Celebrities such as Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio drive around Hollywood in their Toyota Prius hybrids, but even their combined star power can't hide the fact that the Prius's styling is a bit dull and it only has 76 horsepower and 111 Newton metres of torque. Enter the Mercedes S400 BlueHybrid, the Stuttgart car maker's ground-breaking foray into combining eco-friendly technology with a proper luxury car and excellent performance. It will be the first luxury hybrid to go on sale in the Middle East in August next year.
The S400 was launched this week at the Abu Dhabi International Motor Show, and The National had a chance to give the UAE its first glimpse of Mercedes' pre-production model with a test drive the day before the show opened. Christoph Mueller, the chief engineer for the S400, was on hand to explain the car. Power comes from a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine linked with an electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery. When driving the S400 with the combined powers of the petrol engine and the battery, you have 299 horses and 385Nm of torque to play with. If you drive it as an electric car - handy if you run out of petrol or are making a short trip - the battery has a range of 65 kilometres and you temporarily have a zero emissions vehicle. It's a big step on the road to fully electric, zero-emissions cars that can still perform, and better yet, this isn't a gimmicky biofuel car where, rather offensively, food can end up being used for fuel.
"It is a world champion when it comes to CO2 emissions," Mueller said. "It is the lowest in the luxury car segment." The S400's emissions are 186g/km. To compare, the 3.0L Audi A8 pumps out 226g/km and the BMW 7-Series emits 232g/km. Before we hit the road, Mueller proudly opened the boot to prove another point. The boot was capacious and empty. "See, there's nothing in here," he proudly announced. "The Lexus [GS hybrid] has the battery back in the boot and it takes up too much room so you can't fit any luggage in. We have downsized the battery."
Mueller then marched around to the front of the car and lifted the bonnet to display the lithium-ion battery attached to the electric motor, resting beside the petrol engine. The entire hybrid system adds 75 kilograms to the vehicle, a relative pittance in a car with a total weight of 2,550kg. After a worried security guard almost threw himself in front of the S400 as I started to drive off without the test plates, I finally hit the road with Mueller in the passenger seat. The first thing I noticed as I started the car was just how quiet it was. Revving the engine causes the needle to spike upwards but there's just a barely discernible purr to be heard. As we glided down Airport Road, all I could hear was our conversation.
At the first set of lights, Mueller showed me another feature - the boost effect. This is where the electric motor helps out the petrol engine so the car takes off powerfully even from a standing start. Taking care to not end up under the back of a bus, I felt a lovely surge in power as we headed off towards the sleepy town of Al Bahia, just off the Sheikh Rashid Highway. The start/stop function saves fuel by switching off the engine as the car rolls to a stop at less than 15 kilometres per hour, and when it's time to move off again, there is no delay in restarting and getting on the move.
On a quiet stretch of road, I got to test out the boost effect without the risk of ending up wedged under the rear axles of an Abu Dhabi bus. The 0-100 sprint takes 7.3 seconds, according to the marketing blurb, but when I did it on the lonely road, it felt closer to six, one second being a light year in car performance terms. Sliding the S400 around a bend felt good too, especially with the active seat system, another cool feature that initially surprised me on a roundabout on the drive to Al Bahia. On bends, the seat hugs you - the sides actually move in and make you feel like you're in a racing seat.
The air suspension makes light work of speed humps and, while the S400 is not an off-roader, the multilink suspension with air springs can be raised or lowered to provide some extra ground clearance. This proved unexpectedly useful when I pulled over to the side of the road and the ground next to the tarmac was much softer than it looked. There was an awful grinding noise but, with a bit of digging and Mueller deftly easing the car out, there was no harm done. The pre-production model, once cleaned of the sand, has the looks inside and out to attract attention at the motor show and beyond. Add to this the wonderful sound system, lovely leather interior, slick seven-speed automatic gearbox and little touches like a chrome gear selector on the steering column that moves through P, R, N and D with the lightest of touches, and you have the ingredients for a car that by rights should do well here. As the first out of the blocks with a hybrid luxury car in the Middle East, Mercedes has a definite head start on any competitors seeking to go green without compromising style or performance. The lithium-ion battery technology is still very expensive, but Mercedes promises competitive pricing when the S400 enters the marketplace next year. It will be interesting to see how the car is received. All Mercedes has to do is convince potential buyers of the benefits of hybrid and prove that you can drive an eco-friendly car without having to put up with Prius performance. email@example.com