Passport to prestige
Lack of big dollars is no longer a barrier to getting that designer badge
NOT Toolong ago getting into a prestige car— especially a Euro prestige car— for Japanese money meant buying used or forgetting about it.
But luxury car brands are no more immune to the lure of new money than fashion designers, who market affordable lines to get among buyers who are upwardly mobile but not yet quite up to a new C-class or 3 Series.
And just because we’re driving away from traditional big Australian family cars as fast as our imported SUVS or hatches will take us, it doesn’t mean we’re spending less on our choices. Volkswagen’s Golf starts at $22,990, but more than half of the Golfs sold are those starting above $35,000.
That’s why Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Lexus each have entrants with sticker prices $20,000 or more under the luxury car tax (see panel).
The newest of these is the Mercedes B-class, launched this week. It’s a largish fivedoor hatch that brings a new level of safety and sophistication to the small vehicle segment.
To test the notion that these newly affordable Europeans can rival the best Asia has to offer, we’re comparing it here to another newcomer, one that in its first full month on sale is expected to exceed 1400 sales.
Mazda’s range-topping petrol CX-5 SUV, the Grand Touring, comes in at $43,200. The base B-class is $38,950 plus on-road costs.
If it seems we’re comparing apples with oranges, consider that the CX-5 is the most car- like of the compact SUVS and the B-class is a compact people and cargo carrier.
That means it’s attractive to buyers from both the small SUV and small car ranks, not just those with an eye to the tristar badge.
The taller riding, all-wheel drive Mazda represents the latest technology from Japan. Its 2.0-litre Skyactiv-g engine is comparable in terms of power output and the interior features are classy, though it trails in the safety suite stakes.
Buy a Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring and standard gear includes a power driver’s seat, adaptive xenon headlamps, front and rear parking sensors, 10-speaker Bose sound system and 19-inch rims.
Opt for the B-class and the wheels drop back to 16 inches, muscles and not motors move the front seats and six speakers are the default setting. The flip side is a bigger satnav display with hi-res graphics set in a piano-black surround that looks like a scaled-down ipad. The dash itself has air vents borrowed from the $470,000 SLS supercar and the steering wheel is straight out of the $160,000 CLS parts bin. The seats are more comfortable and there’s parking assistance software to manoeuvre into those tight spaces. Both models have enough rear leg and head room to comfortably guard basketballers, though the Mazda holds a slight edge here.
Rear seats up, the B-class’s cargo area swallows a threeseater pram and a mountain bike with them folded down.
The big issue when buying your first prestige car is whether you can afford to drive it.
Legend has it that running a European-built car costs more than a comparable Japanese or South Korean vehicle. Let’s break it down.
Assuming annual travel of 15,000km, 95RON petrol to be $1.60 and 91RON at $1.50, the B-class will cost $1464 to fuel; the slug on the CX-5 will be $1440 for thefwdmodel or $1552 for the AWD. The official fuel use for the Merc’s 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine is 6.1L/100km using 95RON fuel and for the Mazda 6.4L of 91RON.
Assuming average annual travel of 15,000km, 95RON petrol to be $1.60 and 91RON at $1.50, the B-class will cost $1464 to fuel and the CX-5 $1440.
Servicing intervals on the Merc are now out to 25,000km or 12 months, whichever come first. Mazda sticks to 10,000km or six months.
In theory, then, if Mercedes can cost up to twice as much to service, these services will happen half as often.
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and Mazda has taken a leaf from the Mercedes’ manual to option software-based safety improvements as part of packaged upgrades.
The "tech pack" is for now only sold with the Grand Touring model. The $1990 spend adds blind spot and lane departure warning systems and a headlight high beam control system that automatically dims the light for approaching drivers.
Mercedes has six options packages for the B-class. Load a top-spec model up with them all and the cost can top $60,000.
Individually the prices run from $1490-$2990. Two of the more useful are the Comand pack at $2990 for 12-speaker Harman Kardon sound system with 10GB hard drive, a seven-inch satnav screen and reversing camera, and the Driving Assistance pack that adds lane departure and blind spot warning systems along with adaptive cruise contro for $2490.