Circle back to six years ago when 11 MotorTrend judges unanimously voted the then-brand-new Tesla Model S our 2013 Car of the Year. Were we nervous? Yeah, sure, of course. Tesla what? Elon who? I remember asking the group if anyone had publicly or privately ever said that the Model S was vaporware. Ten hands shot up, with the other judge stating that his mother taught him to say nothing when he had nothing nice to say.
Tesla has had many ups and downs since then, with CEO-Mascot Elon Musk’s Trumpian Tweets piling on the damage that “manufacturing hell” has wrought. Still, paraphrasing what I said back in September 2012, I’ll never bet against a billionaire who docked his rocket ship with the International Space Station the week before his electric luxury sedan won Car of the Year. Consider that Tesla has accounted for 4.6 percent of all vehicles sold in California during Q3 of 2018—and California has more citizens than Canada.
The rest of the industry is finally waking up to Tesla’s success and waking up quick. Chevrolet did an incredible job with the Bolt EV (our 2017 Car of the Year), but sales are down significantly this year—GM blames that on a shift to overseas production, but cheap gas also has most folks shopping Tahoes instead of Bolts.
I also believe that people (currently) interested in electric cars aren’t interested in Chevy badges. Premium vehicles that come across as premium—like all three Teslas but unlike the slow-selling BMW i3—are what these customers want. To wit, Jaguar just launched the handsome I-Pace while Audi is gearing up to deliver two EVs—the E-Tron SUV and E-Tron GT. Porsche’s gorgeous though unfortunately named Taycan is right around the corner. As is the first of 10 offerings from Mercedes-Benz’s new subbrand E—the EQC 400. Europe will be able to buy the electric Benz come June. Americans will have to wait until January 2020.
To break down the nomenclature a bit, for the time being, all fully electric Mercedes will be known as EQs. I predict this convention won’t last long, as it gets in the way of the brand’s other names. For instance, the EQC 400 is clearly an SUV. In fact, it’s built on the same production line as the GLC. Now, GL is Mercedes-speak for SUV (GL being an abbreviation of Gelandewagen, or “cross-country vehicle”), and the GLC is the SUV that’s roughly analogous in shape and price to the C-Class. That’s where the C in GLC comes from. So what happens when Mercedes launches an electric C-Class? EQC is already taken. Anyhow, for now, the first all-electric SUV from Mercedes will be known as the EQC 400. The 400 stands for a 400-kilometer battery range (back to that in a minute).
The 400 could (almost) stand for horsepower, as together the front and rear electric motors generate 408 of them. The front motor is slightly smaller, has five windings, and is slightly less powerful than the rear, which features seven windings. That’s how Mercedes EQ is doing rear-wheel bias. Torque is pretty healthy, too, at 564 lb-ft.
EQ engineer Bastian Schult tells me that 0–60 mph will happen in 4.9 seconds. You might think with all that power the EQC 400 might be a touch quicker. Thing is, this compact SUV weighs right around 5,400 pounds. That’s heavy. The last Mercedes GLC 300 we weighed came in at 4,006 pounds. Why so hefty? The 80-kW-hr battery pack along with its accompanying crash structure clocks in at 1,430 pounds. Sure, there’s no internal combustion engine, but there are the two motors, along with all the affiliated liquid cooling for both the motors and the battery. For the sake of comparison, the last Tesla Model 3 Dual Motor Performance we tested weighed 4,078 pounds and hit 60 mph in 3.3 seconds. In terms of SUVs, the Tesla Model X sits at 5,516 pounds, though it is a larger vehicle than the EQC 400.
The 400-kilometer range is based on the WLTP European standard. If you do a straight metric conversion, the range comes out to 249 miles. However, you can’t just do a straight conversion. Schult estimates that the EQC 400 will be EPA certified at 220 miles of range. For proof, he points out that the day before I showed up, he’d carefully driven the thing for 207 miles and had 7 percent remaining on the battery. That would add up to a 222-mile range. That’s not class-leading, though anything over 200 miles works in the real world. Charge times are what we’ve grown accustomed to, with the battery charging to 80 percent in 40 minutes on a 110-kW charger.
Outside, Mercedes has created a new front end for the EQ family. To my eyes there’s something vaguely Japanese about the underbite headlight surround. It could be the sharp corners coming off each “eye,” almost like a JDM minivan you’d see prowling the streets of Tokyo. It’s a decent design but not one I’d go with to launch a brand—subbrand or not. Unlike many electric cars, the grille is still in residence and fully functional, as it’s used to cool what’s under the hood.
Compared to the GLC, the EQC is 4 inches longer, and all the extra length goes rearward to give the electric crossover a more coupelike appearance. The hard side is definitely the best angle. The rear is solid and well executed if not a bit derivative. Everybody seems to be doing the solid taillight bar these days, especially Porsche. Inside, Mercedes did a nice job of keeping familiar Benz controls but mixing them with some EQ-specific flourishes. The bronze air vents and the silver cooling fins on either side of the passenger compartment stand out the most.
What’s the EQC 400 like to drive? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, isn’t it? Here’s the funny part—and I could write a comedy sketch routine based on the frequency with which this happens to me: The American PR people promise I can drive it; the Germans feel different. After much international drama (conducted on a bridge, of course), I essentially stole the thing when the Germans let their guard down.
The EQC feels quite powerful, even in Normal mode. There are four driving modes: Normal, Sport, Eco, and something called Max, which you switch into when range anxiety hits and you simply need to reach that charger. The EQC is also nearly silent—quieter than other electric vehicles. Ever since the Tesla Roadster, a characteristic of electric propulsion has been a whirring, Star Wars–like noise. Mercedes has mounted both motors via subframes to the vehicle by way of huge rubber mounts that effectively eliminate that noise. All you hear is wind and tire patter. A production EQC 400 should be even quieter than this prototype. For one thing, it’s getting thicker glass.
The ride quality is quite good—something I experienced from the passenger seat—though from behind the wheel you are acutely aware of just how heavy the EQC is. There’s a plodding feeling to the vehicle, like it’s simply crushing what lies beneath. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s very unexpected in such a small package. All that battery weight is down low, and as a result this Mercedes hugs the road. During my illicit drive it was raining, yet the EQC 400 felt sure-footed. Planted, even. I barely had a chance to play with the four brake-regeneration modes before I received a particularly nasty phone call, ordering me back to base camp. Note that the EQC 400 defaults to Auto regen mode, which uses map data, radar data, and the stereo cameras to “intelligently” set the amount of regeneration. You pull the left paddle for more regen, the right one for less.
The Mercedes-Benz EQC 400 has the range, size, luxury, performance, and, perhaps most important, the badge that early adopters of all-electric transportation seem to crave. True, it’s not a ground-up electric vehicle and therefore has some shortcomings—like a motor where you might expect a frunk—but none that are fatal. Moreover, when this Mercedes hits the market, its only direct competition will be Audi and Jaguar. The upcoming Tesla Model Y crossover hasn’t been officially announced (talk about a poorly kept secret), and despite rumors of a mid-2020 introduction, like all new Tesla models, I’ll believe it when I drive it. The electrification of the automobile remains inevitable, and the EQC shows that Mercedes-Benz will be part of the revolution.
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