Mercedes-Benz's lack of an entry-level luxury car in the Indian market will soon be a thing of the past. Right now, it only has the C-Class in its arsenal to take on the fight with its competitors - BMW, MINI and Audi. Boosting the choice within its portfolio, but at lower price points, will be new models starting first with the B-Class, which will be launched in September / October this year.

Later, by early 2014, the new A-Class will join the team here and the new compact sedan (supposedly called the CLA) will also be part of the portfolio months later. These cars are expected to help Mercedes bridge the gap and attract a new class of customers who are currently not being catered to, due to the price barrier.

The first to join Mercedes-Benz India's new line-up will, of course, be the B-Class. With this ‘Sports Tourer’, which can also be viewed as a compact luxury MPV, the company will expect to create a new segment. Whichever way you look at it, the B-Class is likely to attract a lot of attention due to its unique body style. Mercedes officials say that the new B is likely to be priced in the region of Rs 25 lakh and that the company is very clear that though imported, the car will be priced in the same range as it would be if assembled locally.

That is good news and it is timely too, and it could enable Mercedes to take on competition from the Audi Q3, BMW X1 and the MINIs.

The B-Class has held a unique position in Mercedes-Benz's line-up globally. Like the CLS, it is one more of those body styles that Mercedes designers and engineers managed to mould to be special, to create a strong new sub-segment and eventually to be emulated. But, inside, the 'B' is based on the A-Class and even shares some of the smaller sibling's parts and features.

The B-Class has the classic Mercedes design lines all around it. Very MPV-like and hatchback-like traits are there, too, like the sharply rising A-pillar, the almost straight roofline and near vertical tailgate. This is possibly also the reason why these features make the B-Class look more like a large conventional hatchback when viewed up close. It is also not a midget in comparison to the next car in the Merc line-up. In fact, the B-Class' width and wheelbase are marginally higher than the C-Class'.

Short overhangs at the front and the rear, and the compact bonnet section are the characteristics that catch your eye first. As a result, the B-Class' front is strikingly Tourer like. Wrap-around headlamps with the classic Merc combination of lenses and LEDs, and the familiar bonnet grille design would have led you into thinking that it has more in common with the C-Class sedan. That is until you see the sharply rising bonnet slab that goes on to meet an equally sharply rising A-pillar. The wide bonnet creases and the two slatted grille in chrome with the three-pointed star in the middle visually enhances the B-Class' width and stance. The curvy, flared wheel-arches also add to this perception of width.

Design

At the rear, the design has been kept simple. The tail-lamps and their combination are very much a Mercedes-Benz touch, and look similar to some of the brand's estate models. The rear glass is a clean rectangular unit offering sufficient visibility for the driver.

Getting into the B-Class' cabin will again remind you of the car's construction. The driver seat position is very hatchback-like, with a comfortable view of the road at the front and of the sides. Let your eyes stray away from the seat and the cabin's overall quality immediately captures your attention. The dashboard layout and design is crisp and the fit, finish and material quality smells of luxury. The aircraft propeller inspired air-conditioner vents and the neatly structured centre console are not only attractive but also very practical.

I was driving the left-hand drive version of the new B-Class that Mercedes-Benz India had shipped in from Germany, just for us journos to experience on the Buddh International race track. The interior theme was black and grey and the trim level was also one of the lower-end. So, the seats, though extremely comfy and supportive, only had manual adjustments. The cabin was definitely not spartan, but more loaded variants that will make it to the market should feature more premium add-ons. The info display mounted on the centre stack can double for a number features including navigation.

The B-Class' interior space is the other striking feature of the cabin. There is enough legroom for rear passengers thanks to the car's healthy wheelbase. The left-hand drive B-Class that I tested on the track was also the European-spec version and was fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox, which was probably mated to Mercedes-Benz's 2-litre engine.

On the track

Mercedes officials didn't offer the data about the cars that were on the track and were also tight-lipped about the engines that will make it here in September. The engine in the B200 that I drove was possibly capable of delivering 134bhp. It felt quick at the turns on the track, but not quick enough for the straights. Top speeds that I registered were about 165 kmph on the main straight at the BIC. Mercedes also has a few other engines for the B-Class including a 1.7-litre petrol and turbo-charged two-litre petrol.

Mercedes officials said that the petrol engine variant will be the one to make it here first and the diesel may be launched later. The petrol engine being considered will be much more fuel-efficient than the competition's models, according to Merc officials. The track is not the best place to judge a car's ride quality, the B-Class overall felt like a Merc always does, with a fairly pliant suspension and though at very tight corners there was also a bit of body roll. Handling is crisp and composed on the straights, and acceptable at the corners, though at high speeds it doesn't inspire the same level of confidence as the sedans.

The B-Class will help Mercedes-Benz take up the fight with its competitors and offer more choice to the luxury car buyer in the Rs 25 lakh segment. The Sports Tourer concept has a bit of a big brother representation in the R-Class, which Mercedes calls the Grand Tourer. But, the B-Class is still unlikely to be big seller for Merc. It can be the harbinger of better things to come from the three-pointed star.

muralidhar.swaminathan@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on July 31, 2012)
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