2018 Mercedes GLC F-Cell review: the hydrogen fuel-cell comes of age, but has it been overtaken by battery power?

Mercedes GLC F-Cell - AE driven Oct 2018

It all changes right here, right now after the vote on October 3 by Members of the European Parliament for draft cuts in carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions from new cars of 20 per cent by 2025 and 40 per cent by 2030.

There's an additional requirement that, by 2030, 35 per cent of all new-car sales will be low- or zero-emissions vehicles. These demands are roughly in line with this week's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which called for global CO2 reductions to 45 per cent of 2010 levels by 2030.

Make no mistake, private motoring is going to be very different as a result. There might be some wriggle room on these requirements when they go back to the EU Commission, but not much. The average emissions of passenger cars will likely be about 75g/km by 2020 and 57g/km by 2030, which means car makers will have to sell hundreds of thousands of low- and zero-emissions vehicles to avoid Draconian fines.

You could pick apart the wisdom - whether such cars actually save as much CO2 as is claimed, the possible effects of these regulations on the lives and livelihoods of EU citizens and EU economies - until the cows came home, made themselves tea and toast and sat down to listen to The Archers, but it's pointless.

From now on you can be certain of three things: almost all new cars will have some kind of electrical propulsion; motoring will get more expensive; and sports models with large-capacity V8 and V12 engines will be relegated to a sepia-tinted motoring past.

In the running for your car's drivetrain in this brave new world are: battery electric; petrol and diesel electric hybrids; and this, the fuel cell.

A fuel-cell car is inherently smoother than a petrol or diesel hybrid

Clever, conceptually simple and as clean as a kettle, producing just steam and power, the fuel cell has been with us since 1839. That was when the idea of the platinum-based catalytic reaction to produce electricity from hydrogen was first discovered by Welsh scientist Sir William Grove.

Simple it might be, and with great potential to provide carbon-free transport, but the fuel cell has some drawbacks. Its hydrogen fuel might be the most common element in the universe, but it's also difficult to separate the strong bonds it forms with other elements. Most hydrogen is steamed out of natural gas, which makes it neither renewable, nor cheap at about £12 per kg.

And while members of the global “H2 Mobility” partnership have a long-term aim of 400 European hydrogen filling stations, at present there are only 13 in the UK; there’s more range anxiety in a fuel-cell car than in its battery-electric equivalent.

Hydrogen from electrolysis using surplus renewable electricity is a viable option espoused by firms such as ITM, but it's not that efficient and you also have to pump the gas up to 10,000 psi and store it on board the car in ruinously expensive carbon-fibre tanks. That's not to mention the already sunk costs and engineering time, reputations and careers that have disappeared into fuel-cell research over the years, yet still the technology remains uncomfortably close to the experimental side of “production-ready”.

The fuel-cell GLC looks similar to the standard car but underneath it's substantially changed

Compared with the complicated software and chemistry requirements of building a battery-electric car, fuel cells add advanced engineering design and production, along with the complexity of space-age containment, valving and safety systems. Mercedes should know, it’s been in the business a long time; I witnessed one of its first attempts, called Necar 1, stagger around a car park in 1994.

“We are 25-year veterans of fuel cells,” says Ola Kallenius, Mercedes board director in charge of research and development, “and now we are doing the GLC F-Cell, which is our most competent fuel-cell vehicle.”

The launch for this “most competent” car was a surprisingly low-key affair in the outskirts of Mercedes’s home in Stuttgart, where the test F-Cell car had been vinyl-wrapped in iridescent colours like a small guy in a garish suit talking too loud. The press images accompanying this article are more representative of the production article.

The basis of the F-Cell is the GLC, the Bremen-built SUV version of the C-class, a not-unpleasant five-door with plenty of room front and back. Engineer Cosimo Mazzotta explained that the fuel-cell and electrical systems have been made 30 per cent smaller so they'll fit under the bonnet in place of a conventional internal combustion engine. The cell also uses 90 per cent less platinum catalyst than its predecessor.

The fuel-cell and electrical systems have been made 30 per cent smaller so they fit under the bonnet in place of a conventional internal combustion engine

The 13.5kWh lithium-ion battery pack can be recharged externally (in the interests of longevity, the system uses only 9.3kWh of the capacity) and takes about three inches out of the boot floor. Twin hydrogen tanks hold a total of 4.4kg of gas at 10,000 psi and sit in the transmission tunnel and under the rear seats.

It's a rear-wheel-drive car, with a 208bhp/269lb ft AC electric motor, which gives a top speed of 100mph. It weighs 2,050kg and range is quoted at 297 miles, with 31 miles solely on battery propulsion. The F-cell has a 7.4kW water-cooled on board charger, which allows high current recharging in 1.5 hours.

Running in hybrid mode, the fuel consumption is quoted at 0.34kg/100km, which compares with the recent Hyundai Nexo’s 414-mile range, 111mph top speed and 0.95kg/100km hydrogen consumption.

The chassis is a bespoke item but built on the same lines as the C-class. It uses the same upper body as the GLC, but as with the similar battery-electric EQC model launched recently, there's a tubular structure between the front seats to improve crash performance.

The F-Cell can be plugged in to charge as with a battery-electric car, but unlike them it generates its own electricity

The front suspension is conventional steel-sprung wishbones, with air suspension on the multi-link rear; it  runs on 235/50/R20 tyres.

Most car makers stress that fuel-cell hybrids use technology developed from petrol and diesel hybrids, but in practice a fuel-cell hybrid makes for a much more “natural” feel mainly because both power sources supply the same stuff, electricity, so it’s inherently smoother and more refined.

So it is with the F-Cell, which uses the battery to pull away and then the fuel cell whirrs in. That road speed-related whirring is the big electric turbo pressurising air through the system which gives an intuitive sense of speed as the car wafts beautifully through Stuttgart's suburbia.

I could have done with a tiny bit more power though; it's brisk, but slow compared with the battery-electric opposition and even rival fuel cells. There are several drivetrain modes which hold the battery power, use battery only or charge the battery, but the best is hybrid which mixes fuel cell and battery electricity most efficiently.

The boot floor is three inches higher than the standard GLC's due to all the fuel-cell hardware

Our car drove nicely but it sounded distinctly pre-production, with a pronounced locomotive-like clank from the hydrogen injector, and rattles and whirrs from the rear.

Braking isn't quite such a smooth experience, as the pedal lacks feel with a distinct dead spot at the top of the travel. Steering-wheel paddles gradually increase the amount of electrical retardation and even using the pedal alone you can finely judge slowing, though the F-Cell clatters to a halt as the regenerative braking stops and the friction brakes scramble into play.

There's also the option of what Mercedes calls intelligent retardation, which is when the safety cameras, sat-nav route knowledge and real-time traffic information pool their respective data and dial in whichever regenerative braking mode the algorithm deems most efficient, according to whether you have selected Eco, Comfort, or Sport.

As with a similar system in the recent Hyundai Nexo, it feels irrational and unrefined, and seems like a rabbit hole down which engineers have disappeared. Actually you can make a better job than all of these systems by simply driving smoothly with good anticipation, using only the accelerator and brake.

The F-Cell is a heavy car so the suspension has plenty to do - but the body control is good

With a kerb weight of more than two tonnes the wheel spring rates are high and the F-Cell clatters over Stuttgart's tram tracks and thumps through potholes, although the overall body control is pretty good.

With all that weight the rear suspension has a lot to do and wallows slightly over crests, feeling as though the damping has too much rebound resistance, but again the stability and planted feeling through high-speed curves is impressive. There's a slight artificiality about the major controls, although the steering is accurate and well weighted.

With these few caveats, this is by far the most impressive fuel-cell Mercedes has ever built and rivals the competition in refinement. So when do we get it?

Er, we don't. The UK hasn't enough refuelling infrastructure and, besides, there's a distinct impression that Mercedes is cooling on the technology it did so much to develop.

“We have our battery technology and the F-Cell,” says Källenius, “and we are looking how to scale up to produce tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, of vehicles a year; fuel cells or batteries, or both?”

He has decided on batteries, but says his company will stay in fuel cells, although that will be mainly for commercial vehicles where hydrogen can be bunkered.

His decision is similar that of rival German car makers. Klaus Fröhlich, BMW board member in charge of development, says: “It is a race between batteries and fuel cells, but battery technology is going up so fast... By 2025 we will have five times the range, maybe 600 to 700km, and hydrogen will be pushed out into the heavy cars and the commercial vehicles.”

It’s funny how German car makers all seem to make the same product planning decisions at the same time, although I think they are wrong. If our cars all end up as battery-powered boxes, part of the raison d'etre for expensive German-engineered cars is defenestrated.

Moreover, if the battery cells all come from the far east, as they do at present, it won't take long for Chinese and Korean firms to leverage their battery cost advantages to seriously take on all car manufacturers.

The hydrogen-fuelled F-Cell has a distinctive blue finish on its grille, which will be shared with all Mercedes' EQ range of fully or partially electric vehicles

A fuel cell-powered car is different, it's special and the sense of occasion driving the Mercedes F-Cell was overwhelming. It's also at the cutting edge of automotive engineering know-how and could be a viable alternative to battery electric; somehow that feels just where German car makers should be.

The GLC F-Cell is an exemplar of what a Mercedes ought to be. As Oscar Wilde wrote: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

THE FACTS

Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell

Price: lease at €799 per month (not available in UK)

Range: 297 miles

Top speed: 99mph

0-62mph: 9.2sec

Fuel cell stack power: more than 60kW

Fuel cell stack volume density: TBC

Motor power: 155 kW

Hydrogen tank capacity: 4.4kg

Tank pressure: 700 Bar

Battery type: Lithium-ion

Battery capacity: 9.5 kWh (13.5 kWh overall)              

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*Lease price from list price shown in the article is correct as of 04/12/2018 and are based on 9months initial payment upfront.  Prices exclude VAT and are subject to change.  Ts and Cs and Arrangement Fees apply.