With Mercedes-Benz launching its most affordable car in India yet, as well as the most affordable one amongst the big Teutonic trio, does the B-Class have what it takes to change the Indian luxury car landscape? We find out
The new Mercedes-Benz B-Class is somewhat of a confusing car, or rather it managed to baffle us a bit, especially when we were coming up with the list of 2012’s car of the year contenders and were hard pressed to find a segment to place this car in. Now Mercedes-Benz calls it a ‘Compact Sports Tourer’, but one thing we’ve learned over the years is to not really go by the classification nomenclature manufacturers choose to define their cars with. I mean, Mahindra calls the Quanto a ‘Compact SUV’ for chrissake and Maruti Suzuki calls the Ertiga a ‘Life Utility Vehicle’ – what does that even mean? So while Merc’s taxonomy of Compact Sports Tourer might work in Europe, it doesn’t make much sense here in India.
But how auto makers choose to classify their vehicles doesn’t really have any bearing on just how good the car actually is. So let’s get one thing straight right off the bat – sports tourer or not, what the B-Class is, is a very, very good car. Now that that’s out the way, let’s delve a little deeper into just what makes the B so delectable. And to do just that, we’ve got our hands on the top of the range B180 Sport.
The way it looks
Initially when I had just seen the new B-Class in pictures, it had given off a vibe akin to the Honda Jazz – basically a big, comfortable hatchback, but in the B’s case, a very luxurious one carrying that oh-so-desirable three-pointed star on the grille. But see the car in flesh, and one realises that the B, at 4,359mm in length, is actually much bigger than the sub 4-metre Jazz. If anything, the B feels slightly reminiscent of Merc’s ‘Grand Sport Tourer’, the R-Class, albeit in a scaled down form factor. To be extremely honest, the B-Class is not flattering from every angle given its tall roof line and elongated cabin. What does add a lot to the car’s overall appeal is the somewhat longish hood which takes it far away from a van-like appearance.
The B’s design also reflects the German auto giant’s trend of paying great attention to little design details which is apparent in all of the company’s current line-up of cars. And this ‘Sport’ edition is all about details, from the blackened out top nesting a pair of sun-roofs, the massive 17-inch alloy wheels with their gorgeous 10-spoke design, the curvaceous xenon headlamps with LED running lights, the sculpted and louvered front bumper, the little roof spoiler and the twin chromed tailpipes. While beautiful might be a slight stretch, the B-Class definitely looks stunning, and everywhere we drove this car, the amount of stares it got were akin to what most sportscars get.
The interior story
To be very honest, I liked the interior design much more than I did the exterior, and that is actually high praise indeed because I quite like the way this car looks from the outside as well. The layout is very well thought out and exudes a sense of classiness that frankly even the other Germans find difficult to match. Some might think that the black-on-black dashboard and console with bits of aluminium trim is a bit too dark, I personally prefer this sort of a thing because it doesn’t distract when you’re driving, at the same time looks very stylish without seeming even slightly tacky from any angle.
And on top of that, the crème leather seats add a wonderful contrast to the otherwise dark trim. Another thing we thoroughly enjoyed was the leather wrapped three-spoke steering wheel with aluminium accents which offers a perfect grip and conveys a great sense of sportiness. Then there are the round aluminium-accented air-conditioning vents which, forgive me for saying this, kinda remind me of those from the outrageously styled Pagani Zonda. The B-Class also features a style of LCD screen new to Merc’s cars – one which looks like a 6-inch smartphone/table plugged into the dash and gives a very modern, almost concept car-like feel.
It might sound a little silly when described in words, but believe me, it’s an extremely cool addition to the interiors. The B does offer plenty of space both in the front and the back thanks to its tall cabin design and even the car’s fairly long 2,699mm wheelbase ensures that nobody in the back will complain about leg room. In fact, sitting three abreast on the back bench is a fairly easy task too.
What’s under the hood?
When we first drove the B-Class before it was launched in India, it was the B200 CGI model that Abhishek got his hands on. For sale in India however, Merc has opted to go with its slightly milder twin, the B180 CGI. Both use pretty much the same engine – a 1.6-litre four-cylinder direct injection turbocharged petrol motor, but for the B180, it is in a slightly lower state of tune, producing about 34PS of power less than that in the B200. Still, it’s not like the B180 feels too lacking in terms of output. 122PS of power, but more importantly, 200Nm of peak torque spread right from 1,250rpm all the way to 4,000rpm ensures absolutely buttery power delivery.
The CGI mill offers crisp throttle response as well and while performance is not out of this world, with your foot down, the sonorous engine note will definitely get your blood pumping. The other difference between the B200 we had driven earlier and this B180 that is available in India is also the choice of transmission.
While the first drive car had a proper 6-speed manual gearbox, the B-for-India offers Merc’s latest 7G-DCT – a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. In automatic mode, it offers smooth gear changes but its own choice of cog for some driving situations is not really the smartest. To get the best out of the engine, the wisest thing to do is slot it into the manual mode and swap cogs using the steering mounted paddles. Use the paddles in the right manner and the car absolutely rewards you every time. Upshifts are quick and seamless while the downshifts, if done with enough revs to spare, will blip the engine each time you click the ‘minus’ paddle and change down literally in the blink of an eye.
Performance and handling
As I’ve mentioned, the performance isn’t something that’ll blow your mind. The dash from zero to 100km/h is dealt with in a hair under 11 seconds but what’s more respectable is the overtaking acceleration under kickdown. Floor the throttle at 70km/h and you’ll find the needle climbing over 100km/h in just about 5 seconds. What is even more impressive about the B-Class is the fact that even with a fairly hefty kerb weight of 1,425kg it manages to pull up in phenomenally short distances. Drop the anchors at 100km/h and you’ll hit a dead stop in a scant 37.76 metres, taking only 2.7 seconds in the process.
Part of this is down to the razor sharp disc brakes at each end, while the rest is thanks to the B’s 225/45 profile extra sticky Continental tyres, which also endow the car with superb levels of grip while chucking it around corners. Make no mistake though; the B-Class isn’t meant to be a corner carver as such. The MacPherson strut front axle and a specially designed four-link rear axle combined with computer controlled electro-mechanical steering system give a good feel for the road, while the stability control electronics keep things fairly under control when things get a bit hairy.
But the inherent understeer that is a hallmark of all front-wheel drive cars also creeps its ugly head up if you overstep the boundaries. For the most part though, the handling can be classified as ‘good’. What isn’t so good though is the ride quality, which over broken roads can be atrocious at times. Blame the 45-profile tyres or the ‘sporty’ suspension setup, at the end of the day, the B-Class won’t be your best friend when the going gets rough.
Living with it
The B-Class offers a ton of features that should appeal to a lot of people, the most important of that being space – there’s simply quite a lot of it and should satisfy most. One of the other brilliant features is the massive boot, which measures in at a massive 486 litres. But the B’s party piece is Merc’s proprietary EASY-VARIO-PLUS System, which allows 1/3 : 2/3 split folding of the back seats, making it easy to store awkward sized loads.
And the best part is that both these seats fold absolutely flat and free up a humongous 1,545 litres of space, and that should be enough for everything including the kitchen sink. Then you also have the mileage, which at an overall figure of 8.75kmpl leaves a lot to be desired. True, that most who can afford to buy one of these won’t care too much about the paltry fuel mileage, but then again, a lot of people buying a car in this segment prefer diesel.
It’s a little hard to sum up the B-Class. On one hand it offers great space, practicality and a good driving experience. On the other, some of its features, especially the ride quality, wasn’t seem to have been designed with Indian roads in mind. The B’s biggest trump card though is price. While this Sport model costs Rs 24.87 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi), you can get your hands on the base B180 CGI for just Rs 21.49 lakh ex-show, making it the most affordable car in entire combined portfolio of the three big German auto makers. But will affordability alone be enough for Indian buyers to pick up the B? Well, in our opinion, those who desire the 3-pointed star, but haven’t got the pockets for its sedan offerings will definitely bite.
But for those just looking at entry level luxury cars without specific brand preferences have the BMW X1 and the Audi Q3 to choose from, both of which appeal to the fetish for SUVs in Indian buyers. What the B seems to be actually doing is laying the foundation for the next small car from Merc’s stables to come to India, the A-Class. When the A-Class arrives next year at what we think will be a sub-20 lakh price bracket, it will give Mercedes-Benz an entire portfolio in India starting from luxury hatch to luxury limo. The B should be the foundation to herald the arrival of the A as well as offer a nice step up for someone looking for something a little bigger and more spacious. Till then we’ll just have to wait and see how the B-Class holds the fort.