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The Mercedes B-Class Fuel Cell models world tour will stop in Vancouver on March 17. (Mercedes-Benz)
The Mercedes B-Class Fuel Cell models world tour will stop in Vancouver on March 17. (Mercedes-Benz)

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Benz kicks off hydrogen-powered world tour Add to ...

The first emissions-free trip around the world started this past weekend, a 125-day odyssey with Mercedes-Benz B-Class Fuel Cell models, in a global demonstration of what the company calls the first production fuel cell made in Germany.

While plug-in electric vehicles still seem to have the most manufacturer, government and media hype behind them, fuel cells also promise no emissions except water, with the major advantage of much further range than offered by upcoming battery electric vehicles. Honda has built and sold two generations of its FCX fuel cell electric car in California, if only in tiny batches, while the B-Class F-CELL has so far been built in similarly minuscule numbers.

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But as it has been for at least the past 10 years, the major impediment to wide-scale fuel cell adoption is not with the FCEV technology itself, although cost is still a major issue, but with the lack of hydrogen fuel stations to replenish them.

Thus the Mercedes-Benz world tour entourage includes a mobile fuelling station for the FC B-Classes, as a continually rotating string of politicians, celebrities, media types and maybe even potential consumers help drive the cars from the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart to a continent-hopping 30,000 kilometres over a bit more than four months. The tour will make one stop in Canada, on March 17 in Vancouver.

Why a 125-day tour? The company celebrated the 125th anniversary of Karl Benz's filing of the first "motor wagen" patent Jan. 29, at a gala party attended by German chancellor Angela Merkel and 1,400 members of Daimler and German high society, including Formula One racers Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg, CEO Dieter Zetsche and German international football coach Joachim Low.

Three Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL models will make the global trek, which will seek to highlight the real-world benefits of fuel cells versus EVs - mainly their much further range - as well as to lobby for the need for a global hydrogen refueling infrastructure.

Regal hybrid likely to be built in Canada

The Buick Regal will become the brand's next model to offer GM's eAssist mild hybrid system, which will likely make the Regal the first hybrid to be built in Canada when the gas-electric sedan starts production as early as this summer, according to well-placed sources within GM.

GM previewed the eAssist mild hybrid system in the full-size Buick LaCrosse at the Los Angeles auto show in November, but curiously isn't trumpeting it as a hybrid, perhaps because its Battery Assist System II will become standard on base 2012 four-cylinder LaCrosse models this fall.

The Buick Regal model with eAssist has yet to be confirmed by GM officially, but sources within the company confirm that the now-Oshawa-made Buick Regal will offer the system, even if the LaCrosse and other GM models receive it first.

The addition of the 115-volt lithium ion battery and the start/stop technology to the LaCrosse will cut its fuel consumption by about a quarter over the base four-cylinder model, says GM, to about 9.4 litres/100 km city/6.4 highway, but the battery can't power the car on its own. The Regal uses the same 2.4-litre four-cylinder base engine as the LaCrosse and is about 100 kg lighter, so the addition of the eAssist system should result in a similar or higher fuel economy boost and more low-end power and smoothness.

If the Regal eAssist doesn't arrive until 2012, it may yet be in a race with the Chrysler 300 for the first-hybrid-built-in-Canada crown. Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne reportedly confirmed at the Detroit show that a hybrid 300 full-size sedan is coming for 2013. If he meant model year '13, that could place production of the Brampton-built 300 hybrid at almost any point next year.

U.S. green-car push contrasts with Canada

U.S. President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address included increased support for consumers and producers of plug-in vehicles, including another $2-billion (U.S.) on top of the $6-billion already pledged, putting an increasingly contrasting spotlight on the lack of any national plug-in car rebate for consumers, or federal aid for EV-friendly projects or plug-in auto manufacturing in Canada.

And the chances of any major new programs in the upcoming federal budget in March seem bleak, as federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has vowed for months that there will be no major new spending programs announced in the upcoming budget.

On the other hand, with the limited number of plug-in vehicles now available in Canada, and the fact that many coming to the U.S. either won't be available in Canada at all, or much later, means that any EV-boosting rebate or research program could be much smaller in their relative scale than measures in the U.S.

In the U.S., Obama reiterated an aggressive goal of one million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015. The administration's plan involves a three-pronged approach that includes making the current $7,500 tax credit an instant tax rebate, such as the plug-in rebate in Ontario now, investments in R&D, and a competitive fund for communities looking to invest in charging infrastructure.

Porsches last longest in Canada

More Porsche vehicles are still on the road in Canada than any other brand in the past 25 years, auto consultant Dennis DesRosiers says, with 97.4 per cent of Porsches bought in the last quarter century still on the road.

An average of 60.6 per cent of all vehicles sold in this time are still being driven, according to DesRosiers' latest longevity numbers, which measure figures for vehicles produced in 1984 and still on the road as of July, 2009.

This is an "amazing" figure, said DesRosiers in a note to clients, but "problematic for the regulators because the older the vehicle the more likely it is a 'smoker,' poor on fuel efficiency and less safe since they would not contain the same level of technology as vehicles bought today.

"If regulators want to solve these social ills then the absolute best policy would be to 'force' older vehicles off the road," said DesRosiers.

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