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Your next Mercedes will be electric - whether you like it or not

In four years, every new Mercedes-Benz will be driven by electric propulsion. How will the brand's Singapore customers take to it?

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"Developments are ongoing and we are paying particular attention to the electric range, which will go up step by step. We could have the majority of the daily driving that customers have around the world purely electric." - Johannes Reifenrath, Mercedes-Benz strategist

Stuttgart

STILL sceptical about electric cars? Like it or not, Mercedes-Benz is determined to change your mind. By 2022, there will be electric propulsion in every new Mercedes.

In a sense, the German luxury car maker has as little say on the matter as you do. "Global climate targets have left us no choice," said Johannes Reifenrath, a strategist for the brand who oversees around 100 product planners.

His team is conceiving upcoming Mercedes cars all the way until 2039. With emissions rules becoming tighter, he said "conventional drive systems" (meaning plain petrol and diesel engines) simply aren't up to the task of meeting those regulations.

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To stay in business, Mercedes is planning "well in excess" of 130 electrified models, and predicts that up to a quarter of its total sales could come from purely electric vehicles by 2025.

While it sounds like the brand is preparing to flood the market with battery-powered Tesla rivals, the truth is that Mercedes will usher electrification in progressively, using a new sub-brand it calls "EQ", which stands for "Electric Intelligence".

Similar to BMW's iPerformance badge or Audi's e-tron label, EQ is a sort of calling card for the three ways that Mercedes uses electricity to make cars move: EQ Boost for cars with 48-volt motors that merely assist a fossil fuel engine, EQ for battery electric vehicles, and EQ Power for the plug-in hybrids that mix both technologies.

Mr Reifenrath said at a conference explaining Mercedes' strategy: "There is a reason for this three-pronged approach. The transition to electric mobility will not happen overnight. Rather, it will take place at different paces in the world's various regions."

That being so, a country like Norway, which is hungry for electric cars, would be first in line for models like the EQC, a battery-powered Sport Utility Vehicle.

In Singapore, the EQ roll-out is underway, too, but gradually. The first EQ Power badge appeared here in August on the E 350 e, a plug-in electric hybrid version of Mercedes' venerable E-Class, which can travel a claimed 33km without burning petrol.

Another car joined the act on Sept 27, when Mercedes launched the new CLS, a sportier, coupe-like model with the milder EQ Boost system. The CLS models are unable to drive on battery power alone, but use motors to boost performance and save fuel.

Simpler hybrid tech like the sort used in EQ Boost will likely proliferate much faster in Singapore.

As of the end of August, there were only 297 plug-in hybrids on the road here, according to figures from the Land Transport Authority, against a total car population of 614,576. In contrast, mild hybrids are everywhere, with 24,624 examples prowling the streets.

Yet, plug-ins could be on the cusp of rapid growth, especially as the public charging network expands.

Power grid operator SP Group has said it will install 500 charging points around the island by 2020, a move that would make driving either plug-in or fully electric cars more attractive.

"We are experiencing an increasing demand for our plug-in models," said Henrik Drier, the general manager (Singapore) for Porsche Asia-Pacific, which was the first to offer a plug-in hybrid car for sale here.

Porsche is planning to build its own network of fast chargers, he said, and the company is "optimistic" about the prospects here for its own upcoming electric car, the Taycan.

But Mercedes is working on plug-in cars that could one day deliver enough electric range to make them a viable alternative to full electric cars, instead of just a stepping stone to them.

"Developments are ongoing and we are paying particular attention to the electric range, which will go up step by step," said Mr Reifenrath. "We could have the majority of the daily driving that customers have around the world purely electric."

Mercedes' latest plug-ins, such as the E 300 e, can deliver a claimed 50km of electric drive, without taking power-hungry features such as air-conditioning into account. The average car in Singapore travels 46km daily, so a small gain in battery capacity could conceivably allow a Mercedes plug-in driver to kiss fossil fuels goodbye for everyday use, with petrol on standby for long-distance journeys.

But that merely highlights one potential pitfall of buying into the technology: it keeps getting so much better that early adopters risk purchasing cars that will quickly become outdated.

The E 300 e, which will be launched in Singapore in the second half of next year, is technically superior to the E 350 e that went on sale here in August; its electric motor is more powerful, its drivetrain is smoother, and its battery pack has around 50 per cent more capacity despite being no larger or heavier than that of the older model.

Mr Reifenrath bristled at the idea of the current E 350 e already being obsolete, but admitted that electric drive technology is at the stage where engineers are still making rapid developments.

"That includes lot of progress for the customer, but it also includes the fact that some technology will be outdated quicker than it used to in the past. But that has happened in many sectors. Looking at smartphones, the (product) cycles have become shorter. It's a fact of life," he told The Business Times.

"That doesn't mean there is no value in a previous generation, but it means quick progress."

Whether customers resist or welcome that progress won't take long to discover. We'll find out by 2022.