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.

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

'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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