Merc’s much sportier new B-CLASS shifts the boundaries of it’s segment once more, mainly via new engine and safety technology
The name is Schrempp. Jürgen E Schrempp. And if you recognise a bit of Bond in the way we’ve introduced this erstwhile giant of the automotive world, you’ll be mistaken. Jürgen Schrempp was no James Bond, ever. He wasn’t British, to begin with. He never carried a Walther PPK. Nor has he been as suave, subtle or sophisticated as Ian Fleming’s 007 character.
In fact, Herr Sch has never been suave, subtle or overly sophisticated at all. I saw him in action at the opening of Mercedes-Benz’s new C-Class plant in East London a couple of years ago. Schrempp gave a rousing speech in a massive marquee tent packed with factory workers in native gear. The whole event was akin to a political rally. There was a lot of cheering and shouting. It rode the tent’s thick smell of sweat like a huge ship of success.
Afterwards, Schrempp became a rock star as he moved through the gathered throng. They adored him, wanted to touch him, tried to carry him along. In his element he was, this fiery, flamboyant ex-Captain of Industry, for that’s where Jürgen felt most at home: doing some big thinking, taking on grandiose projects, being a hero, being fêted. Herr Sch loved the rough and tumble of being larger than life.
That’s why he used to be known, not as Bond, but as the Rambo of the motor industry. And he relished it. In a quest to fulfil his Welt AG vision, Jürgen enthusiastically wielded the kind of power that enabled him to pull other companies – like Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Fokker – into the Daimler-Benz fold. Seeing that Welt means world, Jürgen was actively in pursuit of dominating the planet in much the same way as Bond’s adversaries yearned to.
That’s how the idea of Mercedes-Benz’s compact A-Class was born in the middle-90s. Schrempp understood the necessity of wider market penetration by the three-pointed star. Partly as a result of this downmarket move by Stuttgart, the other giant (and genius) of the German motorised world, Ferdinand Piëch, announced shortly after the A-Class that Volkswagen would move upmarket, into the luxury segments. If Schrempp wanted to take on Polo and Golf, Piëch countered by targeting Merc’s S-Class.
Tit for tat? A battle of egos? For sure, up to a point. Yet, beyond that, it all spilled over into the war of the car worlds. The A-Class, for all its initial foibles, was serious stuff. So was the B-Class, which came ’round a couple of years later; three-quarters of a million have been sold, since.
The view then, that these two front-wheel drive cars were just stupid crazy megalomaniac moments of madness from the House of Schrempp has been properly dispelled, with more proof coming in the shape of the latest B-Class that’s just been unveiled to the world press in Vienna, Austria.
The new B, which will hit our shores in the in the second quarter of 2012, is a little longer and flatter than the old one, giving it a slightly sportier profile. It also comes with totally new drivetrains, comprising new four-cylinder petrol and diesel turbo mills plus new manual and double-clutch gearboxes. Most importantly, perhaps, is an entirely new platform on which the B-Class is built.
The interesting bit is that it eschews the thinking that shaped Stuttgart’s previous platform for compact cars, which became known as the “sandwich” platform as it boasted two floors, or a double-decker layout. The idea, back then, was to house some components – like the fuel tank – in between the two floors. This would serve to create more space for a bigger cabin upstairs, on a smaller footprint. It also made for a safer haven, in the event of collisions, as passengers were seated high enough to be out of harm’s way. And the engine could slide underneath front occupants, into the “sandwich gap,” if the impact was frontal.
The new B rides on a conventional platform, albeit that a second platform – with a double-decker layout (called the Energy Space) starting below the rear seats and running backwards to the rear axle – will also be used for units with alternative energy drive trains, like battery-powered cars. The new platform will also serve as the basis for four more small Benz models, among them next year’s new A-Class. The latter will be quite a sporty little fellow, as could be gathered from the concept model that’s just recently been shown at the Johannesburg International Motor Show.
The new B, by the same token, is a lot more agile than the old one, partly because of the slightly lower body posture, but mainly because of comprehensive chassis advances. Gearboxes are also completely new, with the seven-speed, double-clutch box as a highlight. And a new 1.8-litre turbo diesel plus a new 1.6-litre turbo petrol (both with the choice of two different power outputs, and all of them with direct injection) are brimming with breakthrough technology, mostly in order to use less fuel and therefore emit less CO2. The technical package is rounded off by advanced new safety equipment for the segment, whilst infotainment includes really cool stuff like Internet access plus Linguatronic voice control as options.
Add good packaging, great interior space, lots of modern equipment and the best Benz dashboard ever, and the new B-Class is more proof that, in the long run, Jürgen Schrempp had won the personal little battle against Ferdinand Piëch, in terms of engaging each other in new territories.
VW’s Phaeton has never threatened the S-Class. Yet, Stuttgart’s A and B-Classes have made their mark as luxury compacts and will continue to do so, judging by the new B. Suave and subtle it ain’t. But sophisticated it is, unlike Rambo Sch . . . you know who.
By Egmont Sippel
Published by Playboy SA December 2011