PALO ALTO, California -- It should be no surprise that we're humming along Sand Hill Road in pretty much total silence. It's a Mercedes-Benz, so isn't it supposed to be silent?
This is exactly the point with the 2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive. It is meant to be a Mercedes-Benz first, and everything else about it comes second. The B-Class EV does everything like a Benz, except you just happen to plug it into the wall when you park it for the night.
That is just the way that the people in the offices along Sand Hill Road, where you find the most influential venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, like it.
Take that, Tesla!Well, we didn't exactly make it all the way up Sand Hill Road in what you would call perfect silence, because when we stopped the 2014 B-Class EV at the light before Junipero Serra Boulevard, we switched off stability control and then nailed the throttle pedal to the floor when the light went green.
The B-Class lit up its front tires with a screech and kept them lit all the way across the slippery four-lane intersection. The guy in the Honda Civic next to us swiveled his neck like a crazy person, looked right at us, and kept looking around for the noise. After all, no one would suspect a Mercedes-Benz of such a demonstration, much less a Mercedes-Benz with an electric socket hidden behind its fuel flap.
As it turns out, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive (whew, say that five times fast), has a powertrain to which Tesla has contributed a substantial measure of technology, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that its 177 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque are enough to produce a little bit of antisocial behavior from what is meant to be a refined but innocuous people-mover.
The Romance of People MovingYou don't expect much romance from a people-moving pod like the B-Class. As you look at the car's profile, you think that "style" might be too strong a word to use here. Perhaps it's to be expected that the B-Class has been Mercedes-Benz's vehicle of choice for developing cars powered by alternative fuels, including compressed natural gas, hydrogen fuel cell, and now battery-powered electricity.
Nevertheless, the 2014 B-Class EV actually looks surprisingly good. Now in its second generation, this car shares its platform with the front-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz CLA, and it does family-style duty in a lot of countries. It has the profile of a utility vehicle, yet the interior reminds you of the CLA sedan. It feels warm and inviting, although it's best to keep from rapping your knuckles against the CLA-spec plastic trim.
A 5.8-inch information screen occupies the center of the dash, the doors are wide and the floor is flat, and rear cargo space measures 17.7 cubic feet behind the 60/40-split folding rear seat and 51.0 cubic feet when the rear seat is flipped down. Measuring 171.6 inches long, 71.3 inches wide, and 61.3 inches high, the B-Class can make tall people comfortable, although perhaps not wide ones.
Electricity That Feels NaturalThe B-Class has been stitched together with its electric powertrain so well that you'd almost never guess that it could be anything other than an EV. The 28 kWh package of lithium-ion batteries lies out of the way beneath the floor, and the electric motor is in the place up front where you'd usually find an engine. Mercedes-Benz engineers raised the B-Class on its suspension some 3.4 inches to make room beneath the car for the battery case, but then the designers added a little body cladding to the fender wells and rocker sills so you don't really notice.
When you're scooting along the road, the 2014 B-Class EV feels like a real car. At a stop, it creeps forward naturally like a conventional car with an automatic transmission. (Engineers hate this because it significantly impacts cruising range, but Americans like us love it, so what are they to do?) Shift paddles let you select four different driving modes: (1) automatic for unobtrusive performance; (2) minimal brake regeneration for highway cruising; (3) maximum brake regeneration for optimal off-throttle deceleration in traffic and during sporting driving; and (4) an automated mode with radar-optimized cruise control to apply the brakes when slow traffic is sensed ahead.
Road-hugging weight can be a good thingThe B-Class EV has its share of road-hugging weight, yet the combination of 171 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque means the car doesn't feel sluggish with two passengers, and it'll get to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds on the way to a top speed of 100 mph.
There's plenty of suspension travel from the MacPherson struts in front and the control arms at the rear, and body control is pretty good, even on the narrow, winding roads to the top of the ridge along the San Francisco Peninsula where the redwoods are. The steering is not exactly lively, yet neither does it feel inert, and the 225/50R-17 Michelin Energy Primacy MXM4 tires do a fine job of coping with nearly 4000 pounds of weight. The 2014 B-class Electric Drive really does drive like a Mercedes.
The only flaw here lies in the regenerative brakes, which offer a little too much light-effort pedal travel before you transition into the mechanical brakes. The transition itself isn't grabby, yet neither is it natural, plus it takes some serious pedal pressure to slow down the car to a stop, especially those last few feet. (Whew, missed that guy's bumper by a hair.)
Welcome to the modern worldAs we arrived at Mercedes-Benz R&D in Silicon Valley (the headquarters of Mercedes-Benz R&D in the U.S., which is an interesting development), we admired the long line of 2014 B-Class EVs plugged into the row of 40-amp chargers out front. It takes about 3.5 hours to fully charge the B-Class's battery from full discharge with a heavy-duty charger, and about 16 hours to charge it from a wall socket at your house. You get about 85 miles of cruising range from a full charge, plus the B-Class EV has a function that will enable the battery pack to take an extra amount of charge (a combination of science and magic is responsible), if you need a little extra distance (18 miles) the next day.
The sight of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive in suburban Silicon Valley shows us that Mercedes-Benz believes the suburbs will continue to be the heartland of America, not the futuristic mega-cities that Europeans are talking about. This is why the B-Class EV looks like something you see parked in front of Target, not the podlike BMW i3 that you might see in downtown Amsterdam. Utility is the key thing in the suburbs, not just mobility. The Mercedes EV is meant to carry people and their stuff in a way that is efficient yet doesn't sacrifice Mercedes practicality and refinement along the way.
At the same time, the long line of EVs at Mercedes-Benz also reminded us that Silicon Valley has become the scene of road-rage-style incidents in recent months as people squabble over access to the limited number of public charging stations. We've heard people diss both plug-in hybrids and big battery Teslas for spending too much time on the plug, and the atmosphere is poisonous with self-righteous entitlement on every side of the issue. (Apparently nerds have more in common with guys in heavy-duty pickup trucks than they realize.) Now that there are a growing number of EVs on the ground, the next step will be more home charging stations. We'll see if people keep thinking that electricity is free.
2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive
|Base Price||$42,375 (including destination)|
|Motor||AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric; 28 kWh battery|
|Steering||Electronically assisted rack-and-pinion|
|Front suspension||MacPherson struts, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Unequal-length control arms, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes||Ventilated discs front, solid discs rear, ABS|
|L x W x H||171.6 x 71.3 x 63.1 in|
|Cargo volume||17.7 cu ft|
|0-60 mph||7.9 sec (est.)|
|Cruising range||85 mi|
|Top speed||100 mph (electronically limited)|