Mercedes-Benz blazes out of the hybrid haze
Hybrids: dull, boring econoboxes targeted at number-crunching, geeks with no concept of style or interest in actually enjoying their time behind the wheel – this is pretty much the perception most people have of vehicles that derive part of their propulsion from an electric motor, right? Miserly conveyances such as the Toyota Prius – a perfectly competent vehicle for what it was conceived to do – have been partly responsible for forging this school of thought, but gradually there’s a shift occurring, whereby an enviro-friendly hybrid needn’t be a complete yawn to steer. Or look at. Or ride in.
Arguably the most cutting-edge take on the theme is the brand-new Mercedes S500 Plug-In Hybrid (PIH), which The National is getting to sample – the only Middle East publication to do so – at the international launch in Copenhagen. Why Copenhagen? Because the aesthetically pleasing Danish city has been dubbed the “green capital of the world”, so it was a sound choice to launch a limo that, while pricey and ostentatious, consumes a ridiculously frugal 2.8L/100km on the combined NEDC cycle. One should bear in mind that the real-world figures you or I would return over a typical week’s driving wouldn’t come close to matching this figure, but it’s still a pointer to how economical the big Benz is.
The model designation of Mercs long ago stopped corresponding to the cubic capacity of the engine stuffed under the snout, and so it is with the S500 Plug-in Hybrid, which mates a 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 with an electric motor – with both power units sending drive to the rear wheels. Interestingly, the vehicle is likely to be priced more or less the same as the existing V8-powered S500L, which is Dh492,000 – and, yes, it is destined for our market.
So, here’s the deal. The twin-turbo V6 and electric motor combine to kick out 436hp and 650Nm of torque (compared to 449hp and 700Nm for the conventional S500), enabling the techno-packed uber-chariot to sprint to 100kph in 5.2 seconds (4.8 for the regular S500) and reach an electronically governed top whack of 250. It’s clearly no slug, almost matching its conventional V8-powered sibling in terms of pure pace.
However, what the Plug-In Hybrid can do – which the normal S500 can’t – is sneak around town in electric-only mode, spewing out absolutely no emissions in the process. As far as opulent limos go, this is the least likely to have rotten tomatoes pelted at it by tree-hugging greenies. Of course, they’ll first have to read the “Plug-In Hybrid” badge on the boot to glean that this isn’t a V8 enviro-vandal, but that’s a minor detail.
While the PIH cuts thirst and emissions dramatically, it doesn’t skimp on any of the trimmings you’d find in a regular S500. As with its sibling, its cabin is a masterclass in combining new-age techno-gadgetry with an old-world charm that would appeal even to aficionados of Bentleys and Rollers. There are all the bells and whistles – and those lovely, soft rear headrests – you’d find in an “ordinary” S500, plus a few extra goodies.
About the only compromise it makes is that boot capacity is reduced from 530 to 395 litres, as the battery pack for the electric motor takes up some of the luggage space, but this is hardly likely to be a deal-breaker for most buyers.
The hybrid also incurs a weight penalty of about 200kg over its V8 counterpart, but you’re not too likely to notice the added bulk from behind the wheel.
This battery pack makes it possible to drive on electric power alone for up to 33km, and it can be recharged in less than three hours from a household socket, or only two hours at a wall box or charging station. Mercedes is also developing an ingenious wireless charging system whereby you simply park the vehicle over a plate affixed to the ground, and the battery is then topped up via induction. In case you’re wondering, the electromagnetic waves transmitted from the plate to the car wouldn’t fry a cat, should one happen to run under the car while it’s charging.
The wireless charging plate will be available for customers to buy and install in their garages or office car parks (S-Class owners are far too busy and important to be mucking about with cables and power sockets) in the next two to four years, but it’s not likely to be cheap. Then again, if you can afford to buy this car in the first place, the wireless system isn’t likely to break the bank.
The ingenuity doesn’t end there, as the car’s charging system has the technology to tap into the tariff card of the local electricity provider and, in countries where off-peak rates apply, it will complete as much charging as possible when the rates are cheapest. What’s more, you can programme the car – via a “ConnectMe” app on your tablet or smartphone – with your intended departure time the next morning, and the system will ensure the car is fully charged by the time you slide in behind the wheel. You can also preset the temperature to your liking and the car will be warmed or cooled – as applicable – before you step in.
The drive programme at the international launch commences from the ritzy Hotel d’Angleterre in Copenhagen, and from there our route takes us across the Öresund Bridge linking Denmark to Sweden, before ending up at the Turning Torso – essentially a Scandinavian cousin to the twisty Cayan Tower in Dubai Marina.
Gliding away from downtown Copenhagen in electric-only mode, there’s an eerie sensation that goes with being in a car that doesn’t produce any mechanical noise, and in which the tacho needle stays glued to 0rpm. With other hybrids I’ve driven in recent times, the petrol engine kicks in as soon as you get past walking speed, but with the S500 PIH there’s no petrol-powered input even as speeds cross 100kph. It’s only when I give it a boot-full on the freeway that the force-fed V6 chimes in to provide extra oomph.
Although Merc suits insist the PIH is a match for the V8-powered S500 in performance terms, the seat of my pants tells me this isn’t quite true.
While the electric motor and twin-turbo V6 combine to provide a decent shove in the spine, there isn’t the effortless waftability (sorry, Rolls-Royce) that you get in the mainstream S500. You also miss out on the nice, muted growl emitted by the tailpipes of the latter. Nevertheless, 0 to 100 in 5.2 seconds is nothing to scoff at, and you can cruise smugly in the knowledge that you’re doing your bit to prevent the hole in the ozone layer from getting significantly larger.
The petrol-electric power train has four modes: Hybrid (both petrol engine and electric motor work in tandem), E-Mode (electric-only mode), E-Save (petrol-only mode) and Charge (whereby the petrol engine acts as a generator to charge the battery pack for the electric motor).
The cleverest is Hybrid mode, particularly when you activate the E+ driving programme, as this exploits the car’s vast on-board intelligence to determine exactly when it’s best to drive electrically only, when it’s best to use both power sources, or when the battery has to be recharged. It all happens seamlessly; perched behind the wheel, you’re none the wiser to what’s going on on the other side of the firewall.
One of the highlights of the system is the route-based operation strategy, which taps into the satellite navigation to chalk out the most efficient strategy to tackle the terrain and traffic conditions that lie ahead. This enables, for example, the car to provide a pre-emptive supplementary burst from the electric motor on inclines, and cut ignition to the petrol engine – coasting, essentially – on the descent.
The on-board brain also uses info from the radar-based cruise control system to let the driver know – via a double pulse on the haptic accelerator pedal – that it would be wise to ease off the gas (saving some in the process) when it detects a slower-moving vehicle ahead.
It’s all very clever stuff, but the fact remains that you could return equally good real-world consumption figures (I burn through just under 8L/100km on the test route) by opting for one of the excellent turbo-diesel engines from the Benz portfolio. Of course, this isn’t really an option in our market, as the low-quality diesel fuel at pumps in our region precludes these models from being sold here.
This being the case, the S500 Plug-In Hybrid stands up as a worthy alternative to the conventional S500, especially if you tend to do a lot of trundling in the inner city, in which case the fuel savings and benefit to the environment are greatest.
Decadent types may well scoff at the newfangled tech crammed within this car – and promptly place an order for the full-fat, V8-powered S500 instead – but it’s a tangible sign of where the three-pointed star is heading. Mercedes-Benz plans to bring no less than 10 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to the market by 2017, and the S-Class Plug-In Hybrid is merely the first salvo in the onslaught, with the technology trickling down to most of the smaller models over the next three years.
It’s fairly obvious that the S500 PIH will generate most of its sales in markets where fuel prices are high and/or where governments offer consumers subsidies for purchasing a hybrid or electric vehicle. The United States, Europe and China are primarily where it’s pitched at, but the vehicle will be available here too, albeit most likely only as a niche seller.
Be that as it may, projects such as Masdar City are proof that even in the Middle East, there is a growing awareness that oil will one day run out and that the environment does require some TLC. It’s this sentiment that could see at least a few S500 Plug-In Hybrids whispering their way around Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and that has to be a good thing, right?