No pressure or anything, but as Mercedes-Benz prepares to ship its B-Class Electric Drive cars to dealers this summer, it's got a lot to prove. Electric vehicles (EVs) still represent a fringe element, composed mostly of cars that are small, funny-looking, and underpowered. Geeks and environmentalists may embrace EVs and their particular challenges, but mainstreamers, not so much.
The B-Class Electric Drive is Mercedes-Benz's attempt to meet EV enthusiasts and regular, everyday drivers somewhere closer to the middle. It's designed to look and act a lot like a normal car. It even has a thing that looks like a key that you put into what looks like an ignition switch. (I looked in vain for the power button that starts many EVs.) The battery's tucked discreetly underneath the floor between the front and passenger seats. The B-Class is a low-key, modest EV.
I had just an hour to take the B-Class Electric Drive on a scenic route from Palo Alto to Sunnyvale, through business areas, country roads, and freeways. I got into the car thinking its range was about 100 miles, as early reports had indicated, but the final spec handed to me later pegged it at just 85 miles. Mercedes-Benz is surely trying to manage expectations, but I was hoping for 100-plus, especially since Tesla made the powertrain and battery for this car. Obviously your mileage will vary depending upon how you drive.
How I drove, admittedly, taxed the battery pretty hard. I love the instant torque of electric powertrains and will demonstrate it to anyone intrepid enough to get into an EV with me. In the case of the B-Class, it accelerated adequately in its default economy mode. I didn't try the sporty mode, which would only have encouraged my inner speed demon (and it drains the battery even faster). The instrument cluster has a large meter showing how efficiently you're using the battery--that's how I knew I wasn't.
The charging requirements are reasonable. The B-Class Electric Drive's 11kW battery can be charged fully in about 3.5 hours using a Level 2 charging station. Also, it can charge to about 60 miles' range in about 2 hours, and that's more than most people drive in a day.
The B-Class Electric Drive seats 4 or 5 adults, plus there's a roomy rear storage section. Some EVs seem exceedingly plasticky inside (to save weight), but the B-Class has leather seats, a dashboard with a 5.8-inch display (not a touchscreen--Mercedes-Benz isn't keen on them), and a nicely insulated cabin. You can't expect to float over potholes as you would with a higher-end Mercedes-Benz, but the ride was comfortable even on the more rustic portions of the drive.
Now let's talk competition. BMW's i3 is due at dealer showrooms around the same time as the B-Class Electric Drive. Both cars are expensive even by electric-vehicle standards: The BMW i3 will cost $41,350, and the B-Class Electric Drive, $41,450. Along with the $49,800 Toyota RAV4 EV they basically comprise the midrange price/feature category for EVs, with the Tesla Model S atop them all at nearly $70,000 to start.
Apparently, a lot of EV drivers are too young and rich to worry much about the price. However, these midrange models should offer more than lower-end options--from itty-bitty cars like the Smart electric drive (made by Mercedes-Benz and starting at $12,490) to the popular Nissan Leaf (starting at $35,020). Everyone would like longer battery range, of course, but better driving experiences would also help. The lower-end models tend to be so virtuous, they're barely tolerable to drive.
I tried the i3 at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. It definitely has some pep--and a range up to 110 miles. But its unusual design could turn off some people, and the the B-Class is bigger.
Now that BMW and Mercedes-Benz are entering the EV market, it's clear that the category has arrived. Available models span a wide range in both features and price. Mercedes-Benz has a chance to set a standard in balancing EV virtue with some of the brand's trademark pampering. I wish the range were longer, though. Watch this space for a full review of the B-Class Electric Drive's many intriguing technologies.