Quick Drive: Electric Mercedes A-Class E-Cell

By · March 29, 2011

Mercedes A-class E-Cell

Mercedes A-Class E-Cell

This wasn't a real test-drive. I only drove the car for 15 minutes, but that was enough to find out what it's worth. Actually, it was totally unplanned. I was attending a conference on green mobility and I hadn't expected to see EVs available for test runs. So I got out of the building, leaving my coat inside, and it was a cold morning. Only wearing a light jacket, the first thing I did was to turn on the heater. Happily, the car had been driven just before, and it blew warm air right away. I knew all gas and diesel Mercedes cars have great heaters, and I can now testify it's also true for electric Benzes.

A Long History

This is the second electric A-class I had the opportunity to test. I drove one in 2006, but it was not an E-Cell, it was an F-Cell—meaning it had a fuel cell instead of a battery. At the time, I thought we would never see a battery electric from Mercedes again, but they have changed their minds. It happened before. The Mercedes A-class is exactly like the Nissan LEAF, in the sense that it was designed right from the start to receive an electric drive. It has a sandwich floor where you can store batteries. Mercedes launched it first with the gasoline engine—with the sandwich floor unused and empty. The electric version should have followed, but it didn't. Mercedes changed its mind about battery electrics, and it went to develop cars with a fuel cell instead. It said at the time that the promise of electric transportation was only delayed, and that the cars would be better, with more power and more range, thanks to the fuel cell. I believed it. That was 1999.

Mercedes A-class E-Cell

Interior of Mercedes A-class E-Cell

Twelve years later at the motor show in Geneva, there were an A-class E-Cell and a B-class F-Cell—a larger model built on the same platform—both heading for production. It's a pity Americans can't buy those models. Mercedes still thinks there's no market for a luxury small car in the U.S. I don't know if this will change someday. The A-class is a small car, same size as a Honda Fit, but with great packaging. It's roomy inside.

Not Fast, But a Nice Ride

Driving it, my first thought is that it's not very powerful. The motor makes 50 kW (70 kW peak) and 214-lbs/ft of torque, which sounds quite good—but the car felt significantly slower than a Nissan LEAF. But the steering is definitely better. Many electric power systems feel artificial, but not this one, which was truly nice. Of course, a longer drive is needed, but what struck me was the overall refinement of the car. Mercedes has been working many years on an electric A-class and it shows. The steering is perfectly weighted, and so are the brakes. I wish they had more regen, but I'm impressed that they work exactly like the brakes of any other car (running on gasoline). The engineers did a fantastic job making the car feel absolutely normal. The highest speed I drove was about 40 mph. I know the batteries add a lot of weight, I didn't feel it. The floor is higher than in a normal car, but you forget it once seated.

Mercedes A-class E-Cell

Mercedes A-Class E-Cell

The batteries come from Tesla. They still are primitive packs made of thousands of little cells linked one by one. Range is advertised at more than 125 miles (200 km). That doesn't sound like much considering the pack is rated at 36 kWh. A good thing is that state of charge (SOC) is very clearly put on the middle of the dashboard. It was 52% when I got in the car, and 49 when I got out. The heater was on all the time, with the fan level at 2. I don't know how much distance I did—sorry, forgot to note—but not much.

The sad thing is that this car won't be sold. (Just like the Mini E in BMW's test program). Mercedes is building 500 of the A-Class E-Cell, and will lease them to select customers in Europe. They're doing the same thing with the B-class F-Cell that runs on hydrogen. I'm expecting a new generation of the A-class within a year, and there should be an electric version, but nothing is known about it yet.

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