What is it?
The new Denza notchback, a practical and (with Chinese government subsidies) relatively affordable electric vehicle developed in a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler and the automotive arm of Chinese industrial giant BYD.
Although initially conceived on the same underpinnings as the superseded first-generation Mercedes-Benz B-class, the first in what is expected to grow into a limited range of Denza models has ultimately been engineered in China around what is described by Daimler-BYD Auto officials as a “totally unique platform”.
That platform features a longer wheelbase, wider tracks and increased overhangs than its German sibling – measures that provide it with interior space approaching that of the existing E-class saloon, including a commodious 460-litre boot complete with a full-sized spare wheel.
Power for the weighty 2090kg steel bodied notchback, which was styled under a team headed by Olivier Boulay at Daimler’s Beijing based design studio, hails from a front-mounted electric motor provided by BYD Auto.
With a peak output of 115bhp and 214lb ft of torque, it propels the new car from 0-62mph in a claimed 14.0sec and to a top speed limited to 93mph.
Energy for the electric motor is provided by a relatively large 47.5kW/h lithium iron phosphate battery consisting of 144 individual cells and produced by BYD Auto parent company, BYD Company.
Encased in a cast aluminium cradle and mounted within the floor, it is claimed to provide the Denza with an overall range of up to 208 miles at an average speed of 37mph.
What's it like?
The one thing that sets the Denza apart from most other Chinese produced electric vehicles is its high standard of fit and finish.
It may be produced in a sprawling BYD Auto plant in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen and be aimed at the more affordable end of the Chinese electric vehicle market, but the quality levels and sheer attention to detail evident throughout its exterior have clearly been driven by Daimler.
Although the new joint venture car offering looks like a hatchback with rather unique buttress style C-pillars, it is actually a notchback – a body style preferred by Chinese car buyers.
Inside, you sit at an elevated position on high backed seats that provide adequate if not abundant support. The front seats are quite upright, providing loads of space for rear seat passengers who benefit from the new car’s generous 2880mm wheelbase.
Nicely detailed digital instruments and a touch screen monitor within the centre console give it a pleasingly contemporary feel from behind the multi-function steering wheel.
Press the start button, nudge the stubby gear lever to the left and rearwards, disengage the old fashioned foot operated park brake, apply a modest amount of throttle and the front-wheel drive Denza eases away with nothing more than a distant whine from the electric motor.
Instant torque and a single speed gearbox gets you going with a solid slug of acceleration. But at a portly 2090kg – some 550kg of which is battery weight alone, the joint venture electric vehicle is hardly what you’d describe as quick.
Driveline refinement is quite good, although some of the early production cars suffered annoying shunt from the gearbox as you stepped off the throttle and the regeneration mode was activated.
The Denza has two driving modes: Standard and Sport. The former provides a maximum 91bhp, with the latter offering up the full 115bhp. In city driving there’s little to choose between them. On a typical workday commute I’d be tempted to stick it in Standard and benefit from the added range the Denza offers when so configured.
A kickdown function does provide the full whack of power when called upon, although with all that weight to haul and a fixed 10.6:1 gear ratio the distinctively styled five seater is anything else but rapid under full throttle.
In regeneration mode, there is a gradual deceleration, however it's nowhere near as aggressive as that of some electric cars we’ve driven of late, meaning you are frequently prompted to get on the brakes in stop-start traffic.
The standard electro-hydraulic steering is light in feel, giving it a nice manouverable nature at lower speeds. However, it lacks for directness off centre, making it a little ponderous in faster corners. Some nasty kickback through the steering also spoils the experience on rough roads.
Given its tall stature and rather soft spring rates, it is no surprise to find the Denza leans quite heavily during cornering. Those large wheels and tyres provide a good deal of grip, although with the generous amount of torque on offer it doesn’t take much to induce understeer on winding roads.
The ride is fairly brittle at city speeds but improves once you’ve got some speed underneath the wheels, making the Denza quite an accomplished cruiser. And with such a large battery, it does offer a decent range when fully charged.
Should I buy one?
There’s an easy answer to this: you can’t. Not in the UK, which is in line to receive a Daimler electric car in 2015, albeit the new Mercedes-Benz B-class Electric Drive, which was developed in a separate engineering program to the Denza in co-operation with US-based electric vehicle specialist, Tesla.
However, Denza will kick off sales of its first model in China in September at a subsidised price around £21,000.
It will compete against a raft of new electric vehicles, including the Zinoro, a zero-emission variant of the BMW X1 developed in a joint venture between BMW and Chinese car maker, Brilliance.
Price £21,000 (est); 0-62mph 14.0 sec; Top speed 93mph; Economy NA; CO2 NA; Kerb weight 2090kg; Engine electric motor; Power 115bhp; Torque 214lb ft; Gearbox Single-speed