Mercedes, with Tesla's Help, to Debut B-Class Electric Drive in Paris

By · September 20, 2012

Mercedes B-Class Electric

The Mercedes B-Class Electric should be a hot shot off the line. (Mercedes photo)

Since Daimler AG bought nearly 10 percent of the equity in Tesla Motors in 2009, the partnership has been steadily growing. The most recent fruit of that close working relationship is an electric drive version of the not-yet-sold-in-the-U.S. B-Class. The car is stepping out of the shadows and will be shown next week at the 2012 Paris Auto Show. This new electric contender is headed for production, but not until 2014. Its markets are unclear at this point.

The car, on paper, has all the hallmarks of a Tesla collaboration, including a range of 124 miles. It’s a very small MPV, or small wagon, of the type that’s all the rage in Europe.

Room to Move

A 100-kilowatt, 134-horsepower electric motor is under the hood, producing 229 foot-pounds of torque. There’s no loss of passenger or luggage area, because the batteries are housed under the floor in a so-called “Energy Space” in front of the rear axle. The B-Class is equipped for rapid charging, but it’s unclear if it uses the CHAdeMO standard or Tesla's own quick charging protocol. Also unclear is the size of the lithium-ion battery pack.

The Tesla connection isn’t mentioned in the press release, but it’s strongly there. The company's Christina Ra told me that Mercedes is taking the lead on releasing information.

Mercedes' then-advanced planning guru Sascha Simon told me last year that its new EVs would be based on small Benzes not yet seen in the American market, and that’s the case here. The new 2013 B-Class, which probably will be sold in the U.S., offers room for five passengers, an optional panoramic glass roof, and a sliding rear seat giving 38 inches of legroom—beating the E-Class.

The latter feature should be retained in the electric version, which isn’t actually true of the Honda Fit EV (which lost its “magic seats.”) The B-Class is a safe car: there are such features as adaptive brake assist, collision warning systems and an alert for drowsy drivers.

A Close Encounter with the Electric A-Class

Obviously, I haven’t driven the B-Class electric yet, but I’ve done the next best thing in driving, at Tesla’s HQ in Palo Alto, the A-Class E-Cell electric, which was first shown at Paris in 2010 and so far made in a limited edition for Europe only. This demonstration program has seen the cars distributed in Germany, France and Holland, but they were never destined for the U.S.

Mercedes A-Class Electric

The Mercedes A-Class electric was huge fun to drive on the twisty roads around Palo Alto. (Jim Motavalli photo)

That’s too bad, because I found the A-Class electric an absolute gas to drive. The car’s 50-kilowatt electric motor (70 kilowatts peak) was deceptively powerful, and it handled brilliantly. I threw it into corners all around Tesla’s campus, and it was sure-footed. The A-Class has the same 124-mile range as the B-Class. Given the doubled motor size in a still-small car, it should show some guts.

Tesla told me an interesting story at the time, pointing out that it had built the first electric A-Class on spec, buying a gas version in Europe, converting it, and then convincing Mercedes-Benz it was a winner. The tight Tesla/Mercedes collaboration grew out of such initiative.

The A-Class uses two separate 16.5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery packs sourced from the Tesla-engineered Smart Electric Drive, yielding 36 kilowatt-hours (hence the extra range). Something quite similar could be in the B-Class.

Also benefiting from Tesla’s massage is the Smart ForTwo Brabus Electric Drive, which also makes its debut in Paris. The all-new Smart Electric Drive, undoubtedly more jazzy than the first modestly received version, is due on the U.S. market in the spring, and will be shown here early next month.

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