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First drive: 2020 Mercedes-Benz EQC

by Byron Hurd

Mercedes-Benz shows the world its first true Tesla alternative.

There's no getting around the fact that Tesla cracked the EV market open in a big way. The Model S absolutely nailed the modern early-adopter demo. It was tech-forward, practical, convenient and, perhaps most importantly, exclusive. The automotive landscape may be changing dramatically, but cool will always be cool.

People often try to liken Tesla to Apple, and while that simile is seriously flawed, there's no getting around the fact that Tesla, for all its many, many faults, builds a desirable product in a niche where nobody else is really competing.

That's changing. The luxury brands were caught with their pants down, but with vast resources at their disposal, compensating for that embarrassment was merely a matter of when, not if.

EQ

At Mercedes-Benz, that initiative is called "EQ." It comes in three different flavors. The first, and for now the most ubiquitous, is the EQ Power line of vehicles. These are plug-in hybrid variants of existing Mercedes-Benz models and are, so far anyway, exclusively available in Europe. The extreme variant is EQ Power+, which is the branding used on its high-performance hybrid concept vehicles, along with its Formula 1 cars.

Then, there's plain-old EQ, which is reserved for vehicles built to be purely electric from the ground up. And that brings us to EQC--the first in this new sub-brand.

EQC

At its heart, EQC is a compact crossover (think GLC/GLC Coupe). It sports the same wheelbase as those C-Class derivatives and minus a few key details, such as the turbulence-reducing running boards and blue (Europe's "green" color) eyelashes, even manages to look the part.

That continues inside. While the styling is unique (though unmistakably Mercedes-Benz), it's still fairly conventional. The large COMAND infotainment and cluster screens sit prominently above a fairly minimalist dash and center stack.

The EQC's designers paid special attention to the smaller details, such as ambient LED lighting strips which give off a soft, blue light and ribbing in the dash and doors designed to evoke the fins of a heat sink on a piece of electronic equipment.

Even if you look past the stylistic differences, it would be easy to dismiss the EQC as just a GLC with a battery pack and some electric motors swapped in, but that's not at all the reality. This platform was designed from the ground up for electric vehicles.

The fundamentals at the corners are pretty simple. The front suspension is a conventional double-wishbone setup, with room in the middle for the front motor's half-shafts. In the rear, EQC employs air springs with a multi-link configuration which, as in the front, must make way for a set of drive axles. That's because the EQC's second motor lives back there, tucked beneath the rear bench and cargo area.

Program engineers said this mixed suspension implementation will be universal to EQC, which means there are no immediate plans for the four-wheel Air Body Control system found in other Mercedes-Benz models.

In addition to allowing for enhanced ride comfort, the rear air springs double as load levelers, meaning the EQC's rear height will adjust to compensate for additional cargo or the effects of tongue weight during towing. Towing capacity, at least for U.S. models, is still TBD.

In fact, there's a lot about the American-market EQC that has yet to be finalized, yet alone announced. Distribution of the new model stateside isn't expected to begin for at least a year.

As you might expect from a dedicated EV platform, the battery pack itself resides in the floor. This "skateboard" design, which maximizes interior volume and keeps the vehicle's center of gravity very low, has long been considered the optimal approach for electrification.

The 80-kWh battery pack feeds the aforementioned asynchronous front and rear motors, which together deliver 402 horsepower (300 kW) and 561 lb-ft of torque. The motors work in tandem, with the rear motor acting as both a torque distribution system for the 4Matic all-wheel-drive and added juice when you want to order all 402 of those horses to gallop.

When you're just cruising, the front motor handles the bulk of the duties. In a sense, you can say the EQC is fundamentally front-wheel-drive, but that's not really capturing the whole picture.

Living electric

Since range anxiety is critical to many consumers' choices regarding electrified vehicle purchases, it should come as no surprise that Mercedes-Benz's product planners went to great lengths to make the EQC ownership experience as pain-free as possible. Between the navigation system, charge monitoring tools, and a series of smartphone apps, there are multiple ways to track and optimize the EQC battery pack's state-of-charge.

The biggest tricks up Mercedes' EQ sleeve are the ability to manage target battery levels for both charging stops and the end of a route. Tell the system you never want to drop below, say, a 20% reserve and it will find charging stations along your route at which you can stop to best hit this target.

Care more about arriving at your final destination with the highest charge level possible? You can set the target higher specifically for the end of your trip and stop for longer/more frequent charges along the way. If the opposite is true, you can also set it lower to make the most of your final charging stop along the way.

This all works in tandem with the navigation system, which can also give you a visual representation of your available range right on the map. Turn this on and a green web appears, marking the distance you can travel along any given route. Basic functions, like locating nearby charging stations (and seeing how many chargers are available at each) are a given. You can even use the nav to claim a charger as you're arriving on the station property, though it only reserves the unit for two minutes. No calling dibs ahead of time, in other words.

Coming to America

Unfortunately, many of these features were dependent upon Europe's fast-charger network talking to the EQ software on board the EQC. Posing a challenge to automakers attempting to roll out large-scale EV programs is the fact that there's no equivalent in the States that is nearly so robust.

And it's not just the Internet connectivity that poses a challenge here in the States. The fact of the matter is that America's DC fast-charging infrastructure is severely lacking. This is a big deal, as a 10-100% charge on a DC fast charger can be accomplished in under 90 minutes. The same on a 32-amp home hookup takes ten hours.

More importantly for long trips, charging the EQC from 10% to 80% on a fast-charging hookup takes just 40 minutes. The final 20% requires roughly the same amount of time (hence the under-90-minute total).

Assuming a 10% reserve, an 80-percent charge should translate to just under 190 miles of range on a 40-minute charge based on early estimates extrapolated from other vehicles' NEDC and EPA estimates. Mercedes-Benz is not yet ready to disclose its internal estimates for the EQC's EPA-certified range, but its engineers were willing to acknowledge that our back-of-a-napkin math seemed reasonable.

This, in a nutshell, is why Tesla is so far ahead of the game. Having its own network of connected Supercharger stations effectively puts the company in a class of its own.

Electric drive

So, all of that is great, but it doesn't address the important question: Sure, it's neat, but what is it like to drive? At the risk of sounding vague, it drives exactly the way it should. To make sense of that, let's ask a different question first: What is EQC, and how should it drive?

After all, despite the fact that it's a new and unique product within the company's lineup, it is, first and foremost, a Mercedes-Benz. As such, EQC needs to be fundamentally luxurious. It should also perform well. A Mercedes doesn't necessarily have to be fast or nimble, but it should inspire confidence and impart a sense of control.

For better or for worse, Tesla has already warped the public consciousness when it comes to premium EV performance. People expect their luxury EVs to be fast--damned fast--so even if a Mercedes-Benz doesn't have to be quick, an electric car playing at this price point probably does.

It should come as no surprise, then, that at the first chance we got, we put the EQC's pedal to the floor. The result? It hauls. With zero drama or sense of occasion, perhaps, but it gets up to speed with that perfect pinned-to-the-seat-back sensation you expect from a pair of motors delivering 561 lb-ft of torque to the wheels from the word "go."

Like all EVs (and hybrids, for that matter), the EQC makes use of regenerative braking. It can be adjusted with steering wheel-mounted paddles, allowing the driver to dial in whatever amount of lift-off deceleration feels best.

At its weakest, it's similar to releasing the throttle in a typical internal-combustion-powered car; in the most aggressive mode, it allows for one-pedal driving. Push to accelerate; lift to brake. Our choice for normal driving was the middle setting, which feels a lot like driving a conventional car which is always in the lowest possible gear.

The lack of drama has other implications too. Mercedes-Benz engineers went to great lengths to isolate the powertrain, so there's no high-pitched whine during acceleration or anything like that. That means almost all of the sources of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) are external to the vehicle--the road, the air, etc.

This poses its own challenge. Despite being a source of unpleasant noise and vibration, an internal combustion engine can also be used to masked unwanted sounds. Eliminating that noise can effectively mean amplifying others.

For the most part, Mercedes-Benz's engineers have done a remarkable job of isolating the cabin from unwanted sources of discomfort. There's no wind noise to speak of, even at highway speeds. We were less impressed by the road noise situation, but in the EQC's defense, the surface composition of most roads in Norway seemed rather coarse, and we also selected a test model with the larger, AMG-inspired multi-spoke wheel design, which didn't do the car any favors in that department.

Despite that choice, the ride comfort was excellent. We wouldn't call the EQC "nimble" and we'd even argue that the sportiest steering ratio available via Dynamic Select is a bit twitchier than we think suits the EQC's mission, but it was more than equal to the task of being thrown around narrow country two-lanes with little drama.

The real world

The EQC, then, is exactly what an electric Mercedes-Benz should be, right? Well, there's a third component to the equation. While EVs have inherent practicality limitations, a good example should be equipped and supported in such a way that owners aren't disproportionately inconvenienced by them.

We deliberately chose an EQC that wasn't completely charged, meaning we had to make a stop at a fast-charging station early in our route. This meant locating a charging station, navigating to it, reserving a charger and, of course, waiting out the process of charging itself.

Our first obstacle revealed itself immediately. As we departed the initial rally point, we couldn't get a good cell signal in the infotainment system. This meant we couldn't connect to the charging network to locate our charger.

Fortunately, a member of the Mercedes-Benz logistical team was on-hand and knew the general location, which we were able to select the old-fashioned way using the nav system. In a real-world ownership experience, we could have used our own phones (with Mercedes' companion app) to locate the charging station and navigate to it. It would have been a complication, but not an insurmountable one.

Upon arriving at the fuel station and locating the EV chargers, we settled in for what would likely be a somewhat longer-than-expected charging process. That's because we weren't navigating directly to the charging station using the built-in EQ features, which would have pre-conditioned the battery during our route. A pre-conditioned battery charges quicker.

From click-to-click, we charged from roughly 40% to 65% in about 20 minutes, meeting our expectations. We spent that time familiarizing ourselves with the various EQ displays and menu options, playing with the various range threshold settings, and listening to music. Outside, it was 50° F and raining. Inside the EQC, we were comfortable and entertained.

Leftlane's bottom line

Our EV experience wasn't perfect, and that's somewhat appropriate, as even the best days of early EQC ownership in America will be disappointing compared to our lackluster morning. The good news is that Mercedes-Benz is doing everything in its power to improve that before its eventual launch. Every market in the U.S. will get the EQC from the get-go, and every dealer will be authorized to service it.

It's clear that the EQC is not for everybody, everywhere. There will be growing pains, especially while America's DC charging network is still expanding from what is still quite a humble state.

But for those who take the plunge, we're pleased to say that the juice appears to be worth the squeeze. EQC is fast, comfortable and, perhaps most importantly, behaves exactly the way an all-electric Mercedes-Benz should. It's not just a good EV; it's a good car, period.

2020 Mercedes-Benz EQC 400 4Matic base price, TBD

Exterior and screen photos by the author. Interior photos courtesy of Mercedes-Benz.

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