Drive of Mercedes B-Class Fuel Cell: Awaiting Update

By · December 18, 2013

Mercedes B-class F-Cell delivered to Baden-Württemberg Minister President Winfried Kretschmann

Mercedes B-class F-Cell delivered to Baden-Württemberg Minister President Winfried Kretschmann (right).

Daimler is the brightest company in Baden-Württemberg, and its Minister President Winfried Kretschmann proudly drives a Mercedes. He previously had a diesel S-class, but he replaced it with B-Class F-Cell last week. It's a fuel cell car running on hydrogen, to tell the world how much the land of Baden-Württemberg cares about the environment. So do I, and I test drove that model before the Minister President Kretschmann got his.

Americans may see the B-class as a new model, but this is the old generation of this model. A newer B-class has been introduced in 2011, but it hasn't received a fuel cell powertrain until now. (There will be a battery electric version, though). So there's an odd feeling here, I'm test driving a new car, which isn't on sale yet, but it looks dated because it is.

This generation of the B-class was built between 2005 and 2011, and it's hard to understand how Mercedes can promote the fuel cell under this old design, but this wasn't the only shortcoming.

Mercedes B-class F-Cell

Mercedes B-class F-Cell

This isn't a very powerful car. It feels heavy and slow. Really slow. Assuredly slower than a Nissan LEAF, and that spoils the driving experience. Fuel cells cars are supposed to store a lot of energy on board, so this should translate into high performance but it doesn't. At least in this model.

There was much more satisfaction coming from the brakes, which are truly great. Smooth and linear, with only a little regen, which is better for comfort. It's impossible to tell that there are two systems at work, friction brakes and regenerative braking. The power delivery also, albeit low in quantity, is high class in the way it does its work.

The electric motor gets part of the energy it needs from the battery, part from the fuel cell, but the driver remains totally unaware of what's going on. Everything's just smooth and fuss-free. The driver feels confident, as this car leaves no doubt that the manufacturer has done its homework, and that the fuel cell is a mature technology.

Mercedes B-class F-Cell interior

Mercedes B-class F-Cell interior

Range is announced at 250 miles, but my drive was too short to verify that. The manufacturer's figure may be a bit optimistic, but it's still vastly superior to any EV, except for the Tesla Model S.

It's a pity Mercedes hasn't green-lighted the development of a fuel cell version of its newer B-class. As the electric version (with a Tesla-sourced powertrain) is coming soon, a fuel cell model would have given the world the exact comparison test that everybody is waiting for. Same car and same motor, with the only difference being in the energy storage: battery or fuel cell.

Preliminary data tells us that this old B-class F-Cell has more than twice the range of the upcoming battery electric new B-class, but with so many differences between the old and the new B-class, it's hard to get a precise view of how the cars stack up, in order to compare the electric version with the fuel cell model that offers more range, less weight and three-minutes fill-ups. (Leaving aside infrastructure issues for now.) At some point, drivers really should have a fair choice between the two technologies, but that's not yet available.

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