The very first Tesla/Mercedes Benz electric A-Class, at Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto, California. (Jim Motavalli photo)
PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA--I got an unexpected treat during a recent visit to Tesla Motors' headquarters near San Francisco: They let me be the first journalist, ever, to drive the electric version of the Mercedes A-Class.
Let me say up front, I was totally captivated by this car, a product of the growing collaboration between Tesla and Daimler. Some 500 will be built, likely for delivery to "hand raisers," probably mostly in Europe. From behind the wheel, it seemed like an ideal mix of functionality and fun in a battery-powered vehicle. Unlike many of the EVs coming out later this year and early next, it's a four-seater, and approximately the size and utility of one of my favorite cars, the Honda Fit. (I own a 2007 Fit.) If you've never heard of the long-running Mercedes A-Class, it's because it has never been imported into the U.S. But I think America is ready for it. Here's what the car looks like on video:
The twisty roads around Palo Alto, which seemed to be going through a dry spell, were ideal for a fast run in the A-Class. I've driven several Tesla Roadsters, and taken a ride in the Model S, but the A-Class is unlike either. Although it feels sporty, it's not an out-and-out performance car like anything Tesla-badged. The car has really good acceleration in a wide power band, but it's not chirp-the-tires fast.
Typically sharp Mercedes steering helped when throwing the A-Class into curves, but the electric drive and the existing internal-combustion chassis worked in tandem to deliver a superb driving experience. Tesla's technology chief, JB Straubel, told me that putting the weighty battery pack down low in the car helped give this very tall car a more optimized center of gravity. Mercedes was embarrassed in the mid-1990s when a Swedish magazine flipped an A-Class during a high-speed maneuver known as "the moose test."
The electric A-Class, in the final version Mercedes will sell starting in early 2011, will have a range of 124 miles, and 214 foot pounds of torque. The battery pack will contain approximately 4,000 individual lithium-ion cells, Tesla told me. It's expected to keep up with the various gas versions of the A-Class.
The Fit is fairly sporty, too, so it's a compliment to say that the Tesla A-Class felt like an electric Fit. Honda has plans for the Fit, but they don't include battery power. The company will build a hybrid Fit, but (like the electric A-Class) probably not offer it in the U.S. market. Both cars are likely to be sold in Europe, though.
The car I drove was a prototype, and that meant its lack of rattles and squeaks was particularly impressive. Tesla's Straubel told me the company built the car on spec, buying a stock A-Class in Europe and converting it quickly back in California. They then presented the result to some visiting Daimler executives, who were mightily impressed.
As a test ride, the electric A-Class compares favorably to the Nissan Leaf, which is entering the "order specification" phase. People who put down a $99 deposit can now specify a color and trim level. Nissan will have press cars in New York in early October, so I'll finally drive a production Leaf (I've driven two early versions).
The electric A-Class is unlikely to be offered in the U.S., because as Tesla pointed out the base car has never been "federalized" for American sale. But it might consider taking that step, because I think both the electric and conventional A-Class could sell far better here than the two-seat Smart car (which will also be offered in an "electric drive" version).
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