The Green Future of Mercedes-Benz: Driving the S 400 Hybrid

(Image: Daimler AG)

I'm still buzzing from the Frankfurt auto show. With its many visual delights, the IAA is arguably the most important gathering of automakers in the world. Much of my focus centered around Mercedes-Benz (after all, Daimler AG was my host), and I'm still sorting through all there is to say about this company as it becomes a more and more important contender in the green car battle.

Mercedes is now moving into the luxury hybrid market, a space that has been decidedly Lexus' up till now. While the S 400 hybrid has been a fast seller in Europe (accounting for almost 20% of S-Class orders since June), it has only just rolled into US dealerships. I test drove the S 400 on roads winding through cabbage and pumpkin farms outside Mercedes' home of Stuttgart, getting a good feel for this new luxury hybrid offering.As my Mercedes engineer/passenger told me, S-Class customers want three things: "comfort, comfort, and comfort." With a base price pushing $90,000 the S 400 is not just comfy, it's a garden of cushy delights. For a Prius driver like me content with few extras, driving an S-Class is a startling universe of amenities. Like the seat that actively reaches out to support the driver's midsection while cornering through turns, or the technology that follows the car in front, stopping when it stops and going when it goes (true cruise control, in other words--you literally take your feet off the pedals). Or the central console display that acts as a split screen, letting the driver keep an eye on the car's efficiency data while the front-seat passenger watches TV.

The driving experience is comfy and silky smooth, no doubt, but I felt a lack of power during hill climbs and at some other moments. If this hybrid is trying to match the thrill of an eight cylinder, but with the fuel economy of a V6, it's not quite there.

Take a look at our slideshow of the 2009 IAA.

Driving experience aside, the S 400 is an interesting entrant into the luxury hybrid market. For one thing, it's the first hybrid of its kind to use a lithium-ion battery, which is paired up with an electric motor and its 3.5-liter V6 engine. In this configuration, the S 400 earns an EPA fuel economy rating of 19 MPG in the city, 26 MPG on the highway (compared with the V8 version that gets 15/23 city/hwy). A diesel version is in the works for the next model year, but no word on whether it'll make its way to the US.

The fuel economy numbers on the S400 hybrid aren't impressive, but that shouldn't surprise us; it's a big, opulent car with a V6. But battery technology means more to Mercedes than just cushy hybrids, and for the cynic in you, I'd suggest considering this car in the context of a larger technology strategy. We have yet to discuss the S 500 plug-in hybrid, the second-generation of the Smart EV, and the triple platform architecture Mercedes calls BlueZERO.

Tags: Batteries | Diesel | Fuel Efficiency | Germany | Hybrid Cars | Transportation

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