A few days ago, I found myself driving around Phoenix in Mercedes’ new S400 BlueHybrid. (Indeed, I found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile. …Wow, that’s funny stuff!…) The S-class is “the big Merc” (well, excluding their SUVs), and the folks at Daimler have created a hybridized version to propel it while still maintaining somewhat sane levels of fuel efficiency.
So, what do you get when you buy a $90,000 hybrid? Well, if it’s the Merc, you get luxury. You get lots of burled walnut, and rich leather seats that are firm (it is German, after all) and that can contort your body in ways it was never meant to bend. You get a consolidated multimedia interface with an 8″ screen (Mercedes calls it the COMAND system) that controls everything imaginable, from the stereo, A/C, and navigation system, to blue-tooth connectivity, rear-window sunshade, and ambient lighting color. The system is reasonably intuitive, and I was able to figure out most features within a few minutes. You also get that vault-like feeling of solidity that the Germans do so well. (Jeremy Clarkson would say it feels as if it was carved from a single block of aluminum.) And you get acres of leg-room in the rear – perhaps because that’s where some owners may sit when chauferred around.
And how is it to drive? Again, “solid” and “luxury” are the words that come to mind. With the suspension in the “normal” setting the ride is Buick-soft, and pot-holes pass by with hardly a thump. Put the suspension in “sport” mode, however, and the dampers firm up significantly. It’s still a big, heavy car, but driving is more rewarding in this setting – the ride is only slightly compromised while body roll in the turns is reduced substantially. The steering is weighted just slightly on the heavy side – which is a good thing in my book. The braking, while firm, feels a bit artificial – probably a result of the hybrid drivetrain.
Ah yes, I almost forgot – it’s a hybrid! Well, it’s basically a mild-hybrid, but with some drive assist. The 275 hp, 3.5 liter V6 engine does all of the work most of the time. The Li-ion battery – the first ever in a production hybrid from a major OEM – spends most of its time being rechared during idling, braking, and coasting events. (The artificial braking feel likely comes from the fact that the load of the generator charging the battery is additive to the actual braking system. There’s a bit of a “sticky” sensation when releasing the brakes, probably due to the delay of the regen turning off.) Under normal driving and acceleration, the electric motor doesn’t really participate. But mash the pedal to the floor, and watch the the energy flow reverse directions on the dash-mounted screen as the battery discharges and the electric motor complements the engine in moving this more-than-2-ton car 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds. While reasonably quick for a car this size, the performance certainly isn’t blistering. However, the system – which also turns the engine off while sitting at stop lights – achieves 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, a 26% improvement over the conventional S550, which uses a 382 hp, 5.5 liter V8 to propel it to 60 mph nearly 2 seconds quicker than the hybrid. (Unlike what BMW did with the X6 hybrid, Merc’s goal was to improve fuel economy without sacrificing performance. Plus, the Merc is actually appealing to look at.)
Really, the only thing that alerts the driver to the fact that this is a hybrid is the tach needle that drops to zero when the car stops moving, and the slight shudder of the engine when it restarts – an event that happens when the brake is released. Admittedly, this vibration is probably only noticeable because the Mercedes V6 is so perfectly balanced and silky smooth otherwise. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning.
In hybrid terms, the car doesn’t really do anything that other, cheaper hybrids don’t. So what good is its Li-ion battery pack? Well, it’s a lot smaller than the NiMH batteries used in every other conventional hybrid (although its capacity is about the same), so passenger and cargo space is completely unaffected. (Same as it ever was… Same as it ever was…) But it does represent another step in Lithium-ion technology moving into the mass-market.
Stay-tuned! If all goes as planned, I’ll be test-driving a much more radical and exciting alternative vehicle in the next few weeks. One might say it’s an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime!