It’s hard to avoid thinking of the Nissan Leaf when I first eye the Mercedes-Benz A-class E-cell outside of Valencia, Spain’s dramatically modern City of Arts and Sciences. Even before the Leaf has landed in a buyer’s hands, the first mass-market electric car has made itself an icon for battery-electric vehicles. Of course, it helps that the A-class is similarly shaped and sized, but the comparison of Leaf and E-cell also points out the fact that we’re past the point where an electric car can impress on novelty alone. Nissan has set an aggressive benchmark in packaging, performance, and price, and anybody who wants to seriously compete in the electric-car market will have to challenge it on those terms.
“Even though range is important, it’s not everything,” says Mercedes-Benz’s Volker Stoerkmann. He’s the strategic project leader of the A-class E-cell and he’s suggesting that beyond technical competence, the electric Mercedes must also live up to the three-pointed star that’s mounted on the hood. Still, Mercedes can claim an impressive 158-mile range thanks to the large lithium-ion battery pack with 36 kWh of usable capacity. The pack is supplied by Tesla and is assembled just like it is in the Roadster. That means thousands of cylindrical laptop battery cells wired together and cradled in a liquid-cooled package. For the rest of the hardware, Mercedes-Benz has borrowed parts from its other electric-drive concepts. The electric motor, single-speed transmission, and inverter are shared with the hydrogen-powered B-class F-cell, while the battery and charger are the same as those used in the smart fortwo Electric Drive.
The E-cell interior offers just one obvious tipoff that this is an electric car: a small digital display between the analog power and speed gauges relays the battery charge and estimated range. The five-passenger cabin is otherwise unaltered. Mercedes’ small cars–the A-class and B-class–are unique in that they’re built with two floor pans that form a sandwich ideally suited to hold a battery pack or hydrogen fuel cell without intruding on passenger space. Throughout the interior, the E-cell maintains the typical Benz solidity in the materials and build quality, but the Nissan Leaf boasts a far more attractive cabin that’s also better at selling the freshness of an electric car.
For the most part, the E-cell is as quiet as what we’ve come to expect from electric vehicles, but it does emit rather loud relay clicks and a few mechanical buzzes and hums when stopped, evidence that Mercedes hasn’t completely refined the E-cell. Making just 94 hp and weighing about 3400 pounds, it’s not fast, but acceleration meets the standard for the era of range-optimized electrics as does the 207 pound-feet of torque. Neither is handling particularly noteworthy, though the sandwich floor creates a raised seating position that dampens any ambitions of moving fast through corners. The ride is well controlled and the cabin is amply isolated from wind and road noise. The steering offers far more feedback than the Nissan’s, but that’s hardly high praise considering that turning the Leaf’s wheel has the feel of steering a stick of butter across a hot Teflon frying pan. The E-cell’s top speed is said to be 93 mph and charging takes about eight hours from a 240-volt outlet.
While Nissan is launching the Leaf this month with hopes that it can upstage the Toyota Prius as America’s signature green car, the A-class E-cell’s fate is already sealed — and it’s hardly that of a hero. Mercedes is currently building 500 cars for a four-year field trial that will be the E-cell’s first and last foray on the road. Starting in April 2011, a select group — mostly corporations — will be able to lease an E-cell for a steep $1200 a month, with Mercedes covering all maintenance including wear-and-tear parts like brakes and tires for up to 60,000 kilometers (about 37,000 miles). Mercedes engineers are clear that the A-class E-cell has no future for mass production, largely because the regular A-class is at the end of its life cycle. The E-cell, however, does serve as a proof of concept for a small electric vehicle that will go into series production with the next generation of Mercedes-Benz small cars. That vehicle will feature several significant alterations to the powertrain, such as a new battery pack from Daimler’s new venture, Deutsche Accumotive, but the most exciting change has nothing to do with electricity. Mercedes knows that the dweeby A-class would never sell well with its American customers, so expect the production electric car to come in a much sexier wrapper.
Body Style: 4-door hatchback
Construction: Steel unibody
Motor: Permanent magnet synchronous, AC
Power: 94 hp
Torque: 207 lb-ft
Battery: Lithium-ion, 36 kWh
Range: 158 miles