Of all the things the average Indian buyer has in mind before making a purchase (any purchase), value for money is paramount. It doesn't matter what end of the economic scale they may be from - someone who barely makes ends meet will think long and hard before buying one brand of soap over the other, while somebody who has plenty of zeroes in his bank balance will compare the features in two different brands of multi-crore luxury cars before signing on the dotted line. The core question remains the same - "Am I getting the best possible bang for my buck?"
It is also true that the goalposts that represent value have constantly moved - five years ago, a person who wouldn't have dreamt of buying a TV costing Rs 60,000 is the same person who's now kitting out their living room with a home theatre system. Value for money, therefore, is both a constant (in terms of being a core concept) as well as a variable, in terms of the boundaries that encompass it. The new Mercedes-Benz B-Class aims to take advantage of this, slotting itself into the market as a luxury product that also provides comparative value for money. Has it managed to pull it off? It is too early to tell in terms of sales figures, but read on for the complete picture about the car itself.
A little history first - the first generation B-Class didn't exactly set sales charts afire, and it wasn't too well received critically either. It was roomy and practical, with a unique 'sandwich floor' design, which allowed for possible battery storage (for hybrid applications) and the engine and gearbox to be pushed under the passenger compartment in case of a head-on impact, but it was proclaimed as being 'un-Mercedes like' to drive.
The all-new B-Class, which shares the same platform as the smaller A-Class, aims to right all those wrongs. To begin with, even though the basic outward design has not changed radically, engineers have managed to reduce its drag coefficient to a commendable 0.24, despite the fact that it sits so upright; the sandwich floor has also been done away with, leading to the car sitting lower on the road.
The B-Class sits somewhere in the middle ground of being a hatchback and an MPV (Mercedes is pitching it as a 'Sports Tourer') - it's larger than your average hatchback, and smaller than most MPVs, as a result of which it looks a little bloated; the upswept creases on its flanks contribute to this effect, although they help to make the car more aerodynamic. It would be a stretch to call it pretty - 'unusual' is more like it, and it does have a certain presence on the road.
This car's core strength lies in the way that it has been packaged. Due to its low stance, it is very easy to get in and out of it, and once inside, you will find a spacious, airy and stylish cabin. Its 2.7-metre wheelbase, combined with the low floor and the low glass lines, give it plenty of leg and head room, and three people can sit quite comfortably in the rear seat, which also folds flat for extra storage space. In the B180 Sport that we were driving, you get well-crafted leather seats, Bluetooth, USB and AUX-in, snazzy chrome A/C vents, a multi-function steering wheel, a reversing camera, bi-Xenon headlamps and a host of other features; the base B180 isn't quite as well loaded. Fit and finish is of a very high level, overall, in keeping with Mercedes standards.
In terms of practicality, the car is a mixed bag; while the hatch space is huge and easily accessed due to its low floor, it is also compromised because of the presence of a space-saving spare wheel. This wheel cannot be stored under the false floor of the storage area, because the inclusion of a tyre-inflation compressor there takes up too much space. Luggage space, or the advantage of having standard tubeless tyres as opposed to runflats?
Under the B-Class' hood, you will find a surprisingly small (for a Mercedes) engine. Currently, the car is only available with a 1.6-litre, turbocharged, direct injection petrol engine with VVT, which puts out 121 bhp@5000 rpm and 20 kg@1250-4000 rpm. With start/stop technology and three driving modes (Eco, Sport and Manual), it's not exactly a barnstormer, but it has its strengths - low down performance is sprightly (the turbo really helps here), and once you're cruising at highway speeds, the motor is relaxed. The 7-speed dual clutch transmission is also tuned mainly for refinement and smoothness, although it holds revs for appreciably longer when in Sport mode. The performance numbers are quite respectable - 0-60 kmph comes up in 4.5 seconds, 0-100 kmph in 10.5 seconds and the 80-120 kmph overtaking manoeuvre takes 7.1 seconds.
One gripe with the transmission is the position of the gear selector stalk on the right of the steering column, though. Indians are used to having the indicator stalk on the right, so there's a chance that when a person who has upgraded from a Japanese or Korean car wants to indicate left or right, they'll inadvertently put the car into neutral - this is something that will have to be explained at the showroom level, during a test drive!
The B-Class offers a level of handling that is one step above any other hatchback, premium or otherwise. Although its electrically powered steering unit feels a bit dull in the hands, if you really push the car through a series of tight corners, it grips surprisingly well and with a lot of confidence, for a front wheel-driven car. Undulations in the road are ironed out well enough to keep occupants happy, although it does tend to become a bit bumpy at the back over a series of potholes - this improves if there is more weight on the rear axles.
So, the question you're faced with is this - would you pay Rs 21.49 lakh for the standard B180 and Rs 24.87 lakh for the Sport trim (all prices ex-showroom, Mumbai)? That kind of money would buy you some very capable premium sedans from other marques, and some equally interesting 'budget' offerings from BMW and Audi (see Pit Stop). It all boils down to your own definition of value for money, and how far you think the goalposts have shifted; looked at purely on its merits, the B-Class is a great way to buy into the prestige of the Mercedes-Benz brand, and it should make for an even more compelling buy when a diesel engine comes in next year.