The Mercedes Benz B-class, which is on its way to India, is a unique blend of practicality, user-friendliness and quality in an affordable package

Unlike the saloons and SUVs that Mercedes-Benz has brought to India, the B-class is a totally different product. Merc says the new B-class is aimed at a very different set of buyers — the youth. At first look you may not be blown away by the styling, but the B-class is something you slowly warm upto. It offers a unique blend of practicality, user-friendliness and quality in a relatively affordable package. There’s no doubt that the B-class has its own special appeal, but the larger question is, can this radically different Merc change the Indian luxury car buyer’s mindset and perceptions?

Under the skin, the new B-class (W246) retains the W245’s front-wheel-drive architecture, but ditches the old car’s complex and expensive ‘sandwich structure’ chassis for a more conventional monocoque. This not only is a cheaper option but also liberates space inside. Brakes are discs all around and the steering is an electrically assisted rack-and-pinion system. The spare wheel is an inflatable space-saver and the B-class comes with an electric tyre inflator. All in all, the B180 weighs a hefty 1425kg.

The first thing that hits you the moment you step inside is the luxurious surrounding which is not very unlike something that you will find in an E-class. The dashboard design is smart and we particularly liked the SLS-style air-con vents and the AMG-style steering wheel. The seating position isn’t too high and nor low. The seats are nicely cushioned and there’s ample room for heads and knees wherever you’re sitting. Still, you won’t complain much when you realise that, even if you’re a six-footer, there truly is enough room to stretch out in here. It’s a practical cabin — storage space is adequate, with big door pockets, two reasonably big cubbyholes on the centre console and a rather big glovebox.

Useful touches

Like in most new auto-transmission Mercs, the gear selector is on the steering column to free up space on the centre console, and for once the door mirrors are big and convex on both sides, so they are actually usable.

If we had a complaint with the cabin it would be with the control stalks, which are configured in true Merc tradition. The single stalk for the lights and wipers is on the left, the cruise control stalk is just below it and the gearlever stalk is on the right of the steering wheel. It is confusing initially and you tend to knock the gearlever into neutral when you want the indicators. Breaking away from Mercedes tradition is the parking brake; it is no longer foot-operated, but electronically activated with a button on the dashboard. The COMAND system’s screen isn’t particularly well-integrated into the dashboard. Also, the interface now looks a bit dated.

At 486 litres, the boot is usefully big and you get a huge 1545 litres when you fold the rear seats. Adding to its practical nature is the low boot loading lip that makes it easy to haul luggage in. Equipment levels are good — there’s climate control, USB and aux-in ports, leather upholstery, a twin-sunroof and electrically adjustable seats. The safety feature list is quite long as well — there are seven airbags, hill-start assist, ABS, ESP, brake assist, traction control and a tyre pressure warning system. The B-class maybe a small Merc, but there’s no stinting on safety equipment or features.

The engine is from an all-new engine family (engine code: M270). It’s an all-aluminium 1.6-litre turbocharged, direct-injection petrol engine that sits transversely over the front axle. The B-class always starts in Eco mode, and that means the seven-speed auto upshifts early and the quick-acting stop-start system is eager to cut in every time you come to a stop at a red light. To get the best out of the engine, you need to switch Eco mode off, put the transmission in manual mode and use the well-finished paddles behind the steering wheel. Do so and it will hit 100kph in 10.2sec and will go on to a top speed of 192kph — very impressive figures for car that weighs over 1.4 tonnes and makes a modest 121bhp. Around town, the engine is smooth and adequately responsive.

This being a Merc, the seven-speed, twin-clutch gearbox doesn’t have the jerkiness usually associated with this kind of transmission. Set the gearbox in Economy mode and it will shift up smoothly and early in the rev range, and will mostly disobey commands from the paddle-shifters. In Sport and Manual modes you get more control through the paddles and it’s fairly responsive and quick acting.

The B-class is a pretty good cruiser too and, again, there’s always sufficient grunt for highway duties. Overtaking is quite easy thanks to the strong mid-range and this makes the B 180 feel even quicker than it actually is.

Sporty feel

Our test car came with low-profile tyres (225/40 R18) and an optional sports suspension, so the ride was pretty stiff. However, the launch version will come with a softer suspension and 225/45 tyres on 17-inch rims, which should make it far more comfortable. Hence, it would be inappropriate to comment on the ride quality, but it is safe to say that though it should be fairly pliant, the small B-class is unlikely to have the majestic ride of the Merc saloons.

What is truly impressive is the handling, which certainly has a sporty feel to it. The B-class darts from corner to corner in a way that is incredible for a car with such a long wheelbase. The chassis is brilliantly balanced and there’s a wonderful neutral feel to the handling. The way it puts its power down is very impressive for a front-wheel-drive car too. The turn-in is sharp, the grip is fantastic and the body stays nice and flat, allowing you to push it even harder. The best bit about the B-class’ dynamics is the electric steering, which has been tuned to offer the same fluidic feel Mercedes owners will know so well. In fact, the steering feel is so good it will make you wonder if Mercedes has secretly hidden a hydraulic steering pump under the bonnet.

Overall refinement is pretty good given the size of this car, but there’s a noticeable amount of wind noise and tyre roar (which should reduce with the India-spec rubber).

The B-class’ quick-to-cut-in stop-start function and Eco mode help its fuel economy in the city. We got an absolutely decent 9.5kpl. Its slippery shape and low drag coefficient helped it return 14.2kpl on the highway.

At an estimated Rs 25 lakh, it may be the most affordable Merc in the Indian market, but will it be able to change the mindset of the Indian luxury car buyers? We believe it will be.