DETROIT – Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz in first-half 2009 will launch a fuel-cell-powered car, at least six months earlier than expected.

The low-volume, global rollout will pave the way for a production-series, all-electric Mercedes car in 2010. Like its fuel-cell precursor, the electric car will borrow inspiration from a variation of the Mercedes BlueZero concept vehicle unveiled Saturday at a media preview to the North American International Auto Show here.

The electric car leverages expertise the auto maker has acquired from an electric-drive program planned for its economy-minded Smart brand, as well as a battery-development joint venture formally launched last month with Germany-based conglomerate Evonik Industries AG.

Daimler claims the €10 billion ($13.4 billion) deal establishes it as the only auto maker poised to manufacture its own lithium-ion batteries, a technology that will “separate the wheat from the chafe” in the escalating battle to develop alternative powertrains, says Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche, who also heads Mercedes.

The BlueZero, whose modular design accommodates a range-extending gasoline engine that recharges the Li-ion battery, underscores Daimler’s commitment to investing in green technology despite the harsh economic climate.

Daimler is “financially healthy and fundamentally sound,” Zetsche says.

The auto maker has said it expects full-year earnings before taxes and interest to reach €6 billion ($8 billion). This despite suffering a €1.5 billion ($2 billion) third-quarter loss, compared with like-2007.

“We will not put our long-term success on the line with short-term budget cuts,” Zetche says.

And in an apparent swipe at industry critics who, in the U.S., have put forward bankruptcy scenarios for Detroit auto makers in lieu of government aid, he adds, “The auto sector is a victim of the crisis, not the cause.”

The BlueZero concept exploits the “sandwich-floor architecture” pioneered for the Mercedes A-Class and B-Class small cars, the auto maker says. By elevating the seating positions, components can be sandwiched neatly between the cabin floor and the floorpan.

In the BlueZero E-Cell, that space accommodates a Li-ion battery and, in the case of the fuel-cell-powered F-Cell iteration, hydrogen tanks. Mercedes’ range-extender vision of the BlueZero is dubbed E-Cell Plus.

The decision to launch a fuel-cell-powered car this year departs from earlier remarks attributed to Zetsche in German media reports that the Mercedes fuel-cell car was scheduled for a 2010 debut.

Building a fuel-cell product before an all-electric vehicle appears curious given industry momentum that favors the latter. General Motors Corp. has been trumpeting its Chevrolet Volt program for more than a year, while Chrysler LLC and Toyota Motor Corp. are using the Detroit auto show as a stage to champion their respective EV production plans, scheduled for 2010 and 2012.

Thomas Weber, Daimler board member responsible for Mercedes research and development, concedes infrastructure remains a problem when contemplating hydrogen delivery. But the auto maker’s fuel-cell program is more “mature,” he says. Dating to 2002, it has seen the launch of 100 test vehicles that have accumulated a total of 1.8 million miles (3 million km) in climate zones ranging from Iceland to Singapore.

The coming car could be made available through a special leasing program – the approach taken last year when Honda Motor Co. Ltd. rolled out its FCX Clarity fuel-cell-powered sedan – but that decision has yet to be finalized, Weber says.

Meanwhile, he touts the advantages inherent in Daimler’s battery-production deal that sees the auto maker inherit a 90% stake in a JV involving Evonik’s Li-Tec cell-making operation, by acquiring 49% of the company.

“We are now sure that we are not limited by capacity, not limited on the supplier,” Weber says, adding a manufacturing site has not been chosen.

The BlueZero E-Cell is capable of traveling up to 124 miles (200 km) per charge, while the F-Cell and E-Cell Plus can go 249 miles (400 km) and 323 miles 600 km), respectively, without refueling. The dimensions of each model is 14-ft. (4.2-m) long, with a hatchback design that features cargo capacity of 17.6 cu.-ft. (500 L).

Such commonality portends affordability, a key selling feature associated with green technology.

“The car by itself…is relatively cheap,” Weber says. “The main components are the same. It’s a completely modular concept, where we can use the same engine, e-motor (and) power electronics.”

emayne@wardsauto.com