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ELECTRIC CARS

Mercedes is bringing its Tesla-killer to Singapore

The sleek SUV, Concept EQ, will be on display at Suntec City next weekend.

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Kuala Lumpur

THINK of the Concept EQ as Mercedes-Benz's Tesla-killer. Like all Teslas, the sleek Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) runs on battery power instead of fossil fuel.

It has Tesla-rivalling performance, too: Two powerful electric motors launch it to 100km/h in less than 5 seconds, and its batteries are good for 500km on a single charge.

Luckily for Tesla, it's only a prototype now, but not for long - Mercedes aims to put the Concept EQ into showrooms next year.

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When produced, the car will be the first to wear Mercedes' new "EQ" label, a tag for an onslaught of cars for the Electric Vehicle (EV) market that the German luxury carmaker is planning.

EQ will complement Mercedes' high-performance "AMG" and ultra-luxurious "Maybach" sub-brands, with the Concept EQ itself likely to be badged the "EQ C" when it hits the road.

Similarly, a large electric saloon intended to rival Tesla's Model S is in the works, and is expected to be called "EQ S".

The Concept EQ was first shown to the world at 2016's Paris motor show, but the snazzy prototype is currently on a tour of South-east Asia. It was showcased in Kuala Lumpur last week, and will be on display at Suntec City next weekend.

Its appearance here is meant to signal Mercedes' EV ambitions. "We are flipping the switch. The future is undoubtedly electric," said Claus Weidner, president and chief executive of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia, at the Concept EQ's unveiling in the Malaysian capital.

The electric machine gives a preview of that electric future, with a cabin in which touchscreens have replaced switches and knobs. Its clean, sleek exterior does without wing mirrors or door handles, replaced by cameras and a fingerprint sensor, respectively.

While many of the ideas embodied by the Concept EQ are still years away, next weekend's exhibition of the car at Suntec is meant to highlight an incoming range of Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) from Mercedes.

Such vehicles have a relatively small battery for around 30km of driving range on electric power, and also carry an engine for higher speeds and longer distances. For drivers who have a place to recharge one every day, PHEVs offer many of the benefits of electric drive with the reassurance of old-fashioned fossil fuel power.

Mercedes will launch its C 350 e and E 350 e PHEVs here by July, bringing the total number of such cars available in Singapore to eight. The other six PHEVs on the market are all made by arch-rival BMW.

The Concept EQ arrives at a busy time for electric cars in Singapore. Just this week, French brand Renault unveiled new versions of the Zoe, a compact five-door hatchback, and the Kangoo ZE, a panel van. Both are full EVs that cost S$139,999 (with COE) and S$97,800 (with COE), respectively.

Renault says it sells one out of every four new EVs in the European market, and that 95 per cent of Zoe customers would recommend it to others. "Customers in the countries where we sell Zoe, who have shifted from their petrol or diesel engine to an electric vehicle, don't want to go back," said Emmanuel Bouvier, marketing director for Renault Asia Pacific, at the car's launch.

Yet, full EVs will not take off here until it becomes more convenient to charge them, said Goh Chee Kiong, head of strategic development at power grid operator SP Group. He told The Business Times it would take thousands of charging points across Singapore to make EVs viable.

"There must be a pervasive charging network in Singapore," he said. "No matter what, the lack of a charging network is a huge impediment."

For that reason, PHEVs like those Mercedes is planning to launch are seen as a bridge to full electric cars.

"Plug-in hybrids, you can drive even without charging, but if you've got EVs, you need charging infrastructure. In many countries, that charging infrastructure does not yet exist, so we need a transition, a progression from the old world to the new world," said Mark Raine, vice-president for sales and marketing at Mercedes-Benz Malaysia.

"That's why it was an intentional step for us to go first in the plug-in hybrid direction, and then slowly but surely, the fully electric vehicles will follow."

"Slowly but surely" might be something of an understatement. Like many rivals, Mercedes is scrambling to add electric drive to its cars. "By 2022, we will have electrified variants in every segment, from our compact cars to SUVs," said Dr Weidner.

And when the road-going version of the Concept EQ is launched, it will be the first of 10 pure-electric vehicles that Mercedes will put into production within four years. Take that, Tesla.