A Mercedes-Benz V-Class makes for the most lavish support car we’ve had yet.
Snoring. That’s all I could hear from the backseat of the Mercedes-Benz V-Class. We were probably 50km in to our 800km journey to the Rann of Kutch and Rohit was out cold. I don’t blame him, though. He had kicked his legs up onto the seats facing him, reclined his captain seat a fair way behind and was probably hitting it off with Radhika Apte somewhere in the depths of his unconscious slumber. If I wasn’t on driving duty, I would have done the same. Kick my legs up, not hit on Radhika Apte. He hasn't gotten better sleep in the backseat of a car, he told me later. From how loud his snores were, I had no reason to disbelieve him.
The V-Class is massive — it is longer than a long-wheelbase Range Rover and that probably explains the ugly scuff marks on the rear bumper and a busted taillamp. Some dude who drove it before me had his ambition to squeeze it into a spot outweigh his parking skills. But this size is exactly what led us to pick up that phone and call Mercedes-Benz. We needed something big, we needed something comfortable and more importantly, we needed something versatile. This checked all those boxes and then added a Burmester sound system and ambient lighting, you know, so we could be a rolling nightclub on wheels.
A support car needs to do many things. It needs to ferry all our equipment from our base to the shoot location and it needs to ferry us there comfortably so we aren’t fatigued when we get there. It also needs to allow our photographers and videographers to indulge in their calisthenics as they hang out of it to shoot the subject from some crazy angles. Then when you’ve got a man like Boopesh Reddy tagging along, you need something that will meet his impeccable taste in cars. I mean, he has a Mercedes-Maybach for the daily commute and does intercity runs in a Porsche 911 GT2 RS. The V-Class had its work cut out for it, but I suspect it will do just fine. Especially since Boopesh has a V-Class of his own for when he has to entertain more than two people. Good value, he called it. I choked on my tea.
That’s because the Mercedes-Benz V-Class costs Rs 81.9 lakh (ex-showroom) and that’s a fat sum of money. But then again, if you ask me to fork up Rs 10 lakh for a Volkswagen Polo, I would still choke on my tea. For someone like Boopesh, the V-Class makes sense. I mean, you’re getting more real estate that any SUV on sale in India right now and from the way the whole thing is laid out, you actually get to use most of it! Just look at that stubby front end, and how the rest of the van balloons behind it. The two front seats are unnervingly close to the front bumper, freeing up plenty of space at the back. The second row of seats can be turned around to face the rear of the car or the front, depending on what you prefer. And you have a third row which isn’t a bench with a sorry excuse of a backrest — it has got captain seats that are as good as any of the other ones. Heck, the third row is probably the most comfortable of the lot. How many SUVs let you say that? You’ve also got a table that rises out from the centre of the car if you need to work on the go. Doors that slide open and shut at the touch of a button. A properly usable boot that can be compartmentalised with a parcel tray. You can choose to open only the glass in the tailgate instead of the entire thing and access part of the boot. Did I mention the ambient lighting and the Burmester speakers?
There is one problem though. The V-Class isn’t particularly fun to drive in our choked cities with how big it is and how apathetic everyone else around it is. The drive from our base in Pune to the Rann involved skirting Mumbai, and the thought of driving it through rush hour traffic in Navi Mumbai and Thane was all the motivation I needed to make a 5:00am start. The early morning meant I had to deal with snores from behind me but I managed to make it out of Thane way before the city’s roads got clogged, and had only the arrow-straight highway from Mumbai to Ahmedabad ahead of me once the sun was up. Good trade off, I’d say.
Once you’re used to driving long hours, doing 800km in a day is no biggie. But some cars, or in this case vans, make it easier than others. The V-Class does a tremendous job of keeping you comfortable on long drives like this. There’s a little recalibration you have to do with your driving since you’re sitting so far forward, mostly with the distance between other traffic in front of you and behind you. You slowly learn that you can tail other vehicles at a distance that seems scarily close, but you also need to remember how much of the bus is trailing behind you when you change lanes after an overtake. Ride quality is really something else. It’s soft, and on the NH48 that heads up north from Mumbai, it wafts over everything with real composure. When it’s empty, it can feel a bit bouncy — especially the back but load it up with two sleepy photographers and their equipment and it settles right down. The steering wheel is right out of the last-gen Mercedes sedans and SUVs, as is most of the dash and you could easily fool yourself into thinking you’re driving any other Mercedes-Benz car. It swallows the miles, and I was still fresh when I arrived at the Ahmedabad airport to pick up the Ed and Boopesh.
Thereon, we had the V-Class loaded up to full capacity. Six people, their weekend bags and all the equipment we were lugging with us to make these stories possible. The V-Class has the same 2.1-litre diesel engine from the older Mercedes-Benz cars before the company went on its BS-VI adoption spree, though this particular one has been updated to join that bandwagon. With 161bhp, this is not a particularly powerful car but then again this isn’t a car you'll be going drag racing in. What stands out is the refinement and the seamlessness with which it puts down its power. You can shift to Dynamic mode which amps up the engine and gearbox to make it more responsive — much needed on the stretches like National Expressway 1 between Vadodara and Ahmedabad. But when you’re six-up and driving through the narrow village roads that lead to Dasada on the edge of the Rann, you want to keep things smooth and Comfort mode allows that just fine.
Even if you take comfort and touring ability out of the equation, I don’t think there was a more perfect car to bring on as a support car on this story. And that’s because of how the V-Class is designed. The boot sits low, and there’s no lip, which means the photographers can really hang out and get those low-angle shots. Sure, the lack of a boot lip increases the risk of them tumbling out of the back but a steady hand at the wheel can prevent that. Then there’s the ability to hang out of the sides courtesy the sliding doors. These poor chaps normally hang out of open windows to get low-angle photographs of a car from the side. But now they could lie on the belly-down floor of the car, and shoot the car alongside them to their heart’s content. No more snoring from behind me, just the mechanical firing of the camera shutter. Just look at the photographs of the Pista! Rohit has done a phenomenal job, but credit where credit is due, there’s no taking away from the V-Class’ contribution.
The V-Class is hard to criticise. If I put my road-tester hat on, I’d say the whole Command system and dash feels last-generation — especially since we’ve seen how futuristic modern Mercedes-Benz dashboards are. I’d like to comment about how it handles but this is genuinely the first mini-bus I’ve gotten my hands on and I have as much perspective as Robert Kubica has points in this F1 season. In isolation, it’s not the most confidence-inspiring but when you factor in how large it is, it's quite possibly adequate. Probably even good.
By the end of our road trip to the Rann and back, I was already making mental notes on my pitch to Mercedes-Benz to leave the V-Class with us as a long-termer — it was that good. Rohit, back in dreamland with Radhika, certainly wanted the same. It spoiled us. I cannot think of a better vehicle to be lugging us thousands and thousands of kilometres across the country. As you can tell from our long-term pages this month, the pitch was a spectacular failure and Mercedes had a driver at my door the next morning demanding the keys. Oh well. I’m just going to have to think up some other outlandish Pista-in-the-Rann type ideas so I can make that call to Mercedes-Benz one more time.