Mercedes readies its E-Tron and I-Pace challenger
We’re driving into Oslo past the traffic jam of the future. Jaguar I-Paces, Audi E-Trons, Teslas of every kind. Renault Zoes and Nissan Leafs and VW e-Golfs, too. At least one in every three cars crawling out of the Norwegian capital during the wet evening rush hour appears to be an electric vehicle. Appropriate, then, that we’re driving the 2020 EQC 400, the first serious all-electric Mercedes-Benz in history (excepting the B-Class compliance car, which used a Tesla-assembled battery pack).
The EQC 400 is aimed squarely at the Audi E-Tron and Jaguar I-Pace. It’s also—whisper it—intended to win over Tesla rejecters, those who might want an electric vehicle but feel more comfortable paying for the fit and finish and engineering excellence that comes with the fabled three-pointed star. There’s no small irony in a company that started making cars in the 19th century seeking to disrupt the 21st century auto industry’s great disrupter.
It’s been a long time coming. We rode in—and drove—EQC prototypes last year, but the production version is not scheduled to arrive in North America until late 2020. And curiously, given Daimler’s long history of innovation, the EQC is not built on a bespoke electric platform. Instead, it rolls on a highly modified version of the MRA components set that underpins the regular C-Class sedan, coupe, and wagon, as well as the GLC SUV, though only 15 percent of parts are common, Daimler sources tell us. The EQC can therefore be built on the same production line as those models, and with demand for an electric Benz an unknown quantity, production can be flexed up or down as much as 25 percent without requiring extra investment or leaving expensive machinery standing idle.
Daimler’s conservative engineering approach means less financial risk, but it also means the EQC is a relatively conservative take on a modern electric vehicle. Unlike the Tesla Model S or Jaguar I-Pace, whose short overhangs and elongated cabins take full advantage of their bespoke aluminum-intensive skateboard platforms, the EQC’s proportions are similar to those of a regular internal combustion engine Mercedes. And although it has the form of a sporty SUV—thick bodyside and a low roofline stretching back to a rear hatch—low ground clearance and the lack of height-adjustable suspension mean the EQC is strictly an on-roader.
The EQC is all-wheel drive, with asynchronous motors mounted front and rear that develop a total of 402 horsepower and 561 lb-ft of instant-on torque. Enough, Daimler says, to propel this 5,500-pound (2,495-kg) vehicle to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds on the way to an electronically limited top speed of 112 mph (180 km/h). The motors draw from 80-kW-hr lithium-ion battery under the floor that is expected to give an EPA-rated range of somewhere between 200 and 220 miles (322 and 354 km). Refreshingly, EQC development director Michael Kelz admits that in winter (in below-freezing temperatures) driving range will drop to 162–168 miles (260–270 km). “There is nothing that can be done about this,” he says bluntly. “It’s physics.”
The motors are each programmed slightly differently, the front to deliver optimum efficiency in the low and medium speed ranges and the rear to deliver maximum performance. Under light acceleration the EQC is front drive, though torque is switched from the front to rear axles and back again almost instantaneously. There are no fewer than four powertrain, steering, and stability control modes, four basic regeneration modes, and two drive programs with visual and haptic prompts to help drivers to improve efficiency and maximize range. Of course, you can just get in and drive. But the EQC allows thinking drivers to tailor the drive experience to suit the conditions, the roads, and their mood.
It might be new age, but in many ways the EQC feels an old-school Mercedes-Benz. The EQC breezes briskly away from the lights then comes over all calm and deliberate. In its default modes (powertrain, steering, and stability control in Comfort, regeneration set to low, which replicates the coastdown characteristics of a regular internal combustion engine vehicle with an automatic transmission), the dynamic responses are measured and body motions well controlled. With 1,438 pounds (652 kg) of battery between the wheels, the EQC, unsurprisingly perhaps, drives bigger than it looks. (Although it’s 4.1 inches longer than a GLC, the EQC rolls on the same 113.1-inch wheelbase and is 0.2 inch narrower and 0.8 inch lower.) It’s a sensation amplified by steering that doesn’t offer a lot of road feel and handling that devolves into dogged understeer if you get too enthusiastic on the way into a corner. Or out of it.
At freeway speeds the EQC is wonderfully serene, almost silent. Daimler engineers have done a superb job muffling any high-pitched whine from the motors, but the downside is some wind noise around the A-pillars at 70 mph. Brake pedal feel is smooth and consistent, even at low speeds, with none of the overtly artificial, nonlinear feedback that blights some BEVs. The base wheel is a 19-inch alloy, but the cars we drove in Norway were fitted with either 20-inch wheels and Pirelli Scorpion Verde tires (235/50 front and 255/45 rear) or 21-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 SUV tires (235/45 front and 255/40 rear). As expected, the Michelins gave better grip but at the expense of more tire noise and patter over road acne.
The beautifully finished interior is chock-full of familiar Mercedes hardware, from the multifunction steering wheel to the center console switchgear to the power seat controls. A new HVAC vent design with copper-colored accents is the only visual nod to the electric powertrain. Daimler’s excellent MBUX user interface is standard, the digital instrument panel and infotainment screens arranged in a single, free-standing, slimline pod that’s almost half as wide as the cabin. Headroom and rear legroom and both good, but the interior feels oddly cramped in terms of width, not the least because of the hefty tunnel in the floorpan needed to accommodate the robust crash frame that surrounds the high-mounted front motor and extends more than 2 feet toward the rear of the car. It’s here Daimler’s each-way bet on electric vehicle economics reveals the compromises involved.
The EQC is available in Europe with a choice of two grilles, seven wheel designs—in sizes ranging from 19- to 21-inches—and options such as gesture control for MBUX. Pricing and trim specifications for the North America lineup have yet to be announced, but based on the price points of Audi E-Tron and Jaguar I-Pace models already on sale in North America—and how the vehicle has been positioned against them in markets such as the U.K.—expect the entry-level EQC to start at about $70,000 USD, with a fully loaded version coming in at about $80,000s USD.