Introduced at the New York Auto Show in 2013, the B-Class Electric Drive will be the first battery electric car from Mercedes. If you like the idea of the B-Class, then this one has a lot going for it, but perhaps the larger question is: who's going to go for it?
- The first-generation A- and B-Class models were designed with sandwich floors that could accept alternative powertrains, but it was way back in 1997 that the first A-Class arrived and it's taken this long to get to the point where it could all come together properly. The current, third-generation A- and B-Class platform comes in low-floor and high-floor variants, and the B-Class Electric Drive takes advantage of the high-floor option and so-called "Energy Space" it allows. There's a step in the cabin floor beneath the driver's seat that runs all the way to the rear of the car to create a "semi-sandwich floor," with the the 28-kWh lithium-ion battery slotted into the gap between the cabin floor and the car floor. The gas-powered B-Class, though, does not contain the Energy Space.
- The Energy Space allows the B-Class Electric Drive to remain virtually unchanged from its gas-powered sibling, which is one of the selling points Mercedes-Benz will stress with the car. Nothing changes for the front passengers, but a tiny bit of room is sacrificed in the rear quarters: the floor behind the front seats is raised by 3.03 inches and the rear seats by 1.14 inches. The exceptionally-tall-inside B-Class can spare it, our experience being plenty of headroom in the rear quarters and plenty of trunk volume that was, naturally, free of the clunky battery intrusions one sometimes finds in such vehicles. Mercedes also stresses the vehicle's passenger room, the sentence "it's a true five-seater" never far away whenever the car was being discussed.
- It weighs 300 kilograms more than the standard B-Class, but its powertrain comes from a company that's proven it knows how to move weight: the battery, electric motor and power electrics are straight from Tesla. Tesla builds them in California then sends them to the B-Class factory in Rastatt, Germany where the Electric Drive is built on the same line as the standard B-Classes.
- The biggest difference is that Mercedes uses software to dial down the power of the Tesla unit, from the 416 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque of the Model S Performance to 174 hp (up from the 134 hp quoted at the New York Auto Show and four more than the BMW i3) and 228 lb-ft. Other small changes are the J1772 connector on the B-Class instead of the Tesla Supercharger connecter; a European charger will come for the model aimed at The Continent. The 10-kW charger at 430 amps is the same as the Tesla.
- Even with power numbers that put the Electric Drive right about even with the 168 hp and 221 lb-ft of the diesel-powered B220 CDI and a weight penalty of 660 pounds over a base car, the instant torque of the Electric Drive means wheelspin is always on the menu and has to be tamped with software. The 0-60 mile-per-hour sprint takes 7.9 seconds, 0.4 faster than the B220 CDI, and top speed is limited to 100 miles per hour. Mercedes estimates a range of "around 115 miles," but behind that they say they're going for a number in the triple digits, so the certified number could be lower. To get a charge good for 60 miles takes two hours on a 240-volt, Level 2 charger.
- Other changes between it and the regular B-Class are that it sits about an inch higher because of slightly larger tires and taller springs, and it sports wheel arch trim. Inside, the right-side gauge in the dash cluster is a Power Meter that provides feedback on energy usage. On top of the US-regulation lights, our models will come standard with a pedestrian warning sound at low speeds while in Europe that will be an option.
- The are two major options, the first being the availability of three-mode energy regeneration toggled through using the shift paddles behind the wheel. The modes are free-coasting D+, medium regen D, and pretty strong regen D-. It's essentially the same as on the SLS AMG Electric Drive but with three modes instead of four. If a buyer doesn't opt for the feature, the D setting is the default.
- The second major option is ordering a battery that can be "up-charged" to accept 15 percent more energy in case a driver needs more range. The driver turns on the option before plugging in the car, and it will allow driving "beyond 200 kilometers just in case." The feature is only meant to be used sparingly, but we were told that the car won't monitor how often it's used – the hope is that "people will use it when needed" and won't abuse the battery. Beyond that the B-Class Electric Drive will come with the same suite of convenience features offered with the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive, allowing owners to check on the status of the car and pre-condition the cabin via an app.
- On our brief ride around Stuttgart, the electric B-Class proved that it has all the attributes of the standard B-Class – roomy, even-tempered, peppy – and it's silent. Which is exactly what it's supposed to be, so there aren't any surprises and really no reason not to buy one when it arrives...
- Except for what it's going to cost. No one at Mercedes would say anything about price except that it will be "premium and competitive." Those two descriptors really add up to just one competitor (for now): the $41,350 BMW i3. The i3 and the B-Class Electric Drive represent two takes on electric driving, the first a re-envisioning of electric transport, the second those who want to stick with everyday car amenities – and "a true five-seater" – but don't want the emissions. Yet 41 grand before options is a tough number – it's high enough that the buyer can afford something 'nice,' but we're not talking Model S levels of disposable income; it's not so high to select for consumers looking for vanity projects, and you can get a lot of very good first cars or frugal second cars for a lot less, both of which can travel further than 118 miles without stopping.
- That quandary (and the regulatory directives that are compelling automakers to develop these cars in the first place) would explain the humble sales expectations for both the B-Class Electric Drive and the i3. Mercedes copped to wanting sales in the four digits in the US, while BMW will be happy to move 15,000 worldwide (the company recently said it already has orders for 10,000 of them). We'll find out who's ready to make such a deal next year when the B-Class Electric Drive goes on sale sometime around April. We wonder now if it isn't people with Tesla Model S money who want a city-car option and are willing to sacrifice all of the flash for around half of the price.