mercedes-Benz cars, the B-Class is front-wheel driven since it 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. Also new is the multi-link rear suspension and electro-mechanical steering. On the track, despite the long wheelbase, the B surprised us with good front end grip and very little understeer. Turn-in is sharp and the chassis is well balanced, even at limit the car feels quite composed. The steering weighs up perfectly and gives you feedback that's as direct as a hydraulic steering. All round discs ensure good braking while brake feel is very progressive. The suspension is set slightly towards the stiff side and there is hardly any sign of body roll. The low centre of gravity also adds to agility. The driving position is also very car like and doesn't feel out of place on a racetrack. Out on the highway, the Merc is stable and offers an excellent ride despite running 17-inch wheels with a low tyre profile. Bad roads and potholes are absorbed well too. While driving through the narrow and crowded villages around Agra, the B was as easy to negotiate as a hatchback. Road noise is well insulated and it's a relaxed drive at all times. The B is perfect for touring, driving around town and quite entertaining on the track.
The B-Class is a car with no real rivals, the BMW X1 and Audi Q3 are the closest rivals though they aren't in the same price range . The Merc is a more practical car and at the same time easier to drive around in town while being more spacious.
After testing the car on the road and on the race track, we strongly feel that the B-Class lives up to its sport tourer tag. It is sporty to look at and spacious enough for five adults and their luggage. The engine is refined and smooth on the highway and rev happy on the track. It even impresses while driving long distance on expressways or around tight corners. A diesel motor isn't available at the moment but expect Mercedes to offer one in mid 2013 along with a more powerful petrol variant. The B180 starts at Rs 21.49 lakh for the base version while the Sport version which we tested is priced at Rs 24.87 lakh, all prices ex-Delhi. This makes the B-Class not just the most affordable Merc you can buy today but also one of the most fun sports oriented family cars in its price range.