First Drive: Mercedes B-Class F-Cell
Electric cars are getting plenty of air-time right now, and what many of us are rapidly learning is that all electric cars are not the same. Many might not consider the Mercedes B-Class F-CELL to be an electric car at all, in fact, because it is powered by hydrogen.
The chief attraction of fuel-cell vehicle so far has been their cleanliness, the only emission jetting from the exhaust pipe being water vapour. But electric cars are what they are, because their fuel cells convert that hydrogen into electricity, which in turn drives an electric motor. The advantages over a purely battery-powered electric vehicle are considerable. First, the range between fill-ups is two to three times as great – this Mercedes manages 250 miles between stops - and refuelling takes no more than three minutes, just as with any conventional car.
But there are considerable downsides, not the least of them being the lack of a refuelling network. Building a matrix of hydrogen pumps is vastly more expensive than installing charging stations for EVs, which is why Mercedes and several infrastructure providers have committed to build a network in Germany that it's hoped will spread at a decent pace across Europe - though it's looking less good for isolated Britain. Nevertheless, various developers of fuel cell cars, including Honda, Ford, Renault, Nissan, and General Motors as well as Mercedes-Benz, promise that there will be several thousand hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2015. That's a bold claim, but less of one when you hear Mercedes research boss Dr Thomas Weber say that it is ready right now to produce fuel cell cars in quantity. Its most developed vehicle is the B-Class F-CELL sampled here, which the company reckons is as usable as any car in its range bar the lack of a fuel supply.
The B-Class's sandwich floor construction allows a trio of carbonfibre hydrogen tanks and the fuel cell stack to be packaged without robbing passenger or luggage space, while the 134bhp electric motor sits up front, making this car virtually identical in appearance to a standard example. Driving the F-CELL couldn't be easier. Turning the key produces the disconcerting lack of noise that is a feature of all electric cars, but you simply engage 'D' for drive and whirr off into the future. Or in this case, a mixture of future and past, this rather dated Mercedes looking a bit cheap inside and delivering a ride suggesting suspension developed well back into the previous century.
But in other respects this is an immensely relaxing car to drive, which seems to get quieter the faster you go. It doesn't, but the difference compared to a conventional car becomes bigger at a cruise. The electric motor's substantial torque – there's 236lb ft of it – adds to the impression of relative effortlessness too, although this is no GTI.
Instead, it is a revolution waiting to happen. Like Mercedes, GM, Honda, Ford and others have solved the problems of cold-starting, once a major obstacle, they have shrunk the technology, made it reliable and are reducing its cost. What we need now is the infrastructure. These zero emission cars, which are potentially far more convenient than pure electric models, suggest that it is worth waiting for.