Mercedes-Benz is planning a new small soft-roader, provisionally called BLK, for launch in late 2011 as part of the new A and B-Class ranges. The BLK will slot into the line-up below the bigger GLK and compete with the likes of the forthcoming BMW X1 and Land Rover LRX in a new market segment for small, premium SUVs.The BLK will get four-wheel drive and there is also the possibility of a front-wheel-drive ‘eco’ version of the car. A range of four-cylinder direct-injection petrol and diesel engines are being lined up, sized between 1.6 litres and 2.2 litres.While the next A-class hatchback will spawn a compact coupe, the bigger next-generation B-class MPV (it gains nearly 10cm in length, making it nearly as big as Ford’s C-Max) will form the basis of the BLK.After talks with Fiat and BMW, Mercedes has taken the expensive decision to go it alone on the development of its new front-wheel drive platform, which will come in two wheelbases. But there is still a chance that Mercedes could co-develop engines with BMW – talks between the two are scheduled to conclude in November. The current A and B-class are based on Mercedes’ highly innovative ‘sandwich’ chassis, which was developed for the original A-class back in 1998.However, the substantial cost of manufacturing the unique powertrain this platform requires has convinced Mercedes to shift to a conventional front-drive layout for the next generation of models.The move also opens the way for Mercedes to plan a much wider range of models than is possible with the current A-class chassis.Up to three spin-off models could be launched on the A-class and B-class platforms. So far, a three-door coupe based on the shorter A-class hatch has already been given the go-ahead and recent reports from Germany suggest that an electrically powered model is also likely to be part of the line-up.

Hilton Holloway