Driven #21: Mercedes-Benz A-Class (A180 CDI)

Just over an year back, we carried a post on how Mercedes-Benz is betting big on models developed from its then-new Modular Front Architecture (MFA) platform to return to the top of the luxury car segment. Well, exactly twelve months later, our prediction has come true. Aided by a strong demand for its MFA-derived B-Class and A-Class, Mercedes-Benz moved ahead of Audi and BMW to become the top-selling luxury car brand in the Indian market last month. This has never happened ever since Mercedes-Benz lost its lead to BMW in 2009.

The A-Class, that went on sale in India very recently, is a very important model for Mercedes-Benz. It is not only the most affordable car wearing the three pointed star, but also the one that spearheads the emergence of compact luxury cars in India. That was a big gamble, given the fact that "bigger is always better" in India. Thankfully, the gamble paid off and the A-Class has become a big success. So, how does the A stacks up to the demands of luxury car buyers? We take it out for a spin to find out.

At INR 29.81 Lakhs on-road Chennai, the A180 CDI Style that we drove is the most affordable model in Mercedes-Benz India's lineup.


Despite being based out of the same platform, it is interesting to note the completely contrasting design themes of the B-Class and the A-Class. While the B nudges a little ahead of being called understated, the A-Class is totally opposite. It is over the top and we mean it in a good way.

Up front, the radiator grille made out of 300 odd individual metallic pieces studded like diamonds strikes the onlookers immediately. With the star logo adorning the center flanked on either sides by thin chrome slats, the grille is undoubtedly the signature style statement of the A-Class. Sadly, if you aren't one among those who had already booked the A, be prepared to shell out INR 70,000 for this piece of art. That isn't exactly cheap, but judging by the response it generated during our test drive, it might well be worth it.

The sharp headlight clusters are, as usual, brilliantly detailed with projector lights and streaks of LEDs sharing space with metallic inserts that add to the visual appeal. The split air-dams and the superbly-shaped lower lip in the front bumper is a mix of aggression and substance. While the A does well to hide its roots from the front, the association with B-Class is clearly evident in profile. That's largely due to the twin muscular creases criss-crossing the doors. We are especially smitten by the boomerang-shaped lower character line that extends up towards the rear adding character to the overall design. The long hood and the longer wheelbase clearly hints that the A is not one of those conventional hatchbacks that we know. The low profile tires, shod on smashing 10-spoke, 17-inch alloy wheels, look gorgeous. The slingshot indicators, those striking LED taillights, the big spoiler integrated neatly with the roof and the two-tone rear bumper are the A's other attractions.

Apparently, aerodynamics has played a big part in the design of the A-Class, as the small Merc boasts a wind-cheating coefficient of drag of just 0.27. On the whole, the A-Class is stunning and undoubtedly one of the best-looking hatchbacks ever. The curious stares that the car garnered on more than one occasion during our test drive is a testament to that.

Two variants of the A are on offer. Surprisingly, the diesel A180 CDI retails for a lesser price than the A 180 Sport petrol that obviously gains a few features like panoramic sunroof, twin stainless steel exhaust pipes, sporty instrument cluster with 'chequered flag' design and different upholstery.


Much has been said and written about the A-Class being the most affordable Mercedes-Benz ever. But, step into the car and there are no signs of that. The quality, build and the materials used in the A's cabin are top quality stuff, just as you would expect in any Mercedes-Benz. This is extremely important, given that the A opens up avenues for potential new customers to step into Mercedes-Benz who might end up growing with the brand.

The steering wheel, with the brushed metallic insert and the soft-textured material, looks and feels premium. The white-on-black dials in the instrument cluster with metallic silver surrounds adds a touch of elegance to an otherwise sporty cabin. The Multi Information Display (MID) between the dials is a storehouse of information and lets us toggle between its various displays through buttons on the steering wheel. A constant fixture in all the screens is, of course, the gear indicator and the driving mode that has been selected. The headlamp controller and the pull-push type parking brake occupy their slots to the right of the steering wheel, like they typically do in all Mercedes cars. Similarly, the gear selector is placed in the steering column. Though it takes time to get used to, it is comfortable once we get over that initial period. The two control stalks in the left operates the indicators, the windshield wipers and the cruise control function.

Just like they were in the B-Class, the SLS AMG-inspired air-conditioner vents are the highlight in this cabin too. They are beautifully designed and great to touch, feel and operate. The floating COMMAND infotainment screen controlled by a rotary controller between the front seats looks funky, but that's about it. It still lags behind the advanced infotainment systems available from the competition. The multitude of buttons below are a bit fussy until you get intuitive and get used to them. While two chunky knobs control the air-conditioning for the driver and the front passenger, the absence of climate control is a glaring omission. There are no rear air-conditioning vents either.

The ergonomically-shaped front seats are extremely comfortable with integrated headrests that are angled perfectly. While the driver gets a full-electric seat adjustment, the front passenger makes do with manual controls that gets on your nerves if the seat has to be reclined fully. The cabin is adequately spacious with problems at the rear cropping up only when the front seats are pushed all the way to the back. At the rear, the bench is set upright and there is less under-thigh support as well. That, combined with the big transmission tunnel and the limited width of the seat, makes the A-Class a not-so-interesting travel option for the fifth passenger. What should have been a decent boot space is restricted by the spare tire, which is just strapped on to the floor.

In true Mercedes-Benz fashion, the A-Class is stuffed with active and passive safety technologies that include Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Acceleration Skid Control (ASR), Brake Assist with emergency braking assistance, Hill Start Assist, Attention Assist, Tyre pressure loss warning system, brake pad wear indicator and a total of 9 airbags including pelvis airbags for the driver and front passenger and knee airbag for the driver.


Gone are the days when the numbers on the badges of Mercedes-Benz cars denoted engine displacements. Despite its confusing '180' suffix, the A is powered by a 2.1-liter, inline, 4-cylinder engine that's rated at 107 bhp of power at 3200-4400 rpm and 250 Nm of torque at 1400-2800 rpm. This engine powers the C-Class, E-Class and ML-Class too, albeit in higher states of tune. The spec sheet claims that the A180 CDI is capable of accelerating from 0 to 100 km/h in 10.6 seconds and reaching a top speed of 190 km/h. The engine is mated to a 7G-DCT dual clutch automatic transmission that also does duty in the petrol version.

Turn the ignition on and the car breathes to life with a muted groan. The engine is pretty refined, transmitting just gentle vibrations into the cabin. It is only at higher revs it turns loud and vocal. Press the throttle and the car lunges forward with surprising eagerness. Those power and torque figures, that frankly weren't impressive on paper, aren't troubling us anymore as the perceived lack of power is not translated on road.

Three driving modes can be chosen at the touch of a button. While the Economy mode is obviously tuned for fuel-efficiency and up-shifts early, the Sport mode holds onto gears comparatively longer. The 'Manual' mode that allows us to use the paddles to shift gears is our favourite though. In this mode, the DCT doesn't up-shift and lets us rev until the redline before pitching in. Down-shifts happen automatically though, if we fail to judiciously use the paddles. The paddles themselves are perfectly positioned, so much so, that the index fingers tend to move towards them unwittingly. We know, it's the enthusiast inside us that's responsible for that action, but we will call it this way! The dual-clutch transmission does its job perfectly with smooth, jerk-free and seamless shifts.

The low-speed ride of the A-Class isn't comfortable, with every bump and pothole filtering into the cabin. The meaty 225/45 R17 tires make their presence felt here. As speeds increase, the ride quality goes up and the A-Class is comfortable cruising at triple digit speeds. Handling is impressive and the straight line stability at high speeds is excellent. The steering wheel weighs up nicely as speeds go up and ensures that the driver stays connected to the road at all times. The low profile tires that took its toll on the ride quality shows its positive trait in the way in which the A-Class maintains its composure and hugs lanes while darting through corners. This is one real fun car to drive. If the A180 CDI with just 107 bhp is this good to drive, how good will the A45 AMG with 355 bhp be? We're salivating at the prospects, but that's all we can do as Mercedes-Benz has no plans of bringing the red hot hatch here anytime soon.

Braking is splendid and the car sheds speed in a calm and composed manner. We felt the pedals to be over sensitive though. Though the ground clearance seems to be high, the A-Class did hit a couple of speed breakers with just three of us on-board, despite our best efforts not to scrape the underbelly. It's good to exercise caution.

Our spirited driving meant that the car returned a fuel-efficiency of just 11.1 km/l during our test drive. To be honest, this figure isn't appropriate given that the engine was high-revving for a significant portion of our drive. For those with sane driving style, Mercedes-Benz claims that the A-Class is capable of going 1000 kilometers in 50 liters of diesel.


* Engine Type: In-line, Common-rail Direct Injection
* No of Cylinders: 4
* Displacement: 2143 cc
* Maximum Power: 107 bhp @ 3200-4400 rpm
* Maximum Torque: 25.49 kgm @ 1400-2800 rpm
* Transmission Type: 7-speed AT
* Tires: 225/45 R17
* Brakes: Ventilated Disc (Front), Disc (Rear)


* Stunning design
* Excellent handling and stability
* Proper 'luxury car' safety features


* Low speed ride quality
* Lack of powerful engine options


The A-Class looks great, is feature-loaded, handles well, is fuel-efficient and easy to zip around in town. On top of all these, it commands a premium image and is packed with a full set of five-star safety features that ensures maximum protection to occupants. A less-than-average ride quality and a modest power output are the only chinks in the armor, which, we strongly feel, aren't going to be deal-breakers. The Indian public seem to be supporting our verdict on the A-Class, as they have lapped up all that were imported, forcing the German manufacturer to request for increased allocation for our market. What remains to be seen though is the effect of competition, as BMW is readying the A's arch-rival 1-Series for launch next month.

By pioneering the compact luxury car segment in India, Mercedes-Benz not only gained the first-mover advantage but has also opened up new avenues for young professionals to look beyond Toyotas, Hondas, Volkswagens and Skodas and step into the world of luxury brands. Mark our words, this segment is going to make it big in our market! And, Mercedes-Benz will be a big player in it. We are looking at you, CLA and GLA!

Photography: R. Bharath


Rolls-Royce Wraith goes on sale in India

To cater to the fast-growing uber-rich clientele in India, Rolls-Royce launched the Wraith coupe yesterday at an ex-showroom Delhi price of INR 4.6 Crores. The Wraith is the third Rolls-Royce model on sale in our country, along with the Phantom and Ghost sedans.

The Wraith is special in more ways than one. Powered by a V12 engine that churns out 624 bhp of maximum power and 800 Nm of peak torque, it is the most powerful Rolls-Royce ever with acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h taking just 4.4 seconds. Being a Grand Tourer with sporty pretensions, the Wraith opens up new avenues for the British brand and enables it to lock horns directly with Bentley’s Continental GT.

The Wraith looks so different yet so similar to the Phantom and Ghost and is easily immediately identifiable as a Rolls-Royce. The big, deep-set radiator grille flanked on either sides by slim headlight clusters is magnificent as are the beautifully-designed triangular taillights. With a two-tone paint job and a muscular profile, the Wraith, as Rolls-Royce rightly claims, looks fast even when standing still. As with any other Rolls-Royce, the interiors of the Wraith screams luxury and is made of finest quality leather and wood available. Equipped with a gamut of creature comforts and the ultimate safety features, the Wraith, no doubt, will ensure that all its four occupants are cocooned in the cabin.

When the Wraith was unveiled in the glitz and paparazzi of the Geneva Motor Show earlier this year, it marked an important step in the history of Rolls-Royce. This fastback coupe variant of the Ghost sedan was not only the third nameplate to be adorned with the Spirit of Ecstasy logo, but also the one that helps Rolls-Royce expand beyond luxury sedans and limousines.

At INR 4.6 Crores ex-showroom Delhi for the base model which is bound to go up as the individual personalization options are checked, the Wraith is insanely expensive. But then, the exclusivity and the social status associated with owning one is what makes the Rolls-Royce experience so special, isn't it? And that, ladies and gentlemen, is invaluable.


What's wrong with the Indian 'small car' regulations?

Indian roads are a mixed bag these days. While the highways are gradually getting better, the city roads, in total contrast, are getting worse by the day. Ask an average Indian residing in any of the metros about his (or) her driving experience in the city and don't be surprised to hear that driving through the crowded, unruly, bumper-to-bumper traffic is a pain in the wrong place, quite literally.

That brings us to a regulation framed by the Indian Government to ease congestion and pollution in the cities. Passenger cars and utility vehicles that are less than 4 meters in length and with an engine capacity that doesn't exceed 1.2 liters for petrol and 1.5 liters for diesel are classified as 'small cars' and qualify for an excise duty cut. The idea is great. By encouraging people to opt for vehicles with a smaller footprint and frugal engines, precious little space on offer to maneuver in most Indian cities could be leveraged better, apart from reducing emissions. Small cars being more nimble, moving in and out of parking spaces that are already a rarity, would be easier too. All is well, then.

But, where it went wrong is in the implementation, particularly in the 'sub 4m length' part. By just restricting the length and not limiting the body-styles to go with it, the authorities gave manufacturers a free hand. And they duly obliged, by bringing in every darn body-style within the stipulated length. We have hatchbacks, which are great and, as a matter of fact, 'the perfect' body-style to go with this regulation. And then, we have sedans and utility vehicles, which is where things get a bit unsettling for us.

Being the innovators that they are, Tata Motors started this trend by partially chopping off the boot of it's Indigo sedan and coming out with the CS variant, where 'CS' stands for 'Compact Sedan'. And, voila, a whole new market segment, one that was not defined by body-style but just restricted by length, was born. Soon, other manufacturers followed, filling our roads with cars and utility vehicles that look disproportionate and weird. Let's list down a few, shall we? There is this mini-skyscraper on wheels that tries to portray itself as a compact SUV. Then, there is this old, abandoned European model that wants to hide its age by flaunting a sharp-cut rear. And then, there is this desirable car that continues to be a top-seller despite its permanently rear-ended looks. Go, figure out which is what, it isn't tough!

With the exception of Ford Ecosport, no other small car 'by definition' in India that's not a hatchback looks appealing. Even Honda, a brand known for its excellent designs in the Jazz, City and Civic had to settle for a compromise in the Amaze. Despite being the best-looking sub 4m sedan in the market, the Amaze still looks disproportionate amidst other models in the Honda portfolio. Sadly, this trend isn't stopping anytime soon, given that everybody from Maruti-Suzuki and Hyundai to Tata and Mahindra to Ford and GM are actively working on bringing sub 4m models to take advantage of the Indian 'small car' regulations.

So, who's to blame here? If the Government hasn't properly defined the rule, so be it. If the customers aren't complaining, let them be satisfied. The onus is certainly on the automobile manufacturers to act with an aesthetic sense while sitting on the drawing board developing a new model. Designing and developing an automobile that looks good, satisfies the needs of the customers and still meets the rules and regulations stipulated by the Government isn't that tough a job, is it? When Tata Nano, the world's cheapest car, can look this good, sub 4m models can certainly look better, much better!


All-new Hyundai i10 breaks cover

Head-quartered in Seoul, South Korea, Hyundai has been on a steady growth trajectory globally in recent years. One car that played a vital part in that success story, atleast in Asia and Europe, was the i10 mini. Not only was it a consistent big-seller in emerging markets like India, it was also a decent volume-churner in matured European markets like the UK and Italy. When the i10 was first launched in 2007, it rose to fame as the first Hyundai supermini that could genuinely take the fight to segment stalwarts led by the Fiat Panda. With a subtle facelift in 2009 that brought in the now-familiar hexagonal grille, the i10 has been left to fend off newer competition like the much-lauded Volkswagen Up!.

All that will end soon, as the second generation i10 is set for launch very soon.

As with most new cars that come with the slanted 'H' badge, the new i10 looks pleasing to our eyes. Let's get away with the familiar bits first. The hexagonal grille with a slim upper lip, the swept-back headlamps and the swoopy rear end with the Hyundai logo neatly integrated into the boot opener are all there, just as they were with slight modifications in the i20 and i30 hatchbacks. What's different though is the profile. Instead of a mish-mash of curves, the new i10 has a clean character line that originates in the front fender, cuts through the door handles and changes course once it hits the tailight clusters. The windows themselves are steeply raked and sync nicely with the wraparound rear windscreen. Though it hides the car's visual bulk, we are not big fans of the black rub-strips at the bottom of the doors.

Expected to be officially launched at the upcoming Frankfurt Motor Show, the new i10 will now be manufactured in Turkey for European markets. Let's not forget that Hyundai's plant in Chennai is the sole manufacturing location of the existing i10, which will change once the new model is launched. As with the current model, the new i10 would be available with a range of small capacity gasoline and diesel engines. When it goes on sale later this year, we expect the new i10 to put up a strong showing in the fiercely competitive European city car segment.

So, will we being seeing this stylish small car on Indian roads soon? Of course yes, we might assume, given that the existing i10 was launched in India before any other country and most of Hyundai's Indian lineup are the same as those in North America and Europe. Sadly though, the answer is only a partial yes this time. That's because we would be getting a toned-down version of the car that's been christened as the 'Grand i10' and would be positioned between the existing i10 and i20. With the existing i10 still selling around 8000 units every month, Hyundai has chosen not to discontinue it. May be, this is Hyundai's way of telling Maruti-Suzuki, "If you can sell four successive generations of the same car (800, Alto, A-Star and Alto 800), I can sell atleast three, if not four (Santro, i10 and Grand i10).

So, what's different for India? From what we understand, a lot of emphasis has gone into the rear seat and its comfort. Firstly, the wheelbase has gone up considerably, which means that a whole Indian family can be accommodated comfortably. Indians also prefer airy cabins, because of which the stylish upswept rear windows of the European model are replaced by flatter windows that's not too dissimilar from the existing i10. The wraparound rear windscreen has also been done away with, thus reducing the style quotient of the Grand i10 significantly. In short, the Grand i10 is a bigger, more practical albeit less stylish version of the European model.

Most of our friends in the media have already driven the car and come back mighty impressed. It seems the Grand i10 is an improvement from the existing car in almost every aspect. Add the 1.1-liter CRDi diesel engine to the kitty, and the Grand i10 seems to be a sure-shot hit in the making. But, there are a few challenges for Hyundai to overcome.

With the Santro, Eon, i10 and i20 occupying bulk of the showroom space already, the Grand i10 has very little room to settle into. It's therefore extremely critical Hyundai gets it's price and positioning right. Despite its best efforts though, the Grand i10 is sure to overlap with i10 and i20, two of Hyundai's best-selling models in India, and will thus end up stealing sales from its own siblings. Adding a prefix or suffix to an existing model hasn't always worked well in this part of the world. The Grand i10 has to overcome that and somehow convey the fact that it is actually an all-new car and not just a variant of the existing i10. The list looks big, but we are sure Hyundai are having grand plans to squash them.


Nissan Terrano spotted testing in Chennai

India's love for Utility Vehicles combined with the overwhelming success of the Renault Duster and Ford Ecosport have opened the floodgates for compact Sports Utility Vehicles in our country. From Maruti-Suzuki to Mercedes-Benz, every automotive manufacturer looking to increase their share in our market are developing one right now. Fortunately, Nissan seems to have one ready, thanks to it's strategic partnership with Renault that allows both brands to re-badge and sell each other's models at a slight premium. With Nissan lending its Micra and Sunny to Renault earlier, it's time for the latter to return the favour.

With most of the media fraternity starting to speculate on the name, looks and specifications, Nissan decided to put an end to all those rumors a couple of months back. Revealing that its compact SUV would be called the 'Terrano', a once-popular but discontinued nameplate, the Japanese manufacturer also released an official sketch that revealed the Terrano's significantly-redesigned front end. The Duster might be a big success, but one of its negatives is its design that lacks finesse. Don't get us wrong, we love the Duster's butch stance, but it just doesn't cut out in terms of attention to detail. If the official sketches are anything to go by, Nissan seems to have addressed that problem to an extent in the Terrano.

The sharp, angular headlights, the aggressive bumper and the thick chrome slats in the grille not only establishes an instant connection to other SUVs in Nissan's global lineup, but also adds some depth to the otherwise boring front end of the Duster. The profile, with its massively-flared wheel arches, looks untouched while Nissan seems to have tweaked the lights and bumper again at the rear to increase the Terrano's appeal. The rest of the car, including the chassis, engines and transmissions are expected to be carried over from the Duster. That's not bad, given the extremely practical and fuel-efficient 1.5-liter 'dCi' diesel engine that powers the Duster in two states of tune and its brilliant ride quality. Apart from the change of logos, we don't expect the interiors to change much as well.

These pictures of the camouflaged Terrano that was spotted testing in Chennai proves that Nissan isn't taking chances, despite the Duster proving itself in our market. It is being widely speculated that Nissan would launch formally unveil the Terrano before the end of this month.

The recent launch of the Ford Ecosport has exposed two more negative factors in the Duster - the lack of features and it's uncompetitive pricing. While its easy for Nissan to tackle the first problem by adding more features to the Terrano, the second problem is a bit more hard to deal with. Renault being the donor brand, Nissan would be forced to position the Terrano a shade higher than the Duster. And that means Nissan should be able to convince customers that the Terrano is worth buying at a premium when people have started realizing that the Duster itself is overpriced.

Will Nissan manage to do that? Will it shake off the Evalia's disastrous run in the market with the Terrano? Let the game begin!


BMW unveils i3, the first car under its all-electric 'i' sub-brand

In a world that’s beginning to focus increasingly on the environment, zero-emission vehicles are being touted as the future of mobility. With electricity and hydrogen emerging as the only possible alternatives for fossil fuel, automobile manufacturers are forced to splurge their resources into one of these two in the hope of achieving future supremacy. BMW, the world’s largest luxury-car manufacturer, has decided that electric cars are best-placed to eventually replace those with internal combustion engines on urban roads. When a manufacturer of BMW's caliber decides so and goes as far as investing in a new "i" sub-brand to distinguish it’s range of pure-electric cars, it ought to be taken seriously.

So, the ‘i’ not only separates the electric line-up from the rest of the ultimate driving machines, but also gives BMW a tech-savvy image that’s automatically bestowed upon anything that starts with the 'made-famous-by-Apple' alphabet.

With all this lurking in the background, BMW unveiled the i3, the firm’s first pure-electric car that’s destined for mass production. When the wraps came off the strangely-styled hatchback at simultaneous events held in New York, London and Shanghai representing five continents, BMW heralded the car as a new era of electro mobility that was designed grounds-up to take in a stack of batteries instead of the usual cylinder block, head and pistons. Well, so how different is the i3 from, say, a Nissan Leaf or a Chevrolet Volt?

Firstly, the i3 looks different. In fact, the design borders on the lines of being 'strange' and 'weird', ensuring that heads turn wherever it goes. Not all those heads would nod positively though. Except for the kidney grille, none of the regular BMW cues are found in the i3. Contrasting shades of body panels, the non-linear window line, the floating roof panel and the non-existent pillars characterize this urban hatch.

Then comes the material used for its construction. The innovative "Life Drive" architecture comprises two modules, the Life Module and the Drive Module. The former is essentially the cabin that ditches steel in favour of Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic (CFRP). Yes, that carbon-fiber part is the same that's used in exotic super-cars and it is incredibly strong that the i3 sports a pillarless design with rear coach doors. Housing all the power-train components is the Drive Module that's completely made of aluminium. From magnesium to an assortment of renewable materials such as wood from eucalyptus trees, fibers from Kenaf plant and extracts from olive-leaf, the i3 has parts made of everything.

At the heart is a hybrid-synchronous electric motor that produces 170-hp of power and 184 lb-ft of torque, giving the i3 a real-world EV range of 80 to 100 miles. Powering the motor is a lithium-ion battery pack that's takes about 8 hours for a full charge from a normal DC power outlet. Quick-charging options are available too, as expected. For those who are still skeptical, a gasoline-powered 650-cc 2-cylinder range-extender that holds charge without powering the wheels is also available as an option.

Though the interiors are not as unconventional as the exterior design of the i3, it is still different to remind the occupants that this isn't any average car. Available in three trim levels - Mega World, Giga World and Tera World, the i3 is a true BMW and comes equipped with all the regular safety and driver-assist technologies that luxury cars are famous for.

Expected to go on sale in mid-2014, the i3 will be followed by the i8, an eco sports-car that rose to fame in the Hollywood movie Mission Impossible : Ghost Protocol. With Audi continuing to tease us with the 'e-tron' concepts and Mercedes-Benz well-entrenched into the hydrogen fuel cells, BMW has stole a march on the opposition in terms of electric mobility with the 'i' sub-brand. Will it pay off? We think it will, but we might have to wait for a long time to see that happen.

All that is good, but will this 'i' grace the 'I'ndian roads? We hope it does.