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2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive: First Drive

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Can electric cars be sexy? Look at the exclusive Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive gullwing sports car, and that question has been answered.

But put your sensible cap on for the moment, have a look at the 2014 Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive, and you'll find little of such flirtation.

That's partly because Mercedes has potentially a much tougher mission: to convince American families that an electric vehicle will work for them as a second or third car—and perhaps the one they will drive most frequently, for short errands and daily tasks.

As we experienced last week on our first drive of the electric B-Class, in the San Francisco Bay area, its unassuming, bland exterior is perhaps its least desirable attribute.

It's all better from there, however. With excellent interior space, a quiet and truly luxurious cabin, and a driving experience that feels carefully curated, the Electric Drive is clearly a properly developed electric car--not simply a conversion.

Citing survey data from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Mercedes-Benz notes that 54 percent of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day, and 69 percent drive less than 60 miles on weekdays. And for upper-middle-income families—some of them already having a Mercedes-Benz product in the garage—going electric for a second or third car is a no-brainer.

'Very logical,' yet as luxurious as any other Mercedes

In keeping with that, practicality and usability were top concerns, according to Jürgen Schenk, who oversees electric vehicle development for Mercedes-Benz and Smart. The goal was to achieve a vehicle that was “very logical” yet luxurious.

Just like the Ford C-Max, which is about the same size on the outside, the B-Class has a rather long (106.3-inch) wheelbase and the tall, softly arched roofline that altogether hints that this is a vehicle prioritizing passenger space and interior versatility. And it absolutely wows on the inside, with an airy cabin that allows lots of headroom, great ease of entry, and a back seat that works for adults. From the inside, it feels a class larger than it is, and if you're cross-shopping a lot of vehicles it might leave you staring at the BMW X1 in disgust of wasted space.

And inside, the B-Class doesn't look out of place one bit in the Mercedes-Benz lineup; it has the same familiar layout, with a low instrument panel, elegantly trimmed with rounded vents and a 'floating' infotainment screen with the COMAND interface.

The B-Class is built on essentially the same vehicle architecture as the CLA sedan and upcoming GLA utility vehicle. While the GLA is more low-slung and fashionable, the B-Class is more of a conventional people-mover—a non-outdoorsy crossover wagon, ideally laid-out for those who dwell mostly in the city and suburbs. Seating heights for the B-Class are a little higher, and the B-Class' 'semi-sandwich' floor layout allows a safe space for a large battery pack while only giving up a flat-folding cargo floor.

Almost enough Tesla to be called a Model B?

And here's where it gets even more interesting: That battery pack, officially 28 kWh, and the 132-kW electric motor system (controller included) are supplied by (and were co-developed by) Tesla Motors (they're built in a designated area of Tesla's Fremont, California, factory, of the same familiar Panasonic cells). Those components are shipped to Daimler's assembly plant in Rastatt, Germany, where B-Class models are assembled; and the Electric Drive models are assembled there alongside their gasoline and diesel counterparts for the European market (for the 'body in white,' only a few welds are different, with just five body-structure pieces slightly different). Calling it a Tesla Model B might be a bit much...nevertheless it's an interesting pedigree.


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