When Mercedes had the best electric cars and didn't know what to do with them

Let's put ourselves in the year 2012, it's September and the IAA is coming up. Mercedes is at the peak of its electric mobility and rightly so damn proud of what they have achieved. The road to this was rocky and difficult. It all started in the 90s with the A-class and the moose test. Originally planned to be electric, it was relatively high because it had a sandwich structure. This should provide space for the batteries.

However, since the battery technology was not that advanced, it was abandoned shortly before the end of the development. The A-Class got an internal combustion engine and the weight of the battery in the underbody was missing. That's why it fell over so spectacularly when cornering during the moose test. It was a disaster.

There was nothing to avoid a cooperation with Tesla

Regular readers of the site know that the first generation smart electric drive drove around London in 2006. About 100 cars were converted to electric drive. But since Mercedes had no further improved their tech, they effectively installed technology from the 90s in the cars. As before, the batteries, which were intended for the A-Class and the electric swatch car.

These were so-called ZEBRA batteries, which had to be kept at around 300 °C throughout. Even if the car just sat in the garage and did nothing. The topic of electromobility seemed to come back somehow. Maybe this time for real. With Tesla there was a very young and inexperienced but promising startup in the USA. All the better for Mercedes that this startup constantly needed new money and brought know-how with it.

Around 2007 Mercedes commissioned Tesla to convert a smart fortwo to an electric drive. Elon Musk later said in an interview that Tesla would no longer exist without this cooperation. Tesla urgently needed money and Mercedes almost more urgently someone who knew about electric cars. The result was a smart fortwo prototype with the powertrain of a Tesla Roadster. The entire vehicle thought it's still a roadster at the ECU level and had around 250 hp. Witnesses report that it was able to lift the front wheels when accelerating.

This prototype was later given to BRABUS and presented at the IAA 2009 in a very nice way before it disappeared.


Tesla passed the test and was commissioned to develop a production version of the smart fortwo as an electric drive. In 2009, smart proudly presented the resulting second generation smart electric drive and Mercedes bought almost 10% of Tesla shares. The smart was practically a Tesla, with lots of Tesla technology and the smart logo. Tesla put 1,600 Tesla-typical round cells into the battery, which weighs around 150 kg, and thus achieved a capacity of 16.6 kWh. A remarkable amount for the time.

It was built as usual at the smart plant in Hambach. Charger and battery came from Tesla, the motor from Zytek. The finished car was a smart fortwo suitable for everyday use, of which around 2,300 were ultimately built. The powertrain was already so well integrated that the interior was as large as that of a combustion engine car and you couldn't tell that the car was an electric car. Visually, it corresponded completely to the series and was still a real electric car. With a battery in the bottom, an electric motor on the rear axle and everything else you need in the right place. The cooperation should not end here, however. Mercedes had it big in mind. Not only the smart was already planned electrically in the 90s, the A-Class was as well. Series production of the electric A-Class also began in 2009.

The Mercedes Benz A-Class e-cell

Mercedes A-Klasse e-cell

Many no longer know it, but Mercedes also commissioned an electric A Class at the same time. This got a battery twice as big as the smart, simply two smart batteries, so that it had a capacity of over 33 kWh and thus managed a realistic range of 200 km. The 250 hp roadster motor was installed in it, but this was limited to 70 kW (95 hp) and 290 Nm. Since the motor was on the front axle, it was certainly not a mistake to limit it like this.

In 2010, Mercedes built about 500 of these and rented them out to selected customers. Accordingly, you can find people in the greater Stuttgart area who drove them at the time and were enthusiastic about the A Class e-cell. Incidentally, the same thing happened with the electric smarties. Mercedes was not only able to learn how to integrate such cars into series production, but also gain experience with them in everyday use with end customers.

Mercedes A-Klasse e-cell

The Mercedes Benz B-Class F-cell

Of course, hydrogen could not be missing either. Equipped with one battery less and Tesla technology, the B-Class also got a fuel cell. At the time, Mercedes promised a purely electric range of 135 km and a whopping 400 km with the help of the fuel cell. Thanks to the hydrogen, the car was completely refuelled in around three minutes. So perfect for the long distances.

However, Mercedes had never commented on the number of units for the B-Class F-cell. There probably weren’t many, and due to the lack of hydrogen filling stations, they probably didn’t get further than 200 km away from Stuttgart. Still, it was respectable. They had tried everything at Mercedes and diligently gained experience. So that an impressive press photo could be published for mid-2010:

smart ED2, E-cell & F-cell

The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG e-cell

So now there was a small car and two fully electric main cars. The next logical step was, of course, to offer something at the very top. Accordingly, in June 2010, Mercedes announced that they were working on an all-electric SLS. And already had quite a clear idea of what it should be able to do and had probably been busy with it for a little while. The idea was to install 3x 16 kWh, but this time not with the Tesla batteries. Mercedes was slowly learning to walk and planned to use her own cells. It should be powered by 324 lithium-ion polymer cells. These should ultimately bring 392 kW (534 hp) and 880 Nm onto the road. Which should make this stunning projectile sprint to 100 km/h in 4 seconds. Incidentally, the limiting factor was the motors, the battery could have already delivered 480 kW (650 hp).

Mercedes AMG SLS e-cell (Studie)

It was planned to install one motor each at the front and rear, so that the car was equipped with all-wheel drive and the front wheels were not connected to the rear wheels. Something that Tesla only introduced years later with the Model S. A few battery cells were then placed in the cardan tunnel. So you sat low, had a central focus and a sporty car.

Mercedes AMG SLS e-cell (Studie)

The neon yellow of the SLS AMG e-cell was definitely iconic. It polarized and showed that something is clearly different here than with other SLS. Even if the technology was so well integrated that you wouldn't have noticed otherwise. Mercedes planned to not use Tesla parts for this car.

The Mercedes Benz Vito E cell

Barely mentioned by Mercedes and probably hardly more of them were built than the F-cell, Mercedes also had an electric Vito in small series and in tests with end customers. Tesla technology was also used here, which Mercedes meanwhile referred to as a “modular e-drive system kit”.

Mercedes Vito e-cell

Since we are still in the early stages of the Type 2 connector, all the cars mentioned so far still have a fairly old version of the Type 2 standard. Electrically and in terms of communication, it was already as we know it today. However, the vehicle and charging station still had the same type 2 socket. This standard was only changed in 2012/13. The idea to change that was that the female part of the plug is more likely to break and you'd rather have it in the cable than in the car. Since replacing then is easier and cheaper.

Mercedes Vito e-cell

Electric car thought further than just small series

At Mercedes, in the beginning of the 2010s, there was a strong focus on electromobility. They developed the SLS themselves and also supported Tesla in the development of the Model S, which came onto the US market in 2012 and then in 2013 to us in Europe. For example, Tesla's first test vehicles for the Model S were converted Mercedes CLS. Which of course had the additional advantage for Tesla that the test vehicle did not attract attention in traffic.

Public charging is also part of every electric car. Accordingly, from the end of 2011 you could also charge your electric car in the Mercedes Benz Museum. Shortly thereafter, Mercedes also announced that they were researching wireless charging. So that you only had to park the car in a parking space and it would be fully charged again the next day.

They rounded it off with the purchase of their own wind turbine. In mid 2012, Mercedes announced that they were operating a wind turbine together with Windreich AG, which supplied the electricity for all smart electric drive. Mathematically, around 2,500 smart electric drive would actually be completely climate-neutral.

Vom Winde bewegt - der smart fortwo electric drive fährt komplett emissionsfrei (ED3)

Later, several grid backup battery storage should also come. In order to stock replacement batteries for the smart electric drive, large battery storage systems began to be built from them. This allowed the batteries to do some work in their "spare parts warehouse" and they were also regularly charged and discharged. Some of these storage systems are still in operation today and store green electricity for times when neither the sun is shining nor the wind is blowing.

Netzdienlicher Akkuspeicher mit smart Akkus

It continued with the SLS AMG electric drive and the all-electric B-Class

The development of the AMG SLS e-cell was in full swing and so it was announced that it would get "AMG Lightweight Performance". In other words, the center tunnel and core structure is made of carbon. Mercedes was also more specific when it came to the drive train. What was originally planned as one electric motor per axle became one electric motor per wheel. The wheels should no longer be connected to each other and should all turn individually.

Revolutionary for the time and even today: The almost 2,000 hp super sports car Neverda has been doing this since 2022, Tesla is only doing this on the rear axle of the 1,000 hp Model S. This allows unprecedented grip, especially when cornering.

Mercedes AMG SLS electric drive

They also continued with the new generation electric B-Class, which was announced at the IAA 2012 and which brings us back to the beginning of this article. What later turned out to be the last car from the Tesla cooperation was a very potent electric car suitable for everyday use. It should be able to be charged at home via the Type 2 wall box, but fast charging was not really intended.

Mercedes B-Klasse (Studie)

The production version could then only charge with 11 kW and because Tesla's Supercharger plug was not good, Mercedes decided to not use the Supercharging network. As it turned out, the B-Class also had an incredibly high consumption. Effectively, it hardly got any further than the smart electric drive, which was now in its 3rd generation and a complete in-house development car. It was also able to benefit from specially developed cells produced in Germany. Which makes it not only the first electric car with cells made in Germany, but also still the only one.

The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG electric drive goes into series production

The production version of the SLS AMG electric drive was also presented at the IAA 2012. An electric car that should be looking for its equal for a while. It was freely available in very small numbers. Technically it was a breathtaking car is also shown by the fact that it managed the Nordschleife in 7:55 minutes. Even today it is respectable to complete the Nordschleife at the Nürburgring in less than 8 minutes with a production vehicle.

Mercedes AMG SLS electric drive Nordschleife

Unfortunately, everything fell asleep at Mercedes after that. The B-Class was bad and was deliberately not advertised. The smart fortwo electric drive was good, but it wasn't developed further for a long time until it was outdated and everything else was just left alone. Mercedes also crossed paths with Tesla and sold its Tesla shares at the end of 2014. Mercedes was convinced that the electric car was just a trend and would pass. Tesla surely was bankrupt very soon and so they celebrated that they had sold the Tesla shares at a profit.

But Tesla didn't go bankrupt and electromobility shouldn't just remain a trend. Accordingly, the sale of the shares turned out to be a completely wrong decision. A fact that the board members at Daimler still don't want to admit to themselves.

The documents for a finished electric car in the drawer

I still remember how it was said in the mid-2010s that Mercedes had the documents for a new electric car in the drawer. If they wanted to, they could instantly trump the ever-improving Tesla Model S. Presumably they actually had halfway finished documents in the drawer. Or at least the know-how to be able to build a corresponding car. But they didn't do it. They just giggled aboutTesla's panel gaps, the missing buttons and the bad customer service.

In 2016, the EQ study was shown in Geneva and advertised as a Tesla fighter. More range, faster charging, better quality and great software. But the fight had already been lost. The documents in the drawer and the know-how were outdated again, just as they where in the mid-2000s before the cooperation with Tesla started.

Als Mercedes die besten Elektroautos hatte und nichts damit anzufangen wusste

To this day I still don't understand why Mercedes let the electric car program die. Instead of selling shares in Tesla, it should have increased them. Instead of believing that buttons are here forever, they should have at the cell phone industry and checked at what the iPhone has done.

Ironically, an app had even been developed for it in 2012, so that B-Class and smart customers could see online what the car was doing.

The result of the Mercedes EQ study was a half-heartedly converted GLC called EQC and shortly afterwards the EQV. Then everything seemed to fall asleep again and at some point Mercedes came with the EQS, where they missed that this vehicle class already has 800 V. They were too busy making it more streamlined than the Model S to be able to outperform it in at least one thing.

Perhaps Dr. Zetsche also now knows that the EVs from Mercedes aren't that good. Maybe that's why he's driving a smart #1 today. As a smart fan, this makes me very happy, of course, but in retrospect it's a terrible shame.

Dieter Zetsche fährt jetzt smart #1

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