Driving the electric Mercedes-Benz B-Class, a $41,500 Tesla in disguise

Tesla and Nissan sell more of their electric cars in Silicon Valley than in any other part of the world. The Bay Area is also the top metropolitan market worldwide for Mercedes-Benzes, which is one of the reasons why Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America is located in Sunnyvale, Calif., according to Johann Jugwirth, its president and CEO.

Another reason is technology. “Everything happens here first,” Jungwirth says. “Or as futurist William Gibson said: ‘The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.’”

In an effort to distribute it a little more evenly, Mercedes-Benz is taking advantage of its business relationship with Tesla. As an early investor, Mercedes-Benz AG gets access to the electric car company’s drivetrains, which it uses in the Smart Fortwo EV, and now, the B-Class Electric Drive.

In Europe, the B-Class is available with a small gas or diesel engine, but in the United States, the car will only be available with an electric powertrain. In other words, this is a Mercedes you can drive all by yourself in the carpool lane. Steve Jobs would’ve loved it.



Due to the prevalence of electric cars in Silicon Valley, the area has some of the country’s quietest carpool lanes, which I shared with several Teslas and Nissan Leafs en route from Palo Alto to Sunnyvale via a side jaunt up the hills to Woodside — a route of 60 miles, with a brief rest stop at the Thomas Fogarty winery, but without any stops to recharge the batteries. Like all electrics, the B-Class quietly glides over the pavement, and you can barely even hear the tires on the pavement. If the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive had come out 50 years ago, it would have been featured on a Simon & Garfunkle album cover.

But Mercedes-Benz looks even further back to champion the benefit of electric cars. “Many think of the automobile as the villain in the sad tale of atmospheric pollution,” said spokesman Christian Bokich. “Yet most have forgotten that the faithful, friendly horse created the very problems today attributed to the automobile: air contaminants harmful to health, noxious odors, and noise.”

Thus began the press briefing before the drive. It’s a valid point. Anyone who has ever been to Cheyenne, Wy., during “Frontier Days” or even just to the south end of Central Park in New York City can attest to the negative aspects of livestock roaming the streets. Cars keep our shoes from getting overly soiled, and they keep air considerably less smelly than it would be if we still relied heavily on horse-drawn carriages for transportation.

Since Mercedes-Benz co-invented the automobile, civilization has steadily traded horses for horsepower. The Tesla drivetrain comes with a 28 kWh lithium battery pack comprised of thousands of batteries, a one-speed transmission, and a motor that gives the B-Class instant torque and low-speed acceleration thanks to 177 hp and a very useful 251 ft-lbs of torque. It’ll go from zero to 60 mph in about 8 seconds, and you don’t really want to go faster than that or you’ll risk losing range.

The car has an estimated range of just 85 miles, so you also won’t be able to get very far from home, which is sort of a neat feature, when you think about it. By buying a Mercedes with a 40-mile driving radius, you’re making a statement about how important you are. You don’t need to drive to other people; if they want to see you, they can come to you.

Highs: Smooth one-speed acceleration, effortless braking, and superior handling to gas-powered cars in this class. Also, it’s a Mercedes-Benz, so the interior fit and finish is as expected in a $41,500 car.

Lows: Uninspired exterior design (although not as polarizing as, say, a BMW i3). Batteries add 500 lbs. compared to the gas-powered car, and extra mass is never a good thing. Range is estimated at 85 miles, provided you stay in “eco” mode. The batteries are guaranteed to maintain at least 70 percent of their power after eight years, which means a long-term effective range of less than 60 miles.

Availability: The B-Class Electric Drive goes on sale in July in states with zero-emission vehicle "ZEV" mandates (California, Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington D.C.), but won't be available until the first half of next year in other states.

Follow G.E. Anderson on Twitter: @g_e_anderson.