Mercedes: 'More Than Competitive' Electric Cars Possible--When Business Makes Sense

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2016 Mercedes-Benz S550e Plug-In Hybrid

2016 Mercedes-Benz S550e Plug-In Hybrid

BMW has had a battery-electric car (with an optional range extender) on the market for two years now.

Audi and Porsche have announced battery-electric luxury models coming in two to four years that directly target Tesla.

But what of the third German automotive powerhouse, Daimler?

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According to executive Axel Heix in an exclusive interview with Green Car Reports last week, the automaker sees little hurry to launch battery-electric vehicles.

Heix spoke on the sidelines of a drive event in Austria for the new 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS full-size seven-seat sport utility vehicle; he's the director of product projects for SUVs and sports cars for Mercedes-Benz.

He noted that Mercedes plans to offer plug-in hybrid versions of virtually all of its high-volume models over the next few years.

2018 Mercedes-Benz GLE350e Plug-In Hybrid

2018 Mercedes-Benz GLE350e Plug-In Hybrid

The S-Class and C-Class sedans, and GLE sport utility vehicle (nee ML-Class) all now have plug-in models launched, though in limited regions.

But Heix acknowledged that the updated GLS full-size SUV (nee GL-Class) is one of the few products in the company's lineup that won't get a plug-in variant.

The ability to carry seven people is one of its crucial selling points, he said, and the third-row seat prevents the fitting of a battery pack below the load bay.

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Heix, 53, has been with Daimler for 25 years, and knows its products intimately.

He began the interview by pointing to the range of battery-electric products, from the Smart Electric Drive through the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive to the Mercedes SLS AMG Electric Drive sport coupe.

He acknowledged, however, that those models are low-volume and/or far from mainstream products for the U.S.

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

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

Mercedes-Benz is "strongly developing in [the] direction" of electrification, he said--but it believes that for the moment, plug-in hybrids are more practical for the majority of buyers.

Once a charging infrastructure to permit long-range trips is available, he said, battery-electric cars "will be accepted" by regular buyers. Until then, they remain "city cars" for most customers.

Asked how such an infrastructure will be created, Heix suggested that it will "happen step-by-step" in response to national legislation on fuel consumption and incentives to produce partially or fully zero-emission vehicles.

ALSO SEE: Germans Vs Tesla In High-End Electric Cars: Will Fast Charging Follow In Time?

He pointed specifically to China as one example of aggressive legislation driving all makers to offer plug-in vehicles.

Asked whether the plug-in hybrids that are more popular in China than battery-electric cars are actually plugged in at all, Heix said he hadn't seen data on that question.

"It's a question of who starts" to build such networks, he said--whether it be private companies, other automakers, or government entities.

Tesla Supercharger network, North American coverage - March 2015

Tesla Supercharger network, North American coverage - March 2015

Norway and The Netherlands are two countries where governments give enormous incentives to buyers of electric cars, he said, and that works.

In those countries, charging stations have appeared in parking lots, supermarkets, and many other locations, even curbside, to support the growing number of plug-in cars.

And yet, he said, if the goal is to reduce fuel consumption and emission of carbon dioxide, "It's astonishing how much you can do with internal-combustion engines."

MORE: How Audi, BMW & Mercedes Plan To Compete With Tesla--And Why (Dec 2014):

Heix noted, accurately, that in some European regions, the most efficient combustion-engine vehicles have a lower wells-to-wheels carbon footprint than electric cars plugged into coal-powered electric grids.

That's much less the case in the United States, where vehicles are far less fuel-efficient overall and coal is slowly giving way to natural gas and renewable energy sources to produce electricity.

Will there be a time when consumers en masse start to buy electric cars simply because they're better, nicer, and more pleasant to drive than electric cars--and they're at roughly equivalent price levels?

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