Now that the hybrid vehicle market is maturing, some previously unreadable trends are coming slowly into focus. Barring the Toyota Prius – the vehicle credited with starting the current hybrid fever – no other offering has been a commercial success. The line of hybrids that now litter history’s garage or linger for months on dealer lots – the Saturn Aura/Chevrolet Malibu, Dodge Durango/Chrysler Aspen, Honda Accord, Honda Insight, Chevrolet Tahoe/GMC Yukon, Nissan Altima – gets longer each year. Even Toyota’s other hybrid offerings – like the Camry and Highlander, and Lexus HS, RX, GS and LS – strain to match even one tenth of the sales of the gasoline-powered models.
|1. The S400 Hybrid is the new entry-level S-Class and is priced from $87,950.
2. Power is rated at 295-hp and 284 ft-lbs of torque, with a 0-60 mph time of 7.3 seconds.
3. Fuel economy is 19/26 mpg (city/hwy) vs. the S550’s 14/21 mpg rating.
4. The S400 Hybrid is a mild hybrid so it can’t run on electric power alone, but it is the first production car to use a lithium-ion battery.
5. In Europe an S350 model makes almost as much power and gets roughly the same fuel economy as the S400 Hybrid.
Now that the large German manufacturers’ investments in hybrid technology are hitting the market, there’s a real sense of lost opportunities. The ActiveHybrid X6 is simply BMW’s public write-off of that expensive partnership with GM and Chrysler, while Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche all claim to have some sort of battery equipped model arriving in the next year or two. The money spent – and potentially wasted – on the general public’s environmental whims is staggering.
Mercedes-Benz is not innocent in this trend either – the luxury giant is offering two new-for-2010 models that use some sort of hybrid technology, but it’s the S400 Hybrid that’s the most promising and relevant.
HIGH-TECH LITHIUM-ION BATERY, LOW TECH SINGLE-MODE HYBRID
The S400 Hybrid uses a 3.5-liter V6 paired with a small electric motor that combines to deliver 295-hp and 284 ft-lbs of torque, which are relatively small gains over the company’s regular version. Because it’s a ‘mild’ hybrid, the Benz doesn’t drive on the battery power alone – it’s simply there to add some extra grunt, allow for stop-start operation, regenerate power through braking and run the electrically driven accessories.
However, unlike other hybrids that stash big panels of heavy batteries somewhere in the body, Mercedes-Benz jumped into advanced battery technology headfirst by being the first ‘real’ automaker to adopt lithium-ion batteries. (The electric Tesla roadster uses them, but its total production amounts to less than a day’s worth of S-Class production.)
The use of a lithium-ion unit allows the company to stash the S400 Hybrid’s battery in the same spot under the hood, which means no wacky packaging restrictions or uncomfortable rear seats.
Otherwise, the hybrid shares the rest of its mechanicals with the rest of the revised S-Class lineup, which means power goes to the rear wheels through the corporate seven-speed automatic transmission. The company’s 4MATIC all-wheel drive is not an option.
MUCH IMPROVED FUEL ECONOMY, BUT WHY NOT JUST A V6?
Mercedes claims that the Hybrid is 26 percent more efficient than the S550 (19/26 mpg vs. 14/21 mpg) but the V8-powered Benz is significantly faster, besting the S400 by nearly two seconds in the 0-60 mph sprint (5.4 sec. vs. 7.2 sec.). Besides, in Europe Mercedes sells an S350 with 268-hp and a 0-60 mph time of 7.3 seconds. Now we don’t have any U.S. mpg numbers, but taking the European test cycle numbers, the S350 gets 22/37 mpg, vs. the S400 Hybrid’s European 24/32 mpg rating. In other words, not much of a difference.
IT’S GOOD, BECAUSE IT’S AN S-CLASS
Mercedes-Benz’ dipped toe in the hybrid pool comes enclosed in some impressive packaging, though. The mild updates to every 2010 S-Class also migrate to the Hybrid, which means tweaked front fascia, now with LED driving lights, unique 18-inch wheels, and some minor changes in the cabin. Despite its age, the S-Class is still the go-to luxury sedan for those who want to be seen – and that includes the 400 Hybrid.
Interior highlights include a new steering wheel, and a whole raft of new entertainment technology. The coolest has to be the SplitView front display screen, which can show two different images to the driver and front passenger, allowing those riding shotgun to watch a movie on the DVD player without distracting anyone behind the wheel. The famous 14-way adjustable air-bladder seats are the best in the business at massaging, heating and cooling butts. Rear-seat space is generous, but don’t expect the same level of adjustability back there than you can get with the Russian-mob favorite S600.
Dynamically, the S400 Hybrid is a big, cushy couch, which is refreshing given that the new BMW 7-Series tries so hard to be a road rocket. Mercedes-Benz still does the waft thing very well, and this new version doesn’t miss in that regard.
The S400 Hybrid is the new entry-level model in the United States, and starts at $87,950 vs. $91,600 for the rear-wheel drive V8-powered S550, but it doesn’t skimp on equipment. Most of the standard stuff is similar between the two, and like any Benz, you can easily add tens of thousands of dollars with the options list.
While we applaud Merc’s efforts to deliver a lower priced and more environmentally friendly S-Class, this hybrid model might have entered the scene prematurely as a V6 model might have worked just as well. After all, BMW just announced a more powerful (although less fuel-efficient) 740i for 2011, priced at over $15,000 less than the Mercedes. Still, it’s expected to get just around 16/24 mpg, compared to the S400’s 19/26 rating.
Ultimately, the S400 Hybrid works solely because of how good the S-Class is, rather than by how groundbreaking its hybrid technology is or is not. And given Mercedes-Benz’ smart positioning in the lineup, it certainly won’t fail to sell a bundle.