2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHYBRID: First Drive
By Chris Haak
The big European luxury-car makers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz – and even smaller ones like Porsche – have seen the regulatory writing on the wall and are playing catch-up in the race against ever more strict CO2 and fuel-efficiency standards in place or slated to arrive over the next few years. BMW and Mercedes-Benz have offered small diesels and four cylinder engines around the world for decades, and they help the overall fleet numbers, but the fact is that it’s very difficult and expensive to give large, powerful cars fuel efficiency similar to what you’d expect to see from a small car.
Fortunately, where a $4,000 diesel premium or hybrid premium might be a deal-killer on a $25,000 car, a Mercedes-Benz buyer may not think twice about that extra expense. (Of course, the typical buyer of a $90,000 Mercedes probably doesn’t pay much mind to fuel economy. On the other hand, it’s pretty easy for Daimler to bury the cost of the additional hardware into a $90,000 price without harming margins so much.)
I don’t recall reading the motivation for Porsche’s attempted (and subsequently failed) takeover of Volkswagen, but I have suspected for years that it has to do with concern that the company’s gas-guzzling products aren’t going to meet European CO2 limits or US fuel economy minimums. If VW’s sales counted toward Porsche’s fleet averages, the combined enterprise would sell plenty of Polos and Golfs to offset a few GT3s. Unfortunately for Porsche, their financial maneuvering to swallow much-larger Volkswagen backfired, and Porsche itself is being acquired by Volkswagen.
Aside from smaller engines and more diesels being available in Europe and elsewhere, Daimler and BMW both have small-car divisions; Daimler owns Smart and BMW owns Mini. Or rather, smart and MINI if their marketers were proofreading this article. While these non-core distractions surely help the overall numbers, they’re still selling in relatively small volumes. Something had to be done to get the Mercedes-Benz and BMW brands on a more environmentally-friendly footing.
Enter the Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHYBRID. It’s the first mass-production hybrid car sold by a European manufacturer. Although it’s definitely a hybrid, it’s a so-called “mild hybrid,” in that it does not have the capability to travel solely on electric power, and the electric motor is intended only to assist the gasoline engine (in this car’s case, a 3.5 liter V6), capture regenerative braking energy, and start/stop the car at traffic lights and stop signs to save fuel. Other mild hybrids you may have heard of include GM’s “BAS” (belt-alternator-starter) system found in the former Chevrolet Malibu, Saturn Aura, and Saturn Vue hybrids, as well as the Honda Civic and Insight hybrids. Ford’s and Toyota’s hybrid powertrains, as well as those made by participants in the Daimler/GM/BMW two-mode hybrid joint venture, are considered “full” hybrids.
The S400 BlueHYBRID (hereafter referred to as the S400, since there’s not an S400 that isn’t a hybrid) hit the market two months ago in the US and is now the entry-level model in Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class lineup. When I had a chance to take the S400 on a brief, 30-minute, unsupervised drive, I jumped on the opportunity.
I hadn’t driven an S-Class Mercedes-Benz in more than 15 years, and that one was a V12 model and I was only able to drive it for less than a mile. The black S400 cuts an elegant shape; since its debut, I have always felt that the S-Class was among the best-looking cars in its segment. It manages to combine classic Mercedes-Benz styling cues like the upright chrome grille and triangular head- and taillamps with a trunklid design lifted nearly intact from a 2002 BMW 7-Series, and very pronounced fender bulges not unlike those found in many Mazda products like the RX-8. I always thought that this generation S-Class out-Maybached Maybach. The taillamp design and the car’s overall profile also seem to be derivative of Daimler’s Maybach, but are a more modern, successful execution. I was especially fond of the LED daytime running lights where you’d normally find fog lights, at the bottom of the bumper. Anyway, if I had a lot of money to throw at a luxury car and could comfortably afford a Maybach, I’d get an S-Class instead. Probably an S65 AMG.
One criticism that many, including me, have had about most hybrid models is that they have non-linear braking and acceleration. During acceleration, most hybrids transition between electric and gasoline power in a fairly obvious way. During braking, most hybrids decelerate first through regenerative braking, then follow that up with traditional hydraulic brakes. One advantage of the simpler mild hybrid setup is that power delivery seems to be more linear. It also helps that the S400 has a conventional 7-speed automatic rather than a CVT, and that there is no transition between gasoline and electric power because the gasoline engine is always called upon to power the car. The combined peak output of 295 horsepower is adequate but not enough to throw you back into your seat. The company cites a 0-60 time of 7.2 seconds.
If I could summarize the S400 in one word, it would be ‘smooth.’ Two words would be ‘smooth’ and ‘quiet.’ Not only is the power delivery smooth, but it’s also very noise-free. And once the S400 reaches cruising speed, it shows off one of the quietest cabins I’ve ever experienced. As I tooled down a stretch of smooth blacktop at about 60 miles per hour, fantasies of just driving cross country in the S400 BlueHYBRID popped into my mind. It’s hard to visualize a better car for comfortable long-distance cruising. The large steering wheel is somewhat of a hindrance during any type of spirited driving, but the car seemed content to loaf along at highway speeds throwing 29 mpg numbers on its trip computer.
Not only was the car stable and quiet at highway speeds, but also was equipped with the optional Drive-Dynamic multicontour front seats with 4-stage massage. These seats are only available as part of a $4,950 option package. Theoretically, massaging seats should also help with long-distance comfort, but I found them to be somewhat gimmicky. Their settings are controlled by the COMAND system through the large, high-definition navigation screen, which makes adjustments somewhat cumbersome and time-consuming. The side bolsters on these seats are capable of securing the occupant during cornering maneuvers and protecting him/her in the event of an accident. I’m personally of the opinion that a well-designed seat does not need electronic trickery to make it good.
The biggest problem with the S400 BlueHYBRID is its price. For Mercedes-Benz’s largest sedan, you can expect to pay a premium, even for the “base” S400 BlueHYBRID. The car’s MSRP starts at $88,825 including destination, and options can quickly add tens of thousands of dollars to that price. I priced one out on Mercedes-Benz’s website and checking all of the option package boxes but skipping individual options and accessories came to a final tally of $110,015. That’s a lot of money, but this is a lot of car. I found it to be a far more enjoyable drive than the Lexus LS600hL, but the Lexus was more powerful and seemed to have a slightly nicer interior. (The black exterior/black interior of my S400 may have hurt my opinion of the car’s interior somewhat.)
I applaud Mercedes-Benz for producing a capable entry-level model of its flagship sedan that shrinks the CO2 footprint that the car would otherwise have, and makes a V6-powered S-Class a proposition that might actually not get you laughed at. But sorry, I think for practically the same amount of money, I’d go for an S550. Equipping it similarly, the S550’s base price is $91,600 and loaded with every package would sticker for $116,285 (including destination and the $1,000 gas guzzler tax thanks to its EPA ratings of 15 city/23 highway.) If you buy an S550 and feel guilty about your CO2 footprint relative to the S400 BlueHYBRID, just buy a TerraPass to offset the difference every year, and you’re set.
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