I have a two-car garage and a wide driveway, which was good this week, because I was able to snare not one, but two high-tech cars for test drives. Both are ultra-cool in their own specific ways, and I’d be happy to own either one — a Mercedes fuel-cell car and the Toyota Prius V, the new station wagon version (the V stands for “versatility”).
The Mercedes B-Class F-Cell is the latest hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle from Daimler, with a top speed of just over 100 mph and approximately 230-mile range on hydrogen pressurized to 10,000 pounds for square inch.
You don’t have to know exactly what that means to enjoy driving the car, which delivers incredibly creamy throttle response and pin-sharp steering. If it drives a lot like an electric car (an upscale one), that’s because it is one of those, powered by a 134-horsepower motor with the fuel cell providing power instead of a battery pack. Fuel cells used to turn SUVs into two-seaters, but dramatic breakthroughs in weight and energy efficiency means that this one doesn’t lose any luggage space in its crossover configuration.
The car carries 3.7 kilograms of hydrogen, and that’s important because you get about 60 miles out of each kilo. As you drive, you watch the hydrogen supply and the suggested range change — which can be disconcerting. Sascha Simon, director of advanced product planning at Mercedes’ U.S. division, told me the gauge is constantly adjusting based on conditions right then. So when the fuel cell stack is cold the readout looks kind of bleak — I went from 230 miles to 170 in the blink of an eye. But as the car warmed up, range gradually adds back.
It’s funny, but the driving experience of the Prius V is not all that different; they’re both crossover-type cars aided by electric drive. Neither is a barn burner (the Benz is zero to 62 in 11.4 seconds, and the Prius reaches 60 mph in 10.4). The V is essentially a stretched Prius, so if you’ve ever been behind the wheel of America’s most popular hybrid car, you know the deal. The big bonus here is 58 percent more cargo capacity (67.3 cubic feet of luggage with the back seat folded). Here are the two cars on video:
Perhaps the biggest difference between these two cars is you’ve been able to buy the Prius since late October, but the Benz is going only to a lucky few in California. The V’s pricing starts at $26,400 and goes up to $29,990 for the loaded Five model. The 22 people in the LA area who’ve leased the Benz are paying $850 a month for the lease, a price that includes all the hydrogen they need.
So why do I, in Connecticut, get to drive a Mercedes fuel-cell car? It happens that 40 miles down the road is the Wallingford, Conn., headquarters of Proton Onsite, which operates a solar-powered hydrogen pumping station. It’s the first in what is supposed to be a chain of such stations stretching down the East Coast, funded by Proton owner and Lumber Liquidators founder Tom Sullivan. It may be that we’ll eventually have an extensive hydrogen network in the U.S., as well as an EV charging grid to match the 160,000 gas stations in America. But it won’t happen overnight. The cars, though, the cars are great.