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Mercedes-Benz Announces SLS E-Cell Electric, F-Cell World-Spanning Roadtrip

Unlike many of the automakers exhibiting at this week's Detroit Auto Show, Mercedes-Benz isn't putting all of its sustainable eggs in the hybrid and electric basket. Instead, the automaker is pumping research and development dollars into diesel, hybrid electric, and fuel cell technology, with 10 billon euros spent on alternative fuel train technology in the past year.

While Mercedes is known for its diesel vehicles, the two big announcements at the auto show were the SLS AMG E-cell electric gull-winged supercar and an impending around-the-world drive in the B-class F-cell—the first around-the-world trip for a fuel cell vehicle. Why these announcements now?

"It's easy to parade out concept cars," says Steve Cannon, VP of Marketing for MB-USA, in an obvious reference to the slew of automakers who are showing off hybrid and electric concept cars at the auto show. But, he says, the E-cell and F-cell are real vehicles that customers can buy in the near future.

The E-cell, which will go on sale in 2013, boasts 526 horsepower, 649 lb-ft of torque, four compact electric motors that each deliver 12,000 rpm and a 480 kW lithium-ion battery pack. The vehicle goes from zero to 60 mph in four seconds. It will probably cost somewhere around $183,000, the price of the regular SLS AMG supercar. "The E-cell promises that electric doesn't have to be boring," explains Cannon.

And as for that 20,000 mile around-the-world drive? It's purely a marketing push to demonstrate the real-world viability of fuel cell technology, which "isn't on people's radar screens," says Cannon. But the vehicles are powerful—the F-Cell has 136 horsepower and a 240 mile range on a full tank of hydrogen. A test fleet of F-Cells will be released in California and Europe by next year.

Still, Cannon admits that there are a lot of things that need to happen before people embrace fuel cell vehicles—primarily, educational marketing initiatives like the around-the-world drive (not to mention the buildout of a hydrogen fueling infrastructure). In the short term, Mercedes-Benz is betting on hybrids to lead the pack—but the company wants to be ready when customers are ready to embrace new technology.

Read more coverage of the 2011 Detroit Auto Show.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.