Editor’s Note: We’ve got another review of a new electric vehicle from a regular CleanTechnica reader. Kyle Field — who I regularly communicate with on Google+ regarding solar & EVs, and who also shares a lot of good thoughts in the comments below CleanTechnica articles — is one of the lucky few Americans who now has a 2014 Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive. I was thrilled to find out, see pics, and offer the chance to share his initial impressions with fellow CleanTechnica readers. Here’s his thorough review after the first month. (We’ll be sure to pester him for updates as he gets used to the slick, Tesla-powered, torque-happy Mercedes.)
By Kyle Field
A month ago, my wife and I traded in our aging gasmobile for the newly introduced 2014 Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive EV. I considered myself to be an educated EV consumer but still had quite a few learnings — some good, some bad — in the first month with our EV. Though the majority of our learnings were not related to the car itself, but more generically to the transition from a gasmobile to an EV, that’s where I’ll start.
Charging up your EV at home is one of the great benefits of EVs, as it means that there is no need to stop at a gas station anymore! The Level 2 “charger” most EV buyers think they need for their garage is not actually a charger (the actual charger is onboard the EV itself), but rather an EVSE, or “Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment,” which is just a fancy term for the hardware that: 1) Provides the right connection from your local power source to your EV, and 2) Talks back and forth with your EV through the charging process. In our case, as with that of most EV owners in the US, our charger has the J1772 plug on it, which plugs directly into the charging port of our B-Class.
Level 2 residential chargers range from $600–$1000+, and after a bit of research, we went with the Schneider Electric EV230WS for $599 (it has since dropped to $488) from Amazon because it was rated very highly and allowed us to mount the charging end separately from the actual EVSE unit. This unit also allowed us to put a standard 30amp plug on it vs. hardwiring it, which allowed us to use our existing 220 volt dryer outlet.
It is not necessary to install a Level 2 EVSE in your home to charge your EV — you can use the 110 adapter that is included with the EV — but we wanted the extra flexibility to more quickly charge up and to have the option to keep the 110 charger in the car at all times, just in case.
In the first few weeks of getting our EV, we wanted to charge every opportunity we had. Range anxiety is all the rage in mainstream media, so plugging in everywhere we possibly could just felt good. We soon realized that this was counterproductive, as there’s simply no need to charge when popping out for dinner or to grab some groceries. It also blocks a spot for other EV drivers who might be farther away from home and need the spot to charge. On top of that, most public charging stations require payment whereas home charging is powered by our solar panels (free! with our California net metering).
To offset our increased electrical usage, we will be adding several more solar panels to our current installation to fully offset our increased usage. The B-Class is one of the least efficient EVs on the market in terms of miles per kWh with its rating of 2.5 mi/kWh. In our first 750 miles, our actual average is 2.9 mi/kWh, and based on that, we will need another 7.6 panels to power our EV for the estimated 8900 miles/year we drive. We are already producing more than we need, so we will be adding 5 panels next month to put us back in the green.
One unique challenge EV owners have is the large variety of charging networks out there. After test driving a few charging network apps, we have found that the crowdsourced PlugShare app (Web, iOS, Android) has the best overview of the entire public charging network and includes chargers from many of the big networks, like ChargePoint, Blink, EV Connect, and NRG’s eVgo, as well as personal charging locations! Wanting to build capability and make the most of our EV, we have signed up for several different charging networks, each of which has it’s own unique way to charge — some with set monthly fees, others with a price per kWh or per hour, etc. It’s been an interesting process but the net takeaway is that, here in Southern California, there are lots of chargers in lots of areas we frequent.
To date, we have only charged at Level 2 chargers but plan to give Level 3 / DC Fast Charging a go in the next few weeks. Plug In America has a great overview of EV charging here that I found especially helpful.
Digging in to our specific EV — the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive — it looks and feels a lot like a normal car. In fact, this is the same B-Class that has been sold overseas as a gasmobile for many years, with the same exterior and interior with the exception of the minuscule “Electric Drive” badge. As an EV/Solar/Sustainability fanatic, this is one of the things I was not a fan of, as I want our EV to roam the streets screaming “No gas needed, thanks” or “Suckers… I’m running on sunshine” … but alas, it was not to be. Some drivers (my wife included) just want a nice-looking, “normal-looking” car which just happens to be an EV, and the B-Class is a perfect fit.
In our search for the right EV, we found the B-Class seating to be the most balanced for our needs. The front seats felt a bit less roomy when compared to the BMW i3, whereas the rear seats had MUCH more room than the i3. The B-Class seats 5 while the i3 opted for in-seat cupholders, reducing it’s capacity to 4. Finally, the rear seats in the i3 are accessed through split doors, which requires the front door to open before the rear passengers can enter/exit. As we have two little boys (3 and 5), I was not thrilled at the prospect of their nagging at me to open my door before they get in or out each and every time. Check out a more thorough comparison of the two in Ted Kidd’s review here (another CleanTechnica reader review).
Under the Hood
While the B-Class looks and feels like a normal car, when you pop the hood, things change. The B-Class’ electric motor, batteries, charger, and supporting EV systems are all made by Tesla, shipped from the US to Germany for assembly. While I’m not a car fanatic (at least not the gas-powered ones), I feel a sense of pride that Mercedes came to a US company for their first EV. This was a feature on the plus side for me, as Tesla is making waves in the EV world and I’m happy to be a part of that revolution.
Driving the B-Class
With the normal looking exterior, the accelerator of the B-Class houses a fun secret — instant torque! This is difficult to put into words for non-EV drivers but suffice it to say that the accelerator on this EV (and most other EVs) is responsive. When you step on the pedal, it jumps. Continued pressure results in a very smooth acceleration up to whatever speed you desire. I occasionally treat my kids to a ride on the roller coaster and pound the pedal down to the ground on the way to pre-school resulting in what feels like a quick boost on a roller coaster. Granted, they’re too young for coasters at this point, but the sentiment is spot on.
The B-Class has 3 driving modes — Sport, Economy, and Economy Plus. Sport offers the most responsive accelerator with a corresponding reduction in range as a penalty for the fun had when driving. In Sport, the B-Class has no problem chirping the tires off the line or even from 15 mph if that’s your thing. I personally try to put it in Economy Plus right off the bat, which maximizes mileage and minimizes my risk of extra traffic tickets. It’s fun to drive in all 3 driving modes and it’s great to have the option for a different driving experience at the click of a button.
As I mentioned, this particular configuration results in the least efficient EV when compared to others available today, with an MPGe rating of 85/83 and most others coming in at 100+. This is largely due to the fact that the B-Class was not built from the ground up as an EV or even a fuel-efficient car but rather a converted gas mobile. This is most evident in the weight — at 3935 lbs, the B-Class is no featherweight. For comparison, the BMW i3 which was purpose-built as an EV comes in at 2853 lbs (without the Range Extender). The B-Class pays a further penalty for being a former gasmobile, as extra battery capacity was required to haul around the extra mass. The B-Class’ battery is rated at 36 kWh.
One neat thing about EVs is the Regen… short for regeneration — where the car uses the car’s momentum to generate electricity when braking. This is old hat for Prius owners, as this technology has been the bread and butter of hybrid battery charging for years now, but this EV takes it to a new level. When you’re driving along and accelerating, the car drives as you’d expect, pulling power from the battery to the motor… but the second you release your pressure, the regen kicks in and begins charging the battery, slowing the vehicle. It’s an odd feeling at first but after a short time driving, feels natural. It gives a new degree of control over acceleration and deceleration with a single pedal. The regen is so strong that it will slow the vehicle down almost to a stop without the need for brakes, putting all that kinetic energy back into your battery.
What’s great about regen is that it extends the real-time range of the B-Class beyond it’s battery-only range of 87 miles. Just how much of an extension depends on personal driving style and terrain (hills vs flat, freeway speeds vs stop and go driving, etc). We live up on a hill and regularly make it to the freeway onramp 3 miles away with an extra mile of range. Conversely, we have a ~1000’ climb on the freeway that, across 2 miles, zaps 5–6 miles from our range.
One of the big selling points for us was the monthly cost savings. Being a bit of a data nut, I was eager to track our savings — both financially and in the sheer reduction in dinosaur goo (aka gasoline) usage. My calculations showed that we would save approximately $100/month of our $130 gasmobile fuel bill. Having solar panels on the roof, I was excited to see how much of our driving would be offset by our current overproduction and how many more panels we would need to fully offset our EV usage.
For my calculations, I used the actual production averages from our existing 12 panels over the last 12 months and used that to estimate the number of panels needed to cover 8,000 miles of driving per year (Low) and 12,000 miles per year (High). The chart below shows that in Southern California, the annual output from 1 panel on the roof is roughly equivalent to 1,000 miles/year in the Mercedes B-Class ED.
Estimated Usage and Savings
I have split the “savings” into EV savings which represents the savings in moving from a gasmobile to electricity at retail rates and the savings from the solar panels which get to claim savings from not having to pay the retail rate for electricity, as part of their own return on investment.
Savings in the last 3.5 weeks of November
Overall, we are thrilled with the B-Class. We went into our EV purchase with our eyes open about the pros and cons of EVs and couldn’t be more pleased. We filed for the $2,500 California state rebate which will show up in 6–8 weeks and will be including the $7,500 federal tax credit in our 2014 tax return. The Mercedes B-Class felt like a great value for a Mercedes when compared to the after-rebate prices of the other EVs on the market.