Mercedes-Benz’s Electric Option–B250e

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There’s an electric-powered Mercedes-Benz out there, but you can be forgiven if you haven’t noticed. Quietly, the B250e is rolling around town, if you happen to be in California or other EV friendly locales.

The B is a five-door hatchback–not the shape you expect from Mercedes. The B-Class is sold in other parts of the world, including Canada, as a small, utility-minded gasoline-powered car, but in the U.S., B-Class cars are EVs only (labeled Electric Drive). There’s a tiny A-Class sold overseas, too, but you won’t see one here.

It makes sense for the German giant to put an all-electric powertrain in a small vehicle. Roughly the size of a Nissan Leaf, it has less weight to labor the battery pack with. With a folding rear seat, it’s spacious in the back. In the bright blue of my colleague Pam’s new commuter car, it has a friendly aspect to it.

I’ve been eager to test Mercedes’ baby EV, so when I saw one attached to the chargers at my building, I slipped my card under the driver’s side wiper and waited for the owner to respond. Pam did, and offered to show me around the car–and even let me drive it for a few minutes.

The B may look like a generic hatchback (despite it’s dramatic character line that rises up the side), but inside, it feels like a Mercedes-Benz. While not furnished in rare woods, and rich leather, it has dignity and mass, and an instrument panel that looks like a Mercedes-Benz’ should. It feels more upscale than other EVs I’ve tested. It can’t match a Tesla, of course, but it’s not priced as one, either.

Driving the car is, judging from my brief test, pleasant and, of course, silent. There are settings for S (sport), E (eco) and E+ (eco plus), and, I think, a “normal” setting. If you set it to S, you get the full benefit of an electric motor’s instant torque and rocket ahead with a snap. In E or especially E+, the drivetrain feels anaesthetized, but that’s so you use less juice.

Stats: 132 kW electric motor, 177 horsepower, 251 lb.-ft. of torque, 0-60 in 7.9 seconds.

Pam, who stepped out of a reliable Mercedes-Benz M Class SUV, has been getting about 83 miles per charge in her new B, which puts it in the realm of the original Leaf and other cars like the Ford Focus EV and Fiat 500e. Mercedes claims 87 miles. But the future is looming, with 200+ mile range EVs on their way, so I’m guessing that the Tesla-sourced engine/battery will be getting an upgrade before too long. Meanwhile, for a commute from southern San Jose to San Mateo, California, the little Mercedes-Benz EV is just the ticket. Pam has level 2 (240 volt) charging at home and here at work, so she never has to run out, as long as she doesn’t stray too far from the normal path.

Pricing is officially $41,450, but as you might expect, leasing drops costs considerably. Pam leased hers for a little bit more than $300 a month with some money down. The Federal rebate was applied directly to the lease, and her California state rebate is on its way. She relishes her white carpool-lane stickers, too.

The B is a natural competitor to the BMW i3, and, as these two German competitors go, it’s the more sober, elegant one, versus the radical BMW. But by all means, you should cross-shop.

I’m eagerly awaiting my chance to spend a week with this car, but for now, it looks like a winner to me–for the right driver and purpose.

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4th Generation Prius–Wacky and Vastly Improved

IMG_5614.JPGThe Toyota Prius has been a green car icon for 20 years now (17 in the U.S.).  It’s substantially redone this year for its fourth generation.

The most obvious change is the startling styling. The new Prius is longer, lower, and wider, but not like the mammoth late 1950’s American cars. It’s a radical interpretation of the now classic Prius proportions, with a squinting face and a finned tail. Thanks partially to that shape, the new car has one of the lowest cds (coefficient of drag) in the industry – 0.24.

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Since the second generation 2004 Prius, the interior has been space-age and swoopy, but the 2016 model is vastly improved. The sweep of the soft-touch panels from dash to doors is dramatic, and with a lower cowl and side windows, visibility is better too. The center-mounted instruments sit on a dramatically layered and in piano black panel. My tester’s only odd item was a white plastic center console (and on the steering wheel and dash), which reminded me of a porcelain bathroom sink.

The Prius has always provided an energy flow display, but the new one offers two. The center console houses the big, colorful one, but the little one in the slim band below the windshield helps you monitor when the engine is on. With awareness, you can lift off the accelerator slightly to move from gasoline to electricity. Being always informed lets you drive at the highest efficiency.

As a hybrid, the Prius uses both its 1.8-liter gas engine and two electric motors to move. For 2016, the engine is set to be on less, so the car runs as an EV more. Some components, such as the continuously variable transaxle and power unit, are smaller and lighter, and some body panels, like the hood, are made of lightweight aluminum.

The new Prius dumps the old nickel-metal hydride battery technology for modern lithium-ion. The battery pack is smaller and flatter, so it fits under the rear seat instead of beneath the cargo area, leaving more cargo space.

The EPA economy numbers are improved, at 54 City, 50 Highway, and 52 Combined. I averaged a splendid 57.2 mpg over a busy week. After you turn off the car, the instrument panel briefly displays a rating of your driving efficiency for that trip. I averaged as much as 80.1 mpg a ride. The screen displays a score, say 74/100, and suggests other measures of efficiency, such as lowering the climate control temperature or accelerating more gently. The Green numbers are 7 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas.

Unlike a pure electric, the Prius lets you drive as far as you like with great mpg. However, previous models weren’t a great joy to drive, feeling a bit removed from the road. The new model is greatly improved. Built on the Toyota New Global Architecture, it features a high-strength body structure and a double-wishbone independent rear suspension. This, along with a lower center of gravity, makes day-to-day driving much more engaging.

The new Prius is much quieter inside, thanks to numerous improvements in sound reduction. That benefits music listening, a necessity for the daily commute grind. My tester featured a JBL system with 10 GreenEdge speakers. I played music from a variety of sources, including an easy Bluetooth hookup with my iPhone. There’s a charging spot on the console, but it didn’t work on my iPhone. I think it’s better with Androids.

The Prius comes with the new Toyota Safety Sense technology. This includes a Pre-collision system with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert, Automatic High-beam, and Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. There’s also an Intelligent Parking Assist system available. As you’d expect, the high-tech hybrid is a showcase for Toyota’s other technological breakthroughs.

You can get your Prius in six flavors. The entry point is the Two, at $25,035. The Three model adds more convenience and technology features, and the Four is the top-of-the-line model. The Two and Three are also available in Eco versions, which use weight-saving and technological tweaks to up the fuel economy a bit. At the top is the Four Touring—the ultimate Prius, at $30,835. All prices shown include the “delivery and handling fee.”

My tester came in a bright new color—Hypersonic Red. A $395 option, it makes the car stand out in traffic. My tester, with the Premium Convenience Package ($1,705) and Advanced Technology Package ($1,935), as well as a Four Season Floor Mat Package ($364) totaled up to $33,884.

The Prius Prime, a plug-in version of the Prius, arrives soon, for even great efficiency.

Today, hybrids have an important role in minimizing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Driving a Prius is now more efficient and fun. And the extreme styling does grow on you.

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