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Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL Review

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The Mercedes-Benz F-CELL vehicles are a sign of what is to come from the mighty Germans.

When it comes to innovation in the automotive field, the world has always looked up to Germany. Particularly the folks at Mercedes-Benz. The inventors of the automobile have led the charge in technology development for the greater part of the past 125 years.

To date, the company can claim to have the first real-world application of supercharger technology, first production diesel passenger car, first production vehicle with safety body work, invention of cruise control, ABS, three-way catalytic converters, ESP, brake assist, anticipative occupant protection (pre-tension), first seven-speed automatic, attention assist and of course the upcoming fuel cell vehicles.

Although the 'green wars' started long ago when Toyota came out with its Prius and hybrid systems, Mercedes-Benz employs the philosophy of “always striving for the best or nothing”. So unless its application of any problem-solving technology was the best, it wasn't good enough.

Mercedes engineers have been working on fuel cell vehicles since 1991 and the advancement in modern technology as well as a dedication to alternative-power vehicles has finally led to the current F-CELL vehicles based on a B-Class.

To showcase the real-world application of its fuel-cell program, Mercedes is undertaking the grand challenge of driving the vehicles around the world. To date they've left Stuttgart (Germany), headed across Europe, driven from the east to the west coast of the US, up towards Canada and now they've arrived in Australia.

The 30,000km+ journey across four continents and 14 countries is set to highlight the fact that Mercedes-Benz fuel cell vehicles are more than just prototypes and are ready to take on the real world.

Powered by a 100kW electric motor that produces 290Nm of torque, the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL vehicles deliver equivalent performance to a 2.0-litre petrol car. No official 0-100km/h time are available but going by our own measurement it's about the 10 second mark and it will keep going until it hits its 170km/h top speed. Unlike other electric vehicles which get their entire power from batteries, fuel cell vehicles create electricity to power an electric motor using stored hydrogen and oxygen from the air. The emissions? Pure water.

The advantages over a battery-powered electric car are the recharge time (three minutes compared with 30 minutes for a fast charge or seven to eight hours for a normal charge) and range (400km as opposed to 100-170km). Those two reasons alone are what make the F-CELL vehicles so appealing.

For some, the first thoughts that come to the mind when the words 'hydrogen-powered' are mentioned is Hindenburg - the German zeppelin that crashed spectacularly in New Jersey and essentially put an end to zeppelin travel worldwide. Nearly 75 years later the world has experienced a golden-age of technological and safety achievements. Arwed Niestroj, Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL Manager says that all mandatory and optional safety tests (more than 30 in total) that could have possibly be done have already been done and that the F-CELL vehicles are just as safe as their internal-combustion equivalents.

The hydrogen cells are contained between the two axles underneath the vehicle and are cased in impact protective systems. They have numerous safety-systems built in and even in the case of a serious crash and fire, the hydrogen tanks pose no risk as a temperature-controlled valve automatically vents the tank contents in a safe manner.

To see what all the fuss was about, Mercedes-Benz invited CarAdvice to take a B-Class fuel cell vehicle for a drive around Melbourne. Having previously driven a Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, it was with much excitement that we got behind the wheel of our first hydrogen-powered vehicle.

Inside, it's identical to a normal Australian-delivered B-Class except that it has a 'keep left' sticker to remind us that we are driving a left-hand drive car. Turn the vehicle on and like all electric cars there is no noise whatsoever given there is no vibration from its electric heart. Engage drive and away you go.

Acceleration is not as quick as a LEAF or i-MiEV but it's more than adequate for everyday driving. If it wasn't for the green exterior-colour, stickers and the steering wheel being on the wrong side, one would have an exceptionally difficult time telling this F-CELL apart from a run-of-the-mill B-Class. Same goes for its driving dynamics: it's just as simple to drive and steer as any other car. Like all current electric cars there is only one gear and that provides a smooth power delivery across the entire 'rev range'.

In fact, it behaves more like a internal combustion vehicle than its battery-powered electric rivals as it tends to push you forward when idling, like any car would when drive is selected. The tiny amount of sound that is emitted from the drivetrain is something you would expect from a car in a science-fiction film. It has a high-pitch spacecraft noise under acceleration, sounding as if it was preparing to enter warp speed. So for those of you wondering how electric cars are going to have character without sound, you'd be pleasantly surprised.

So what's holding hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles back? Infrastructure. While battery-powered electric cars have a similar challenge in regard to fast-charging stations, they have the advantage of being rechargeable from nearly any power socket. Hydrogen vehicles require hydrogen charging stations, of which less than 100 publicly-accessible ones currently exist worldwide.

In order to make the drive-around-the-world a reality, a support crew of more than 10 vehicles, including a mobile hydrogen charging-station, has come along for the journey. Every 400km or so the F-CELL vehicles stop, the recharge stations are set up (take about 15 minutes to an hour depending on safety requirements) and the vehicles are refilled with gas.

The Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL vehicles use the equivalent of 3.3 litres of diesel per 100 kilometres, which makes them even more fuel efficient than a diesel-hybrid. Better yet, unlike fossil-fuel which is on the way out, hydrogen isn't exactly going to run out anytime soon (given that it constitutes about 75 percent of the Universe's chemical elemental mass). It currently costs about 32 Euro for hydrogen to refuel a B-Class F-CELL from empty and the cells will last roughly 150,000km before they need to get serviced (replace bad cells).

It's hard to criticise Mercedes-Benz for their attempt at creating a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle, the only question mark is infrastructure. While the Australian Government is too busy taxing the general public in order to 'save the planet', little is being done to support emerging technologies such as electric-by-battery and hydrogen-powered vehicles. In green-friendly states of the US, one can now lease one of these vehicles for just $849 a month including hydrogen! Which sounds like the bargain of the decade. If hydrogen charging stations were as readily available as petrol stations, this humble writer would be first in line to purchase a Mercedes-Benz F-CELL vehicle.

Mercedes-Benz will go into the next decade with a three-lane approach to its vehicle line-up. It will strive to improve the efficiency of conventional, internal-combustion engines for the foreseeable future while it will also sell hybrid vehicles alongside F-CELL models. The German giant believes that F-CELL vehicles will be ready for full commercialisation by 2015. In that time it expects the cost of production to come down and manufacturing processes to be more efficient.

The only valid questions one must ask of the future of fuel cell vehicles is what will happen when battery-powered electric vehicles will also do 400km on a single charge and improve recharge times? Perhaps F-CELL vehicles will always remain a step ahead, further increasing driving range and performance. As we've seen with the emergence of both petrol and diesel vehicles over the years, perhaps both technologies can survive side by side. Only time will tell.

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