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Mercedes-Benz F-Cell caught in the wild

CNET Car Tech gets a chance encounter with a Mercedes-Benz F-Cell test vehicle.

Mercedes-Benz F-Cell
We had a random encounter with this hydrogen-powered F-Cell vehicle. CNET

While out testing the very stylish Aston Martin DB9 Volante in the Santa Cruz Mountains recently, we ran across the car's opposite, a Mercedes-Benz F-Cell research car. We caught up with the F-Cell (easily) and followed it to a vista point, where we cornered its driver and started grilling him about the car. It's not often you see the future of the automobile out in the wild like this.

This F-Cell was from the first generation, built into Mercedes-Benz's A-class platform, a small vehicle that's not sold in the U.S. Its 5,000-psi hydrogen tank feeds a fuel cell that produces electricity, in turn powering an 87-horsepower electric motor.

The driver of the car was a Mercedes-Benz engineer stationed with the car in Palo Alto, California. The company maintains many test fleets. He had pulled into the parking lot not because he thought James Bond was on his tail, but to plug his laptop into the F-Cell and download diagnostic data. Mercedes-Benz has logged well over a million miles with these F-Cell cars, and every mile yields useful data about performance in the real world.

The F-Cell has its drivetrain under the floorboards. Mercedes-Benz

That first generation of F-Cell has a range of 110 miles, and seemed to have no problem negotiating the steep hills where we found it. In contrast, our 12 cylinder Aston Martin was burning gas at around 15 mpg, and would ultimately show a range of about 225 miles in our driving.

Mercedes-Benz has a new generation of the F-Cell vehicle in testing right now, based on the bigger B-class platform. It uses new materials technology for its hydrogen tanks to hold 10,000 psi, giving the car a range of 250 miles. Its electric motor is rated at 136 horsepower and 215 pound-feet of torque, although the fuel cell output is only 108 horsepower.

Fuel cell vehicles are basically electric vehicles that use hydrogen tanks rather than batteries for energy storage. With current technology, fuel cell cars tend to have greater range than pure electric cars. Hydrogen tanks are lighter than big battery packs and take much less time to fill. However, electric cars have the advantage of an existing charging infrastructure--a hydrogen station infrastructure has yet to be built.