Although conventional battery-powered vehicles dominate the growing industry trend toward electrification, fuel cells continue to have a place in some corporate research and development centers. Examples: Honda Motor, whose trio of Clarity alt fuel compacts includes a fuel cell variant that’s already on sale in Japan and California. Ditto Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Tucson. And General Motors, whose joint venture program with Honda is expected to result in a production version by model year 2020.

But fuel cell development isn’t confined to Japan and California. At the Frankfurt Auto Show, Mercedes demonstrated its ongoing commitment to the technology, displaying GLC models powered by fuel cells. Underscoring its commitment, Mercedes characterized the vehicles as “pre-production,” rather than concepts.

Also: Check out all of the latest news from the Frankfurt Auto Show

Plug-in factor

Mercedes is putting a fresh spin on the technology, adding a plug-in recharging component to its fuel cell setup. To review (and oversimplify) fuel cell stacks convert hydrogen to electricity, with water as a byproduct. Leaving cost out of the equation, the advantage of a fuel cell system over any current battery electric vehicle is recharging time.

A vehicle’s hydrogen tank can be refilled in about the length of time it takes to refill the tank of a gasoline-powered vehicle. Even with fast recharge systems, EVs require at least a half-hour to reach 80 percent of capacity. The GLC fuel cell tank holds 4.4 kilograms (9.7 pounds) of hydrogen, enough for a maximum range of 437 kilometers (272 miles), according to Mercedes.

The plug-in hybrid part of the equation includes an electric motor rated for 197 horsepower. The vehicle’s lithium-ion battery pack is capable of adding 49 kilometers (30 miles). Mercedes furnished no information on curb weights.

The downside of fuel cell viability is infrastructure. For example, there are currently 31 retail hydrogen stations open in California, with 29 more in development, most of them along the coastal area between San Diego and San Francisco. Fuel cell refueling stations are scarce across the rest of the country. As a consequence, Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota limit availability of their fuel cell vehicles to California.

The situation is better in northern Europe, where 41 stations are open for business, mostly scattered all over Germany, and 31 more approaching readiness. While the GLC F-CELL is definitely intended for production, Mercedes refrained from announcing a specific date. European dealers will be first, with the U.S. market (read: California) to follow.

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