But things started changing post 2007 when its traditional rivals from back home in Germany woke up to the Indian dream. In search of new money, BMW and Volkswagen group firm Audi realised almost simultaneously that they were missing out on something potentially big—the next growth market after China. Being a late entrant, BMW fought hard with competitive pricing and a very youthful positioning—Mercedes designs were viewed as boxy and dated—and managed to quickly emerge on top. Gathering volumes with new models like the X1 compact SUV, BMW retained its leadership for four years (2009 to 2012). Audi also increased its pace in the last year with the Q3, pushing Mercedes to the third spot.
Meanwhile, Mercedes upgraded its existing range with youthful designs, but chose to kept its best weapons in store. The men in Stuttgart waited till the competition had played out its best game, before calling for war. And war it is, the new B-Class launched last year takes the battle for luxury car supremacy to new lows in terms of price in a bid to gather volumes and reclaim the top spot.
The B-Class is the first five-door large hatchback in the segment, and a starting price of R21.49 lakh makes it the cheapest luxury car available in the country, while promising the snob value of the Mercedes brand. It is, in fact, cheaper than many sedan offerings from mass segment carmakers such as the Volkswagen Passat and Toyota Camry. In the next two years, Mercedes will completely unravel its ‘Next Gen Compact Cars’ portfolio with the smaller A-Class, GLA compact SUV and the CLA entry luxury sedan, promising an even lower entry price than ever before for the brand. Today, however, we will focus on the B-Class, a five-seater ‘sports tourer’ which tries to behave like a sedan on the road, but promises a slightly higher driving position of a small SUV. We hope to see if the B-Class really deserves to sport the shiny star badge that it so proudly flaunts.
Not all are fully convinced by the design, especially from the side profile and the back, but the long front nose with its sharp lines and the LED-lit bi-xenon headlights remind one of the beautiful new C-Class. We drove the top-end B180 Sport model (R24.87 lakh), which sports 17-inch alloy wheels and a panoramic sunroof—the entire roof is practically glass. Features include a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifts, dual exhausts and perforated brakes. As far as safety measures are concerned, apart from ABS and ESP, there are seven airbags (including one for the knee), Mercedes’ Attention Assist system to check if the driver is tired and Acceleration Skid Control. It is packed with more technology and luxury features than probably even the C-Class or BMW 3-Series. After all, Mercedes is to the auto industry what Nokia means to telecom—it has the most number of technology patents that it licences out.
So, it’s all good on paper, but how does it feel out on the road. Well, in city driving, the steering is light and smooth, with the pick-up from the petrol 1.6 litre (120bhp) engine proving just adequate to overtake slower traffic and prying eyes. However, the lower-profile tyres on the B180 Sport do not handle the bumps on the road as well as the C-Class does; in fact, the jarring feeling of potholes travelled well up the spine. One feels that the suspension is tuned more for the track than for city roads. From a car which promises the feel of an SUV/MPV, the low ground clearance is a surprise as well. But, the main problem is when the B-Class is asked to stretch its legs on the highway, and the result is that the pick-up is simply not really fast and smooth enough. In fact, at times, I had to feel my steering wheel to remember I was driving a Mercedes. Maybe I expected a bit too much, or maybe I will have to wait for the diesel model that comes in this summer.
A second drive around Greater Noida’s Buddh International Circuit really saw the B-Class coming on its own. The drive at the F1 track was sporty, the car easily tackled the steep corners even at speeds above 80 kmph, and the ride was comfortable. This is where the stiff suspension tuning helped, but Mercedes, is this really your target market?
Interiors are typically Mercedes with features such as the COMAND audio-visual telematics system—in fact, this is the first Mercedes we drove that features on-board GPS/navigation. The car also comes with Mercedes’ Blue Efficiency technology, which essentially means comparatively environmental-friendly operation of the car. There is also adequate space at the back and a huge boot space that makes one often forget that this is a hatch and not a sedan. As a conclusion, we’d say that this is a great car to buy if you really want a Mercedes and can’t spend more than R25 lakh. After all, it’s loaded with features and looks pretty, though not from all angles. For other MB fans, hold on for the A-Class, it will be yet cheaper and much sportier.