The second automaker from the land of wienerschnitzel and doppelbock will soon offer an EV for the kale-and-kombucha crowd. Mercedes-Benz, which will begin selling its B-Class Electric Drive in July, was priming the pump recently with media test drives at its North American Research and Development campus in Silicon Valley—hoping, perhaps, to skim a few sales from the BMW i3, which arrived at dealers last month.
While it's somewhat ironic that the company credited with inventing the very object now blamed for an impending climate crisis is now pioneering technologies for a zero-emissions future, one thing is for sure: The German car company makes a compelling case for EVs with a luxury vehicle that retains many Mercedes hallmarks and does so at a competitive starting price of $42,375.
Costing less than half as much as a Model S, the B-Class Electric Drive could very well be the poor man's Tesla. Indeed, Mercedes has partnered with the critic's darling on its powertrain. The Electric Drive's 28-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and 177-horsepower electric motor are both assembled at Elon Musk's Fremont, California, factory, after which they are made into complete cars in Germany. Mercedes warranties the battery against defects and capacity declines for eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first.
Even the manner in which the batteries are laid out in the car is Tesla-esque. They are spread in a thin layer at the base of the B-Class EV, allowing the rear cargo hold to remain flat and the second seat to accommodate three passengers.
Long available in Europe, the B-Class has only been offered for lease in the U.S. as a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, and only in the L.A. area. The B-Class Electric Drive is an updated second generation, optimized for electrification with a taller, battery-accommodating floor. That's most noticeable from the seats, which, as a result, are jacked up and feel tall for a compact.
Mercedes claims a range of 85 miles per charge. The morning I drove the car, it had a projected range of 80 miles, fully charged, and it used that range at a rate of 1.1 miles for every true mile driven. That was impressive.
Anyone who's spent any time driving an EV understands how non-linear its range prediction can be. Like any car, how far it travels on a given amount of fuel depends on how it is driven, but EVs are particularly sensitive to speed and hills. With the Mercedes Electric Drive, drivers have more options for control.
In addition to a button that toggles between full-torque sport mode and range-extending eco, there are steering-wheel paddles. Instead of the paddles controlling up and down shifts, however, they let drivers manually adjust the amount of regenerative braking, and thus the kinetic energy that's captured from slowing and returned to the battery to propel the car. The Cadillac ELR uses a similar system.
When I first started out on my drive, I was gliding in "D" mode, where the level of regen was so low as to be indiscernible. Pressing the left paddle to "D-" slowed the car immediately without using the brakes, and it kept the accelerator pedal resistance at a more aggressive level, negating the need to brake, similar to the Model S. The higher the level of regen, the more pushback there is on the pedal when released, and the less need to play footsy with the brake and accelerator.
Pressing the opposite paddle reduces the amount of resistance. A separate button on the center console automates the regen, using short-range radar in the front bumper that automatically slows the car based on following distance behind another vehicle. It isn't capable, however, of bringing the car to a complete stop.
What's most impressive about the B-Class, however, is how much it retains the feel of a Mercedes. What separates a luxury vehicle from mass market is the details, and Mercedes hasn't skimped.
The ride quality is solid, its steering firm, the cabin so quiet I couldn't even hear the whir of the electric motor. A leather interior is standard, as are safety features such as active parking assist and forward collision avoidance. Then there are the Mercedes-isms, such as the Harman/Kardon stereo; the seat-shaped seat adjustment on each front door; the knurled knobs for the audio, climate and screen controls; and the soft-release doors on the center console cubbies.
I've been leasing a 2012 Nissan Leaf for the past 2 1/2 years, so each time a new battery electric vehicle comes on the market, it isn't just for review. I'm actually shopping.
When my lease comes due early next year, I will most likely buy a battery electric outright since I'm sold on the technology. The range is workable for my lifestyle. Its cost of operation is a small fraction compared with a gas-powered car. I already own a level 2 charger. And I want to take advantage of the $7,500 federal tax credit before it expires in 2016.
I've driven every pure electric car on the market, from the Tesla Model S and Roadster to the now-defunct Coda, the Chevy Spark EV, the Fiat 500e, the BMW i3, the Nissan Leaf and now the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive. If cost weren't an issue, the Tesla Model S would get my money. But I'm a single mom and a journalist, so my aspirations are more modest. And I can say that the ones most in contention for purchase are the Spark, the Leaf and the new Mercedes B-Class.
The Mercedes offers the most luxurious EV experience one can buy without stepping up to a Tesla.
That said, there is a down side to the Mercedes that is surprisingly un-forward-thinking. It lacks a fast-charging port. With the built-in level 2, at least it fully recharges in just 3.5 hours.
2015 MERCEDES-BENZ B-CLASS ELECTRIC DRIVE
Engine: 132-kilowatt electric motor (177 h.p.)
Range: 85 miles