x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The future looks and drives very familiar

The Smart fortwo Electric Drive and the A-Class E-Cell are both plug-in electric cars, and apart from a showy paintjob, they look and feel just like their petrol-powered siblings, both inside and out.

Sitting in the middle of the Adnec car park was a large Mercedes display and a row of cars, all being shined and cleaned by a team of workers under the early morning haze. But this was no ordinary show of the German firm's usual wares; they weren't meant to appeal to the UAE's petrolheads, simply because these cars don't need a drop of petrol; they are electric powered.

The Smart fortwo Electric Drive and the A-Class E-Cell are both plug-in electric cars, already undergoing real-world testing in Europe. And apart from a showy paintjob, they look and feel just like their petrol-powered siblings, both inside and out.

"We want the electric car to look like a normal car," said Dr Andreas Jost, the manager of Mercedes' electric drivetrain controls. "They don't need to look like a bubble car from the future, our customers aren't interested in that. And they need to be as satisfying to drive as a normal car."

Mercedes was offering short drives to the public to show exactly how normal these cars are. And, for the most part, they really are like anything you'd expect to find on the roads here in the UAE.

Apart from, of course, the silence. Getting behind the wheel of the E-Cell, I turned the key to on and got nothing. "It's ready to go," said my guide in the passenger seat. I softly pressed the accelerator and the little four-door slowly got under way, with little more than a quiet whine from the motor. It was a very eerie feeling.

But the car accelerates normally, and amid the quick traffic of Khaleej al Arabi, it didn't disappoint. The soft whine is replaced with normal tyre and wind noise, and I soon forgot that I was driving an EV. It handles well, bobbing in and out of lanes with ease, it brakes normally and it is as comfortable as any Mercedes, along with room for four adults and cargo. And, with 50kW (67hp), it's not exactly scintillating, but it's enough to get around in a very reasonable fashion.

It's only as we got back onto the smaller streets and came to a traffic signal that I remembered again what I was driving. The E-Cell slowed and glided silently to a stop at the red light, sitting as if the engine was turned off. Of course, there is no engine. And, with full torque coming on instantly (as with all electric motors), it pulled away from the light easily. With an ideal range of 255km, this is a car that would be more than enough for city commuting. (The Smart has a range of 120km)

Jürgen Buhmann, in charge of international testing of Mercedes's electric cars, explained why the company is only leasing 500 of the E-Cells and 1,200 of the Smart electrics.

"We are only leasing them and not selling them because we don't know yet how they will be in five or six years, so we don't want our customers to be dissatisfied. We want to keep perfect service for our customers."

With a car and an attitude like that, I only wish I had the opportunity to drive one more often here.