It’s a bright but chilly Thursday morning in Port Melbourne and I’m at a fairly anonymous go-karting track next to the busy M1 freeway.
A few kilometres away at Albert Park, the poster boys of the petrol-powered car world are gearing up for the new Formula One season, which starts tomorrow and will see Lewis Hamilton begin his quest for a sixth world championship.
Hamilton, of course, drives a Mercedes-AMG Petronas racing car. But right now, I’m looking at a very different Mercedes — and it feels like we’re reaching a tipping point in how our everyday runabouts are powered.
On display, for the first time in Australia, is Mercedes’ entry into the electric vehicle market, the EQC.
It’s a five-seat, all-wheel-drive SUV, which will likely help it attract Australian buyers, and, quite frankly, it is stunning to look at.
In fact, it looks just like a Mercedes-Benz should — and that’s not always the case with EVs, which can have odd designs in attempts to make them look futuristic.
Instead, here you have killer 21-inch AMG tyres, an intriguing tail light strip across the back and a roofline that doesn’t look as squashed as its GLC Coupe cousin. And no emissions.
EQ is Mercedes’ new electric car division and the EQC is the first of 10 electric models planned for the next few years.
Its official launch takes place in Oslo in the middle of the year and it is expected to arrive in Australia about October.
There is no published pricing as yet, but orders have already been taken on the back of sneak peeks at this prototype.
Sadly, the closest I got to driving it was sitting in the front passenger seat as head of EQC testing Karl Scheible took us around the kart track and explained the thinking behind a couple of years of development that has seen it trialled in Sweden, Death Valley and South Africa.
Never mind integrating an 80kW lithium-ion battery along the floor of the car, or designing a solid metal subframe under the bonnet to protect the front electric motor in the event of a smash — Scheible said one of his biggest challenges was eliminating the little rattles normally drowned out by a combustion engine.
In a vehicle such as this, they could have the annoyance factor of a dripping tap at night.
He’s done it, too. The cabin is super-quiet and super-insulated to reduce the whine of the electric engine and the pedestrian alert system which, although not fitted on our prototype, will produce a warning noise at speeds of up to about 30km/h.
In fact, the only noises we heard were the screeching of the tyres as Scheible stepped on it and bombed round the track in a biggish car that can hit 0-100km/h in 5.1 seconds and has a top speed of 180km/h.
There are two electric motors, with the front one doing about 80 per cent of the work, and they produce 300kW or power and a mammoth 765Nm of torque.
And as is the case in many electric cars, the pick-up had me pinned back in my seat.
Ah, the seats: I’d happily have them in my front room.
The interior is typical Merc luxury, with leather everywhere, brushed chrome panels and rose gold highlights which you’ll only find in EQ models. Fancy.
It’s all dominated by a screen that stretches along about half of the dash and, apart from housing your usual speedos and rev counters, has a special “range cloud” display.
This is, honestly, one of the best tech gizmos I’ve seen on any car in years.
It displays a sat nav image with the car at the centre and shaded areas where you can go on your battery charge.
It will take into account traffic conditions, type of road and elevation, in whichever direction you want to travel, leaving an odd-shaped splodge on the screen.
Genius, and it should be incorporated into petrol or diesel cars.
Mercedes is promising a range of 450km on a full battery and charging is impressive, too. Mr Scheible says getting up to 80 per cent on a normal household socket will take just 55 minutes.
There is also the option of a wall box, which can be fitted in garages and bring the time down even further (plus probably reduce the amount of cables lying around for people to trip on).
And, apparently, Australia has the perfect conditions for getting the most miles out of these power packs. Much like Perth’s grey nomads, they don’t like the cold much.
F1 champ gives thumbs up
If you are trying to create some buzz around the launch of a new electric car, you might as well call in the world’s fastest racing driver to help you.
At an event at the uber-cool Mercedes Me cafe cum event space in Melbourne CBD, guests were given a surprise when F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton drove up in a new EQC.
It may have all been part of the pre-season PR game, and after all, the Mercedes driver is paid a reported ($74 million) a year to do this sort of thing, but a cheery and humble Hamilton seemed genuinely impressed by the EV.
“It’s beautiful, it drives so smooth – I was not expecting it,” he told the audience.
“I have an electric Smart car at home, so that’s the only electric car I’ve driven, which I love, so I’m looking forward to upgrading to this one.”
Model EQC 400
Engine 80kWh lithium-ion battery