Mercedes-Benz’s First Hybrid

2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid (Mercedes-Benz USA)

2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid (Mercedes-Benz USA)

It took awhile, but Mercedes-Benz finally has a gasoline-electric hybrid car on the market. For several years, the German company sat back and watched rival brand Lexus shine in the spotlight of luxury hybrid vehicles.
So they’re sticking their figurative toe into the waters of hybrid technology, releasing a new model called the S400 Hybrid. Rather than start small, Mercedes decided to add hybrid power to their largest sedan, the S-Class. Utilizing an efficient V6 engine and a small electric motor, the S400 is very much a large Mercedes-Benz, but with the fuel-saving characteristics of a hybrid.
Unlike some other hybrid models – namely those from Lexus – the S400 is what’s known as a “mild hybrid.” In other words, the electric motor is only there to give the gasoline engine a boost at low speeds. You can’t whirr along on electric power only, so whenever you’re traveling under power, you’re using gasoline.
However, this hybrid system does cut the engine off when rolling to a stop, and the engine can remain off while waiting to move again. Thanks to electric power steering and air conditioning, all functions of the car remain normal while it sits in silence. Once the driver’s foot moves from the brake to the throttle, the engine immediately restarts and you’re accelerating smoothly.
The benefit of utilizing the mild hybrid system is that Mercedes-Benz was able to employ a much smaller battery, a lithium-ion unit that’s a first for a factory-built hybrid. The lightweight battery is so compact that it can reside in the engine compartment, right where a conventional S-Class carries its normal 12-volt battery. So, luggage space isn’t sacrificed with a large battery under the trunk floor or behind the rear seat.
With the hybrid system, the S400 is rated at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway for a combined figure of 21. By comparison, the S550 with a V8 engine is rated at 15, 23 and 18 respectively. So the Mercedes hybrid beats its non-hybrid counterpart by 3 miles per gallon or a bit more than 15%. That’s not really much to get excited about, but as the saying goes, every little bit helps.
Looking further through the EPA’s scores for the two vehicles, the S400 is estimated to produce 8.7 tons of carbon emissions per year, compared to 10.2 tons for the S550. So upscale buyers who are concerned with how they’re treating the planet can feel a bit better about their luxury car choice.
Beyond that, there is one big advantage to this new Mercedes-Benz hybrid in the eyes of many: the big chrome “HYBRID” badge on the rear of the car. That piece of ornamentation will show other drivers on the road that this is a somewhat greener version of the large Mercedes. There’s also a smaller badge affixed to the center console, to also remind passengers that they’re riding in a hybrid.
I suspect that some Los Angeles area limousine companies that cater to the entertainment industry are going to be snapping up many of the black-on-black S400s. That way their celebrity clients can feel that they’re being kinder to the environment as they ride to the airport or an awards show in back of this very comfortable car.
The S400 does have a couple of drawbacks alongside the S550. The first is that the acceleration is a bit leisurely compared to the smooth pickup that only a V8 engine can provide. Also, as the throttle is mashed and the 3.5 liter V6 starts working hard, there’s a somewhat coarse groan coming from under the hood. Hybrid drivers will be used to this, as a Toyota Prius under load is a little noisy itself. Still, for a car that costs this much, it’s a little out of character.
Speaking of cost, the S400 bucks the hybrid formula in another way. Its $87,950 sticker price (yes, I am aware that at one time that figure would buy a perfectly nice house) is $3600 less than the S550. So not only will the S400 use less fuel, it costs less to buy. The truly frugal would probably never think of spending nearly $90,000 for a car, hybrid or not. But if you’re in that end of the market, at least the hybrid option doesn’t cost more.
Mercedes-Benz will be adding hybrid power to its ML-Class sport utility vehicle this year as well, and has plans for other fuel-saving platforms. They’re already selling an efficient clean diesel in several of its vehicles, and will eventually have many choices under the moniker “Blue Efficiency.”
Lexus may have a big head start in the hybrid race, with everything from the new small HS model to a hybrid version of its large LS sedan. But for many, only the name Mercedes-Benz will do. For them, the three-pointed Mercedes star is now aligned with that magical hybrid badge on the same car.
I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7.  He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net

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