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.