The Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive is very different from the norm for Mercedes. Instead of the big V-8s featured across the network, this little car hums along silently on the batteries driving its front wheels. It will be the first all-electric vehicle from Mercedes-Benz, and the first of any B-Class to cross the pond. This matches the latest company strategy to fatten the range of models from all sides.
Most of the systems that charge and run the little B-Class will be shared with its bright-yellow sibling: the upcoming SLS AMG Coupe E-Cell. Both systems are part of a deep tech partnership between Mercedes parent company Daimler and Tesla. Fruit from this sharing agreement has been limited to date, and arguably, some of the most sour fruit on the branch was borne in the Smart ED. That car ran Tesla Roadster parts, albeit downsized versions. The resulting “car” was appallingly slow. Tesla didn’t seem to be sharing the good, M5-beating stuff yet.
This is set to change when the B-Class Electric Drive hits U.S. showrooms in January 2014. The model will arrive in dealer showrooms first before a limited roll-out in Europe.
As Mercedes’ first viable EV, the B-Class Electric is a complete package that excels in its mission of effortless city efficiency plus Mercedes levels of safety, durability, luxury and ownership experience.
The exterior of the B-Class Electric Drive looks mature and refined, and echoes the latest Mercedes nose treatment for its small car family. This includes the large “soft nose” grille and bumper combo, oversized star logo front and center, and ultra-modern headlamps. The headlamps are a particularly nice feature in this application; they dress up the car’s nose delightfully with white LED daytime running lights and LED turn signals -- both swooping up the headlamp’s top edge almost like an eyebrow, a pleasing effect. The eyebrow line continues nicely up the doors and gives some much-needed shape to the car’s profile.
From the side, the B-Class is plainly a small utility wagon. The relatively high roofline leaves it desiring some of its siblings’ style. The window line is completely functional and would be perfect for small families or light-taxi duty. All models feature a large “Electric Drive” detail across the hatch.
Some nice detailing sets the car ahead of the Prius V plug-ins and Ford C-Max Energis of the world. Large wheels and body-colored fender flares add appeal and give the functional box a pretty "slammed" appearance. This is no doubt for aerodynamics over style, but the positive end result is the same.
The interior of this plucky little Benz is decidedly modern and will appeal to Mercedes devotees and newcomers alike. It features the latest Mercedes leather-trimmed steering wheel, familiar switchgear and quality materials at every touch point.
The seating position is much more upright and van-like than an E350 Sport, and the tall wagon proportions make the dash pad and footwells seem very compact indeed. Driver visibility past the heavy-duty A-pillars is very poor. Luckily, the broad windshield and semi-elevated driving position helps overcome that.
Moving rearward, the car features belts for three in the backseat. Headroom appears outstanding and the seat promises spacious accommodation for two adults. For families, the bench will easily seat three kids or two rear-facing child seats. It splits and folds to enlarge the cargo area for transporting Ikea furniture and the like.
On the move, the electric B-Class is a revolution. In the typical manner of electric vehicles, the car is eerily silent, making bumps, thunks and tire rumble about the only noticeable noises in city driving. Addressing an electric-car weakness, the B-Class also isolates occupants from louder cars in traffic. This is credited to Mercedes’ expertise in the luxury segment with expertly designed glazed glass, triple-sealed doors and thick insulation.
The B-Class shares core dash hardware with the CLA-Class, including the five round SLS-style air vents embedded in the swooping middle dash panel. Featuring a muted wood trim on the debut model, it doesn’t quite excite as much as the CLA 250’s technical patterns or shiny aluminum look.
We start seeing some references to the B-Class’s efficient mission as soon as the displays power up. Charging and consumption displays are visible on the chrome-trimmed, tablet-style navigation unit, as well as the TFT info screen between the main dials. Similar to the Tesla Model S, the electric B-Class utilizes the column-mounted gear selector from the current S-Class. This allows a smooth center armrest area in the Model S, but the center console is decidedly more cramped in the B-Class.
The B-Class also features on-board 3G connectivity, the tech that Tesla has used extensively to push software updates wirelessly to each car. At its core, the car basically has its own cell phone data plan, with monthly subscription fees. (The services are expected to remain free to drivers for the time being.)
With the B-Class’s connective features, owners can manage their vehicle remotely from a tablet, smartphone or desktop. Functions will include scheduled charging intervals, letting users check the charge status or pre-warm the car on chilly days. All features will be built into a Mercedes-branded application, something familiar to Volt and Leaf owners, or will be available via a unique vehicle homepage.
The B-Class Electric Drive ticks almost all the boxes that modern car buyers are looking for, including voice control and full smartphone audio integration via USB. Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming is expected as well, but remains unconfirmed.
The COMAND suite of technology features in-car internet access, social features and integrated route planning that highlights charging stations on the way.
The B-Class Electric Drive is deceptively simple in its technical layout. In contrast to most Mercedes technical drawings, even the detailed press image has only a few labels here and there describing what’s what. This matches the company’s strategy to make this car one of the easiest electrics to understand and operate. To make it sales-friendly, the company has helpfully described the 100-kilowatt electric powertrain thusly:
“Typically for an electric drive, the maximum torque of 310 Nm [229 pound-feet] is available right from the first tap on the accelerator pedal -- this roughly corresponds to the torque delivery of a modern petrol engine with a displacement of 3.0 liters.”
The single-speed electric drivetrain is most similar to a classic automatic in how it drives. It is well behind a gasoline-powered 3.0 in the 0-to-60 mph dash, where the “under-10-seconds” time for the B-Class is nearly three seconds off the pace set by the C300 Sport. The perceived time is much shorter, however, because the electric trumps gasoline power up to about 40 mph. From 40 mph on, the electric drivetrain gains speed in a yawn-inducing manner. Beware of a scary freeway merge, let alone passing on a country road.
Top speed is electronically limited to 100 mph but most drivers will give up by 75 or so. They’ll notice some pressure on the accelerator pedal and range warnings as the car almost actively discourages fast-lane cruising. Even the supercar-fast Tesla Model S Performance feels happiest below 80 mph.
Keeping with the simplicity selling strategy, Mercedes has simplified the charging promises for the electric B-Class. Using a 240-volt/40-amp outlet, the company quotes a 2-hour charging period to get to a 50-percent charge, which nets the B-Class about 60 miles of range. On a full charge (estimated to be 6 hours), the car has a better-than-most driving range of 115 miles.
Mercedes follows the latest electric car thinking by building a special high-power charger unit into the car itself. This saves buyers the need to install a big charging box on their garage wall, and instead works with normal power outlets to charge its on-board batteries as fast as it can.
While unconfirmed, the B-Class Electric Drive might be the first non-Tesla that is both compatible with, and allowed to charge at, the company’s so-called “Supercharger” stations that dot the California coast and are planned to expand across the country.
Suspension and Braking
The electric Benz uses standard components for its suspension and braking systems. It dips into the top range B-Class units and then tailors them to the B-Class Electric’s unique dynamic properties.
Despite being designed with a flexible “energy space” under the cabin floor and a lightweight lithium-ion battery pack, the B-Class gets special tuning by Mercedes chassis teams. The company seems focused on comfortable suspension settings to match the laid-back EV driving experience.
Ever a concern for safety pioneer Mercedes, the B-Class Electric has undergone some of the most rigorous safety and durability tests ever conducted. The B200 cousin of this car achieved a 5-Star Euro NCAP performance award, and Mercedes will try for top crash-safety scores from the NHTSA and IIHS for the Electric Drive model.
Regenerative braking is a large part of any EV’s tech package, and the electric B-Class follows suit. The braking package will also help safety efforts via traction and stability control systems.
On the road, the silent little wagon has a shy but plucky personality that is actually pretty refreshing from the joyless Germans. Being based on the work-a-day B-Class platform is a big benefit here. That car is tuned for a dynamic responsiveness that matches its mission as a commercial vehicle in many European cities.
The electric B-Class will likely mute most of the harshness of Euro city cars, but keep some agility via the quick steering rack and responsive throttle.
Mercedes has not decided final prices for the B-Class Electric Drive. The company will be juggling the need to pay for the cutting-edge lithium-ion batteries and the desire to actually sell in good numbers. Considering its mechanical package, promised range, and competition, prices in the mid-$40s seem most likely.
As the first pure EV model for the brand, with special need to monitor electricity consumption, the B-Class ED will feature fewer option packs than most Mercedes models. Instead, the car is expected to ship in a just a handful of well-equipped specifications. (More details on that as they become available.)
The competitive set for the electric B-Class is a study in contrasts. In one sense, the car matches the Ford C-Max Energi (plug-in hybrid) in size, seating layout and more. On the other hand, Mercedes is all too aware that BMW’s upcoming i3 is a game-changer. Secondary competition comes from the Prius V Plug-in, the Nissan Leaf and the upcoming Ford Focus Electric. Despite lacking badge kudos, all the pure electric cars above are pretty pricey.
The Leaf broke new ground for a major manufacturer as the first modern mass-produced EV. It was recently updated with better batteries and a lightly refreshed nose. The core vehicle stays the same, with its amazing silent drive but ugly-duckling looks and mouse-fur interior.
The upcoming BMW i3 is slowly breaking cover in production form. Final specifications are expected to be released in autumn 2013 ahead of its mid-2014 U.S. launch. The details to date are tantalizing. It includes a futuristic carbon-fiber chassis and pure EV running in base trim. A range-extending 1.5-liter gasoline three-cylinder will be optional. It is predicted to launch as a 2-door, but it will be followed by a 5-door version shortly after.
The B-Class Electric Drive is interesting for a few reasons, but likely will be made in such small volumes that the vehicle will remain an oddity stateside.
Ultimately, the most exciting thing about this car is that it exists at all. Coming from Mercedes, buyers can feel confident that the technology is mature enough for easy, safe operation day in and day out.
This confidence will be critical in luring potential buyers. Will AMG fans like it? No. But looking at city families and aging boomers, a market niche is clearly visible.
Mercedes-Benz luxury and zero gasoline: the loudest sound you’ll hear is your own calm heartbeat.