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June 11, 2014

News & Features

Auto review: First electric from Mercedes drives like a Mercedes

New York Times News Service

Mercedes, B-Class, auto review

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The 2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive starts at $42,375. (Mercedes)

Electric cars, by the nature of how their motors function, are capable of dispensing right-now torque in big, satisfying jolts.

A stomp on the accelerator, even in a practical, commuter EV, can pin passengers to seats. Then there's Tesla's slingshot Model S, leading the campaign to convince consumers that electric cars need not be wimpy, showing that zero-emissions driving can go beyond just striking a leafy-green image.

I've come to expect lightning blastoffs in electric cars, so it was a surprise to drive the 2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive, the luxury brand's first battery-electric vehicle. In the hands of Mercedes engineers, the natural stoplight burst available from electric drivetrains has been civilized: available when needed, but not flaunted.

Three years into a new era of electric cars, are we now seeing the first EV for mature drivers, people who want a highly refined driving experience, rather than an adolescent romp? Of course, the $42,375 price (before government incentives) is also a grown-up amount for a small electric car with an expected range of about 85 miles when the battery pack is charged to its standard 28 kilowatt-hour capacity. But punch the "range-plus" button, and the battery can be stuffed with 31.5 kilowatt-hours of energy, good for about 100 miles of driving.

In this vehicle, the driver's foot dips well into the pedal's travel, and the vehicle speed rises to around 25 mph before passengers feel the silent thrust of the Tesla-supplied powertrain.

"We don't want to shake the heads of our passengers," says Anton Sonntag, engineering project manager of the B-Class Electric. "We use the lower part of the accelerator pedal for more of a smooth characteristic."

This un-American delay of gratification occurs if the electric B-Class is in the default E (for Economy) mode. But press the S (for Sport) button on the center console, and you'll unleash the car's full 177 horsepower potential, good for zero-to-60 sprints in a respectable 7.9 seconds.

For the realities of everyday traffic, Mercedes provides a subtler means of delivering momentary passing power: the kickdown. Push your foot about three-quarters of the way through the accelerator pedal's travel and you'll feel a little click as the E mode level of power is increased by a third — the electrical equivalent of a turbocharger's kick. When I engaged it on the highway, the car zoomed right along with the fastest left-lane traffic.

That's appropriate, as all aspects of the car's handling, steering and braking were benchmarked against gas-powered models in the Mercedes lineup and made ready for the fast lane.

An electric car is a clever application for the kickdown, but the car's regenerative braking is even more ingenious. Steering-wheel paddles are drafted not to shift gears, but to control how much the regenerative system, rather than friction brakes, slows the vehicle. I used the paddles to jockey among braking levels, from D (for Drive) to a grabby D- for maximum energy recovery, to coasting in D+. By toggling among the levels, I was able to mostly avoid using the brake pedal in busy traffic.

This pedal-paddle game is fun for EV loyalists, but Mercedes drivers will probably prefer something more seamless like the car's D-Auto mode. In D-Auto, the car's radar sensors, mostly there for a collision-warning system, are enlisted to automatically set the level of regenerative braking on the fly. The radar locks onto the car ahead, and the precise amount of braking is then dialed in to maximize the amount of energy reclaimed, all the while working something like adaptive cruise control to regulate the car's speed.

These tricks notwithstanding, this is a Mercedes first and an electric car second. In terms of the flow of exterior lines, interior fit and finish, the comfort of its seats and the tastefulness of its cabin, it will feel right at home in a Mercedes showroom.

"A lot of Silicon Valley people don't want to scream, 'Hey, I'm driving an electric car,'" says Mark A. Webster, Mercedes-Benz USA's general manager for e-mobility. "They care about the environment, but they don't have to brag about their sustainability consciousness."

For all the excesses of this high-flying capital of software, not every well-heeled executive wants a big, flashy and fast electric flagship or a small futuristic EV. When the B-Class electric goes on sale in July in select states, and later in Washington, they will have a new choice.

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