FRANKFURT (Bloomberg) -- Mercedes-Benz’s first mainstream electric car has Tesla technology under the hood, though Mercedes is not flaunting it.
Unlike BMW, which wrapped its competing emissions-free model in futuristic carbon fiber, Daimler’s Mercedes unit put an electric motor and battery inside its existing vanlike B-class hatchback. The only clues that it’s electric are a couple of small decals and the blue trim on the mirrors and front grille.
Teaming up with Tesla Motors is supposed to help Mercedes transfer some of the hipster aura of the electric-vehicle pioneer to the B class while avoiding the pitfalls of spending billions on a technology few may want to buy. Whether it will resonate with the consumers who do want to be part of the automotive avant garde is another question.
“The B-class electric is a low-cost and low-risk solution for Daimler,” said Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management at the University of Applied Sciences in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany.
Because the electric B class shares an assembly line with the gasoline and diesel versions, Mercedes doesn’t need to sell a fixed amount of vehicles to cover its costs, Bratzel said.
“You can reasonably say that nobody today is making a battery-powered vehicle that’s economically viable in its own right,” Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said at an Oct. 27 event on the Spanish island of Majorca to present the electric B class to journalists. “Manufacturers will not see a return within a reasonable time on the billions they’re investing now.”
Despite the purpose-built design of BMW’s i3, its range, performance and interior space are very similar to those of the B class, Zetsche said. “But our effort was dramatically smaller.”
BMW counters that creating a new electric car has advantages over re-fitting existing models. “Weight, drivability and range are in ideal proportions,” said BMW spokesman Mathias Schmidt.
Consumers will get to decide when the emissions-free B class reaches showrooms in Germany on Nov. 29. It comes with a range of about 200km (124 miles), at prices similar to the BMW i3, Zetsche said.
The BMW car costs about 35,000 euros ($43,766) in Germany and $41,350 in the U.S., where a version of the electric B class has been available in selected states since mid-July. A broader rollout is set for next year.
During the test drive, the white B class blended in among other compacts on the island’s windy asphalt roads.
Though the car weighs about 200kg (440 pounds) more than the conventional gasoline and diesel B-Class because of the big battery pack, it accelerated swiftly, thanks to the instant power of the electric motor. It was almost silent, except for an artificial sound Mercedes added to warn pedestrians at speeds up to 30kph (19 mph). The center display continuously updated the car’s current range, charging level and energy flow.
The battery and motor come from Tesla. Though Daimler loosened the relationship last month, selling its 4 percent stake for about $780 million, it says it will keep the startup as a supplier.
“Tesla’s electric drivetrain fits well to the B class,” said Daniel Schwarz, a Commerzbank analyst in Frankfurt. “It offers a good range and didn’t cause much hassle for Daimler to adapt.”
For Daimler, this is the third battery-powered model after the e-Smart city car and an electric version of the Mercedes SLS supercar that’s now out of production. It has the best chance of winning buyers.
“The B class addresses a much larger number of potential customers” than either of Mercedes’s previous electric models, said Hans-Peter Wodniok, an analyst with Fairesearch in Kronberg, Germany. “The current attempts by Daimler and BMW are far more promising than Renault’s Twizy or the Smart,” which seat only two people. “The B class or i3 are serious vehicles that also look like cars.”
BMW’s riskier strategy might eventually pay off. The i3 will probably outsell the electric B class two to one in 2020, according to estimates from IHS Automotive. And that’s only counting pure battery-powered vehicles. Orders with an on-board gasoline-powered generator to extend the range will propel i3 sales to 32,400 compared with 6,400 B classes, according to IHS.
That may be because people who buy electric vehicles actually want other drivers to notice how environmentally conscious they are, said Anjan Hemanth Kumar, an analyst for Frost & Sullivan in Bangalore.
“For the identity of the customer, it’s very important to have a proper electric vehicle with a unique identity so they can differentiate themselves,” Kumar said. “You want to show off, just as a Ferrari driver wants to show off.”