As promised, the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell has made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show, with the carmaker presenting the first preproduction units at the event. Touted as a world first, the GLC F-Cell is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that also features plug-in capability.

Up front is where you’ll find the fuel cell drive system, which generates electricity to power the rear-mounted, 197 hp (147 kW)/350 Nm electric motor. The system itself offers 40% more output than what was used on the B-Class F-Cell, uses 90% less platinum, and is 30% more compact than before. As a result, Mercedes-Benz says the system can be housed entirely in the engine compartment, and is installed on the usual mounting points like a conventional engine.

The drive system is supplied from two carbon-fibre-encased tanks installed on the vehicle floor and rear seat bench. These tanks are capable of holding around 4.4 kg of hydrogen, and follow the standardised 700 bar tank technology and Mercedes-Benz’s internal safety requirements. Refilling the tanks is claimed to take just three minutes, which is about the same amount of time it takes to refuel a car with an internal combustion engine.

While the fuel cell drive system is capable of powering the electric motor on its own, the GLC F-Cell also comes with a lithium-ion battery in the rear. With a gross energy capacity of 13.8 kWh (9.3 kWh net), the battery can be charged either via the socket at the rear of vehicle, or with the electricity generated by the fuel cell drive system.

For the former, a 7.2-kW onboard charger can be plugged into a standard household power socket, a wallbox or a public charging station. Mercedes-Benz quotes a charging time of around 1.5 hours if the full capacity is exhausted.

As you’d expect, the entire setup comes with a choice of several operating modes, four in fact – Hybrid, F-Cell, Battery and Charge – with all benefiting from an energy recovery function that recovers energy during braking or coasting, strong it in the battery.

In Hybrid mode, the vehicle draws power from both the fuel cell drive system and battery in the most efficient manner, following an intelligent operating strategy. Switching over to F-Cell mode, the vehicle runs exclusively on hydrogen, plus the state of charge of the battery is kept constant by energy from the fuel cell.

Moving on, Battery mode is exactly as it sounds, where the electric motor draws power only from the battery, with no involvement of the fuel cell at all. In this mode, the GLC F-Cell has a claimed electric range of 49 km, following the NEDC cycle. Lastly, Charge mode places a priority on charging the battery to provide the maximum overall electric range. This mode also creates power reserves for uphill or very dynamic driving.

Aside from the operating modes, the familiar drive programmes – Eco, Comfort and Sport – are also present. All of them are pretty self-explanatory as their names suggests, with the last one aimed at optimising the powertrain for sporty performance.

The obvious advantage of this powertrain is not only the absence of any CO2 emissions, but also a sense of familiarity for owners of current plug-in hybrid vehicles. Where you had to previously pump petrol at the pumps, now it is just hydrogen, and it doesn’t even take that long to do so.

Like before, if you do happen to park in a place where a charger is present, simply plug your vehicle in to have the battery charged. This way, the fuel cell wouldn’t need to charge the battery, reducing the frequency of stops at hydrogen filling stations. Put simply, the internal combustion engine in current-day plug-in hybrid powertrains has been replaced with a hydrogen fuel cell drive system.

Another advantage is a reduced sense of range anxiety, as the GLC F-Cell is claimed to offer up to 437 km of range when running in Hybrid mode. This isn’t that far off from what a conventional car with an internal combustion engine can offer.

The vehicle gets plenty of styling touches to mark it out as a model under the EQ Power banner, with plenty of blue touches on the radiator grille, side sills, rear apron and 20-inch alloy wheels. You’ll also notice large, angular inlets on the new front bumper design, ‘EQ Power’ badging and a ‘F-Cell’ badge on the grille.

Inside, the vehicle appears like a regular GLC, with the addition of a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and special menus for the COMAND infotainment system. There’s also automatic climate control with pre-entry function, a larger 10.25-inch display, a new touchpad (with multi-touch support) and Touch Control buttons on the steering wheel. A slight revision takes place at the rear, where the seat bench is slightly raised to accommodate the hydrogen tanks.

As good as it all sounds, Mercedes-Benz acknowledges the importance of having proper infrastructure put in place. This includes both charging and hydrogen filling stations, and Daimler has engaged its H2 Mobility joint venture to increase the number of such stations. The company states that by 2023, there will be a network of up to 400 hydrogen filling stations in Germany, with 100 said to be up by end-2018. Similar infrastructure projects are being promoted in Europe, the USA and Japan.