Many times, when someone is asking me about a new car, they’ll pose a somewhat naïve question. “Does it come as a hybrid?” The inquiry is often accompanied by an expression of optimism, as if bestowing the magic of “hybrid” on any vehicle automatically makes it ten times better.
In reality, there is no “hybrid fairy” that swoops down from a cloud of pixie dust, waves a wand at any kind of vehicle, and poof —that vehicle then suddenly saves fuel. I always feel like the parent who has to admit to their child that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny doesn’t really exist when I have to say, “No, Virginia, there is no hybrid version of the (fill in the blank).”
Sure, there are a growing number of vehicles which have gained hybrid powertrains, and more are on the way. But putting a gasoline-electric hybrid system into a vehicle takes millions of dollars of research and development, compromises interior packaging, sometimes compromises performance, and can add thousands to the sticker price.
The truth is, there will not be one magic solution to making fuel efficient cars. In some cases, hybrid drive is the way to go. In other applications, pure battery electric power will work best (mainly for fixed routes and urban commuting). And some car companies are offering highly-efficient clean diesel engines, which get great fuel economy overall.
The latest model with diesel power is the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 BlueTEC. This 4-door supplements the gasoline E350 and E550, as well as other variations of the company’s mainstay midsize car. It’s fairly roomy, very comfortable, and carries EPA fuel economy ratings of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 33 on the highway.
Those figures beat the E350 (gasoline) sedan’s figures of 17 and 24, and the E550’s 15 and 23 by a significant margin. Yes, right now low-sulfur diesel fuel is running more than premium unleaded gasoline at most stations, but the math still works out in favor of the BlueTEC model.
What about drivability? People who plunk down $50,000+ for a Mercedes expect smoothness, quietness and easy acceleration. Check…check…and check. The BlueTEC’s modern turbo-diesel is a wonder of smooth power. There is just the slightest detectable murmur at idle from under the hood, and the diesel’s plentiful torque (more than from the E550’s V8) scoots the car along quite nicely.
Diesels are a big deal in Europe, where fuel is expensive and taxed differently than it is here. With mainstream manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz already engineering just about any car they build to be a diesel from the outset, it’s just a matter of making sure the engine can meet stricter U.S. emissions standards.
Part of how the BlueTEC gets to be called a “clean diesel” has to do with the advanced systems of fuel delivery and combustion. The other half of the equation is a system that injects an ammonia-like fluid called AdBlue into the exhaust to further clean things up. There’s a tank in the trunk to carry the fluid, and it’s replenished when the vehicle is serviced.
The proof of how clean it is can be seen and smelled at the rear. No smoke, just the slightest bit of diesel aroma, and no black soot clinging to the rear of the vehicle. Today’s diesel engines are nothing like the ones that spewed clouds of black smoke in past decades.
Mercedes-Benz now offers three BlueTEC diesel models: the ML350, GL350 and this E350. They’ll be joined by a fourth model — the S350 large sedan — later this year. If you want fuel efficiency and luxury, give one a try. They could have you eventually posing a new question about cars: “Does it come as a diesel?
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @davekunzcars