Here Comes the Electric Autobahn

By · September 27, 2012

Volt and Smart ED

Never count the German engineers out in the modern automotive world. While they rule in the realm of diesels, are renowned for their performance and luxury machines, and carry a price premium just for their nameplates’ country of origin , when it comes to EVs, the German automakers don't seem serious. That may be changing.

During the past few months, I've had the chance to drive representative models from each of the German "Big Three"—BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. They represent slightly different approaches to the EV market, but all are either already in the market or will be soon.

It must be said that the Germans were not enthusiastic about electric cars or hybrids early on. They had their concepts, but in interviews they downplayed the potential audience, performance and practicality of EVs. That was then, this is now. While not jettisoning the internal combustion engine, all three automakers are seriously engaged in the incipient electric market and their first forays are worth a strong look, even if they don't represent the companies' finished product.

BMW Active-E

This is BMW's last test before it launches its "i" sub-brand. It follows the Mini-E of a few years ago, their first step into the EV market. On the outside the Active-E is a standard BMW 1-Series sedan. But underneath is the running gear of the i3—due on the market in late 2013—BMW's city car EV that will feature a carbon fiber monocoque and a unique body style. That running gear delivers what can only be described as BMW-like performance; it’s responsive, accelerates briskly and handles superbly. Regenerative braking is very aggressive and everything about the car says it’s ready for production. But the Active-E is only available in limited numbers on a two-year lease, part of BMW's program testing the i3 powertrain in the real world prior to its launch. The range is around 100 miles on a charge, typical of most of the EVs on the market.

Mercedes Smart ED

Full disclosure: I owned a Smart car for three years. I enjoyed it and thought it was better than its critics said, but fully acknowledge its limitations as a lightly-powered two-seat city car with limited (as in relatively short rides) freeway capability.

Turning the Smart into an EV is a natural. I can't tell you how many times I was asked about my own Smart's presumed electric drivetrain. My test drive was in the second generation electric Smart. First gen was a 100-unit Europe-only test with sodium-nickel chloride Zebra batteries. As a Daimler engineer told me, it was a "learning experience," that is, not very successful.

The second generation I drove had a Tesla lithium-ion battery and the Tesla battery management system. The car was sluggish (it felt slower than my ICE-Smart) and seemed to offer little in the way of a positive driving experience. The governed top speed of 62 mph made the car a joke on California freeways, making one of the negatives of the ICE car even worse. Parking, of course, is a breeze, but it didn't need to be an electric model for that purpose.

Mercedes has already upgraded the second generation Smarts and has moved to the third generation aimed to correct some of the deficiencies I found in the model I drove. It will have a new electric motor and new, bigger batteries.

Mercedes also has another model waiting in the wings – an electric version of their A-Class, the smallest of the traditional Benz models. It uses the same electric drive as Mercedes' fuel cell model (which is based on the slightly larger B-Class) and Tesla Motors has also been involved in its development. The company has made no announcements about potential sale of the model outside Europe, but you can probably expect to see it migrate to the U.S.

VW Golf-E

VW, as part of its quest to be the largest car company in the world, appears to want to be all things to all people. So, along with its direct-injection gasoline models and turbocharged diesels, it is now offering hybrids and soon – electric cars. The eGolf, which I've driven twice, is the test bed for its electric drivetrain. It's 26.5 kWh battery and 85 kW electric motor provide a spirited driving experience. Like the Active-E, it has fairly aggressive regenerative braking, but one which the driver can control by settings with relatively simple steering wheel-mounted controls. Its overall driving experience approximates that of an ICE Golf. VW also has Audi electric models and an Up! EV minicar in the works. While the company has made no official announcement, expect to see the eGolf late 2013 or 2014 on the new Golf platform that was just introduced.

Time to Catch Up

While it appears that German automakers are playing catch-up with electric drive cars, the slow market start of the past year may play into their timeline. The performance of the prototypes I drove was competitive with any EV on the market, so the issue may be less one of technology and more one of market strategy.


· · 5 years ago

If anyone from Daimler or BMW ever drives a Tesla Model S, they know they should be very scared. This car will destroy any other luxury car in its performance and styling. The Model S is a BMW killer.

· · 5 years ago

@ex-EV1 driver You may be right about the Model S, but I doubt Daimler's scared since they own a piece of Tesla and have access to their technology as well as a 100-year-old reputation that should take care of them. BMW I think has a lot of confidence in its i8 as something that can hold its own against the Model 2. The i3, of course, doesn't play in the same territory. I haven't been in the Model S yet, but hope to soon, so I could speak to this from experience.

· · 5 years ago

@ex-EV1 driver Another thought is that, while Tesla should be paid attention to by the established automakers (and are, note Toyota & Daimler have both taken equity stakes as part of their joint ventures), until it proves it can produce high-quality vehicles at mass production volumes -- it's not much of a threat. And beyond that, it needs to produce some products in the mass market range of $20-30K. The only BMWs Tesla will kill for the next few years are those being driven by wealthy early adopters (and I'll bet most of those folks won't be giving up their Ms).

· · 5 years ago

Well, a good example of how volatile the EV market is: Jim Motavelli updates Daimler's EV strategy with the intro of the B-Class electric coming in Paris, joining the Smart ED and A-Class E-Cell.

· Tweaker (not verified) · 5 years ago

Where is this VW hybrid you speak of?

· · 5 years ago

@Tweaker VW has a hybrid Touareg on the market now and a Jetta hybrid coming soon. The Touareg, which has a supercharged V6 engine, features 17 city/23 hwy and starts at $62K (compared to the TDI at 20/29 and $47K. The Jetta hasn't been priced, but is expected to deliver 42/44 mpg and be on sale by the end of 2012. If it's priced like the Touareg, it will sell a lot of TDIs.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 5 years ago

What about the Audi A1 e-Tron with the small Wankel range extender. That is a true winner. Why is it not yet on the market?

· · 5 years ago

@Anonymous These things take time. I think the Audi A1 e-Tron is several years off, but I wouldn't count on the Wankel making it into production. The Wankel has issues meeting more stringent worldwise emissions regulations; even Mazda finally dropped its use of the engine this year. While Audi has shown quite a few EV concepts, it's production plans are pretty sketchy.

· Alice Powell (not verified) · 5 years ago

I think Volkswagen lags behind its German counterparts and still in developing condition . But BMW has taken the concept of electric cars seriously and produced good models. I hope VW will come up with some good electric vehicles.

· · 5 years ago

@Alice Powell VW may be a bit behind, but the EV market is just getting started and first-move advantage (i.e., Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt) is not necessarily an advantage. BMW is definitely taking an approach with a dedicated vehicle, a la Prius, while VW prefers to adapt electric drive to its existing models and cut costs that way. Time will tell which approach wins in the marketplace.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.