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For a company that has built a reputation on technical innovation, Mercedes has been uncharacteristically slow to launch a series-production electric car.

Now that it has and the Mercedes EQC crossover SUV is finally with us, it couldn’t have picked a location for the international press launch better than Oslo for highlighting just how long it has dallied. Here, every other car you see is electric. If London was the same, you’d probably have to take it in turns with your neighbours to boil your kettle on weekday evenings, after everyone in the city had arrived home and plugged in.

Because Mercedes is Mercedes, of course – the oldest name in the car business and still the most revered around much of the world, and now the biggest-selling premium automotive brand in the world, too – it’s still a big deal whenever it does anything for the first time. For accuracy’s sake, though, we’d better put ‘first’ in inverted commas; there have been a handful of electric cars from Smart already, and an electric A-Class called the E-Cell that was ‘sold’ in very small numbers about ten years ago.

This, nonetheless, will be the first electric Mercedes that’ll be built in its hundreds of thousands. At least, I think it’s a Mercedes. As the first car from its EQ sub-brand, the EQC looks a bit like a Mercedes – it’s closely related to the GLC and you can certainly see the resemblance. But it also looks a bit like a generic mid-sized crossover SUV which, to these eyes at least, might have been designed by Renault or Hyundai – or even Saab.

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Is that a problem, I wonder, in a market in which design may be about to become a vitally important selling point? It might be; or maybe it’s just our present perspective talking. Either way, if people look at the EQC and fail to recognize it as a Mercedes until it’s close enough to see the star on the grille, as I fear they might, you wonder if it will really fulfill its potential. We'll see.

How does the EQC stack up to its electric rivals?

The EQC is, in prospect, a mid-sized SUV that’s actually about 100mm longer than a Mercedes GLC, although still only a five-seater. With slightly different electric motors mounted on each axle, the car has electronically torque-vectored four-wheel drive. The front motor has a less tightly wound stator for better operating efficiency, the rear one a more tightly wound one for greater torque. When cruising, the EQC is driven almost exclusively by the front motor.

Dig deeply into the accelerator, however, and the car’s driving impetus shifts instantly towards the rear axle, with up to a combined 402bhp and 564lb ft on tap. That’s a good portion more peak torque than is offered by either the Jaguar i-Pace or the Audi E-tron, although the former is still quicker-accelerating than the Mercedes according to manufacturer claims.

It’s in direct comparison with those two key rivals that so much about this car will be judged. The EQC splits the difference between them on both overall length and price. With an 80kWh battery, it has the least usable battery capacity of the three – and yet it beats the bigger, heavier Audi on WLTP-test-verified battery range (259 miles plays 249).

On the inside, the car is a lot easier to recognize as a modern Mercedes than from without. The EQC’s cabin has the twin widescreen digital displays and button-crowded steering wheel spokes of so many modern Benzes, but mixes some fresh design details, some new ambient lighting features, some EV-specific display modes and new-groove materials into the cabin mix. Our test car had slotted speaker grilles and natty looking stylized air vents, both of which I liked, as well as a particularly soft and attractive synthetic dashboard whose appearance I can only risk underselling by describing as if it had been made out of recycled wetsuits.

Occupant space up front feels pretty typical for a mid-sized SUV; in the rear you’re just a little more aware of being squeezed in between a raised cabin floor (under which the drive battery sits) and a roofline that’s lowish by class standards. With 500 litres of storage space, the boot is biggish but not exceptionally so.

How does the EQC perform on the road?

The car’s driving experience has no shortage of features to distinguish it from a combustion-engined SUV, and, if you've read about or driven EVs before, you won’t need me to itemize most of them. But if there’s one to lift it above that of the E-tron, iPace or Tesla Model X, it’s refinement.

Aren’t all EV supposed to be silent-running? Well, no – it turns out they’re not. I don’t think I’ve ever driven an electric car – or any car, come to think of it – as quiet as the EQC. Attentive aerodynamic body design helps to tune out wind intrusion at speed, or course, but road noise is very well isolated here too, and the car’s ride is very comfortable indeed at both low speeds and high.

Throttle response is typically great, although perhaps not at Tesla’s almost synaptic level; drivability is excellent; and outright performance is very strong, though a Jaguar i-Pace might just feel a touch stronger under big pedal applications. The car’s handling, meanwhile, is neat, secure, contained and predictable, although it doesn’t stand out from the SUV pack for its sense of precision or incisiveness.

Complexity may be the only significant turn-off about the EQC’s motive character: there’s a lot of it, and Mercedes hasn’t really attempted to mask any of it. The car has five driving modes (Comfort, Sport, Eco, Individual and Maximum Range) and five different battery regeneration programs (which you select using what would otherwise be the gearshift paddles).

To give Mercedes due credit, you can get on just fine with the car in its default setting (‘Comfort’, with just enough regen on a trailing throttle to make the car feel intuitive). Depart from this, however, and it may be a while before you’re sure you’ve found the dynamic presets you like best; and you’re quite likely to find a few you really don’t like in the process.

Mercedes’ ‘auto’ regeneration mode, for example, uses the car’s speed limit detection, radar cruise control and navigation systems to blend the regenerative braking of its electric motors up and down automatically. It seems to work well about 80 per cent of the time – but it certainly has moments of inattention.

Combine that regen mode with ‘maximum range’ driving mode, though, and the car goes into a semi-autonomous setting that restricts motor power both directly and indirectly - and most obviously via a haptic accelerator that creates perceptible lumps in the pedal's travel with which to guide your inputs. It does all this in order to eke out battery range, and, operating thusly, the EQC’s electronics must be processing gigabytes of sensor data, minute by minute, in order to effectively be entirely responsible for the car's own speeding up and slowing down.

To this tester, however, the mode was much too intrusive to feel like a driver support system, and much more often tended to slightly undermine my sense of control over the car around town, rather than enhancing it.

Where does the EQC leave Mercedes' electric ambitions?

I think you’d quickly learn to leave the EQC’s ‘cleverest’ technological tricks well enough alone except in certain places and conditions. Find a mode in which you can drive the car confidently, by contrast, and it could hardly be more relaxing, pleasant or easy-going. Electric cars simply don't come any more refined, well-appointed, luxurious or laid-back than this.

Otherwise, judged as a taste of things to come from the EQ sub-brand, the EQC suggests Mercedes won’t be shy about chasing after Tesla in more ways than one – or of taking risks with autonomous driving functionality in order to make a few waves. These will clearly be cars for technophiles as well as EV lovers; and I'd say that ought to be fine for the rest of us as well – as long as Mercedes continues to make it easy enough to find the ‘off’ button.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Mercedes-Benz EQC

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