2016 Mercedes-Benz S-Class
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Review of: 2016 Mercedes-Benz S-Class 4dr Sdn S550 Plug-In Hybrid RWD
2016 Mercedes-Benz S 550e: A superhero not out to save the planet
By Mark Richardson
Jun. 10, 2016
Mercedes’ new S 550e is the first plug-in hybrid electric car from the German maker. In ideal conditions, it can be driven on pure electric power for about 30 kilometres before needing to be recharged, but will otherwise drive as far as you want with its conventional gas-powered engine.
There’s a lot of clever technology in the S 550e, which is one reason why Mercedes is debuting it in its flagship sedan – wealthy buyers prepared to pay extra for new things help defray the considerable costs of research and development. Over time, the technology will become more mainstream and affordable and will be provided in less expensive vehicles.
The S 550e makes no compromises with the full-size and luxurious S-Class – almost everything available in that six-figure, stretched sedan is available with the electric option, and for less money, too.
Pros & Cons
- + Good fuel efficiency
- + Luxury
- + Acceleration
- - No all-wheel drive option
- - Limited all-electric range
- - Not available in regular wheelbase
What’s there to say? It’s an S-Class, styled and finished with the same care and attention the German maker gives to all its high-end vehicles.
The only giveaways that there’s something different about the car are the stickers along the bottom of the rear doors, which declare it as a plug-in hybrid, and the small, colour-matched flap at the back that covers the electric charging socket. If you’re in a province that recognizes and subsidizes electric vehicles, it will have a special licence plate, too. In Ontario, that’s good enough to allow you to drive in most High Occupancy Vehicle lanes with no passengers.
Again, it’s an S-Class, though only available as a long-wheelbase model – Mercedes needs that space to fit the extra hybrid hardware. Inside, without looking at the instrument cluster, your passengers need never know they’re in an electric car.
The S 550e comes with all the convenience, comfort and safety options of the other cars in the line, which includes the heated armrests and the (optional) massaging seats and the (optional) fragrance dispenser. Because this is the LWB model, there’s additional legroom front and back.
There was seating for three in the back of the tester, but a rear console is also available that cuts down the space to just two very-well-appointed seats. A chauffeur package is also an option, letting the right-side rear passenger stretch out in cosseted comfort like in the Maybach or BMW 7 Series. Basically, anything you want, you can have if you can pay for it.
The two compromises are all-wheel drive and trunk space. There just isn’t the room to fit all the hybrid hardware alongside an all-wheel drivetrain, so the S 550e is only available as a rear-wheel-drive car. As well, the lithium-ion battery takes up some of the space in the trunk, so there’s a shelf there under which it’s stored. It doesn’t reduce the cargo capacity by that much, dropping it from 462 litres to 395 litres. That’s a suitcase that can’t be carried, but there’s still room for at least a couple of golf bags.
This is where the S 550e gets really whiz-bang. I don’t think there’s a more technically-advanced vehicle on the road than this car. Where to begin?
Above all, remember this car is all about saving fuel and reducing emissions while not compromising the drive. It has three different drive modes, selected with the push of a button on the centre console: ‘sport,’ ‘economy,’ and ‘economy plus.’ These adjust the throttle response, transmission shift points, and the active suspension. Sport uses the electric motor as additional power for the engine, while economy will turn off the engine and glide around on electric power, provided there’s enough stored in the battery and you’re easy on the throttle. And economy plus will activate the haptic accelerator pedal.
This is one of the cleverest features of the car, but also one of the most annoying. When you’re driving and the car senses you can let up on the gas pedal with no reduction in performance, it will kick back on the pedal with a little double-tap against your foot. Ease up and the car will “sail” for a while with its idle engine decoupled from the driveshaft; it will do this when it knows you’re approaching a downhill grade, or a corner that needs a slower approach, or an intersection with a ‘yield’ or ‘stop’ sign. It’s much smarter than you, and will save you gas if you just go along with it.
I didn’t like it – it was a back-seat driver, constantly tapping you to make suggestions for improving your fuel consumption. I protested a few times, keeping my foot resolutely pressed on the pedal just because I could, but it only used more fuel than it had to, which I paid for later at the pump.
The S 550e helped compensate whenever I braked by not actually squeezing the calipers unless more forceful stopping was needed – first, it used the friction of the electric motor to slow things down, creating its own energy and storing it in the battery. I never noticed this in actual operation; I only know about it because Mercedes told me.
Of course, there are additional settings to automatically control the electric output. “Hybrid” lets the car switch around as needed to make the most of both the gas and electric motors. “E-Mode” locks the car in electric drive unless you really floor it, which is best in the city. “E-Save” doesn’t use the electric motor at all, unless you really floor it, to save as much battery life for when it might be needed later, such as sitting in traffic. Most plug-in electric cars have those three settings, but the big Benz has a fourth: “Charge” uses the gas motor to recharge the electric battery, topping it up for later use.
This last setting is the clever one. Porsche includes it on the e-Hybrid Panamera and Cayenne, but those vehicles take much longer to replenish. I drained the battery to 20 per cent leaving town, set the mode to Charge on the highway, and had a full battery again within 50 kilometres, ready to drive into traffic in the next town. While it was in charge mode, it recorded 12.1 L/100 km, down from the overall average I saw in 500 km of driving of 10.0 L/100 km. Official combined consumption is 9.7. This means it used one extra litre of fuel to recharge the battery, which cost me about $1.20 for up to 30 km of electric driving.
Here’s the rub though: that full battery will only last for 30 km if everything’s warmed up and there’s little extra drain on the car. Turn on the air-conditioning or heat and the distance drops as the battery power regulates the climate. In practice, starting the car on cool mornings, the best distance I ever covered in all-electric mode was 19 km, and once, on a cold day with the heaters running in the seats and steering wheel, it was only 7.5 km.
The battery is not permitted to drop below a 20 per cent charge, so it’s always available for a quick boost of performance if needed. When it’s drained, though, only the gas engine is available and it’s not the 4.7-litre V8 motor of the S 550 but the 3.0-litre V6 that’s found in the base S 400.
Mercedes calls the car the 550e because its optimum performance is closer to the S 550 than the S400, although it’s not quite at the same level as the big V8. Power and torque of the smaller S 400 is 329 hp and 354 lbs.-ft., while the S 550 is 449 hp and 516 lbs.-ft. The S 550e comes in at a combined 436 hp and 479 lbs.-ft. The torque might be less than the larger engine but the electric motor makes it more useful, reaching its peak at 1,000 rpm instead of 1,800. It also has a wider torque band, staying at peak until 4,750 rpm instead of 3,500.
All this helps surge the S 550e from standstill to 100 km/h in a very respectable claimed time of 5.2 seconds, compared to 4.8 seconds for the S 550 and 6.1 seconds for the S 400. That’s particularly impressive because it weighs 206 kg more than the 550.
These numbers are all very well, but the truth is there are few times when maximum horsepower is needed, and then it’s not for long. Peak torque is more important to offer strong acceleration whenever the pedal is pressed in earnest, and that’s more tractable with the S 550e than it is with the S 550. If you want to drive at 250 km/h all day on the Autobahn, then maybe you want the S 550 or even the S 63 or S 65 – if you can afford the gas – but here in Canada, the greater horsepower is wasted in legal driving.
On the highway, the S 550e had more than enough power and could overtake other traffic easily even when the battery was drained to 20 per cent, which was most of the time.
Really, it’s not so much about wealthy owners saving money on fuel as it is about leaving a smaller environmental footprint. Mercedes claims that “over the entire lifecycle, comprising manufacture, use over 300,000 kilometres and recycling, clear advantages result compared with the S 550. External charging with the European electricity mix can cut CO2 emissions by some 43 percent (35 tonnes). Through the use of renewably generated hydroelectricity” – like that in Quebec and southern B.C. – “a 56 percent reduction (46 tonnes) is possible.”
At first glance, the S 550e seems like terrific value in the S-Class lineup. It retails for $117,300, and that’s the long wheelbase model – the only version available. In comparison, the LWB S 550 sells for $119,500, which is almost $9,000 more than the standard wheelbase S 550.
However, the electric S-Class is rear-wheel drive, while that S 550 is AWD. In Canada, only the sportier S-Classes are sold in RWD, but there’s literally no space for the S 550e’s hybrid components alongside the AWD system. In the U.S., where both drivetrains are available for the 550, AWD comes at a $3,000 U.S. premium, which is about $4,000 Cdn.
Compared in this way to the S 550, the electric Benz is less powerful and would cost $2,000 extra if it was available with AWD. But it’s not.
So let’s compare the electric Benz to the smaller S 400, which retails for $102,600 and is also AWD. Remove $9,000 in perceived value because the S 400 is not available as a LWB model, add $4,000 for the AWD, and you’re paying a premium of about $10,000 with the S 550e for better performance, better fuel consumption, and a clearer environmental conscience. You also get to carry a green licence plate, which in Ontario, B.C., Quebec and most U.S. states allows you to drive alone in the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes – that’s got to be worth something, right?
The Mercedes-Benz S 550e is not designed to save you money at the pump – owners of six-figure cars aren’t concerned with a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars here and there. It is designed, however, to improve the overall fleet efficiency of Mercedes’ lineup, and also to ease your environmental conscience as a driver. You could ease it much better by buying a Toyota Prius or a Chevy Volt and donating the difference to a green charity, or even by taking the bus once in a while, but we all know that’s not going to happen, is it?
However, if you want to do the right thing without having to scale back any part of your luxurious driving experience, the S 550e might be the car for you. Good for you. Now please move out of the HOV lane – some of us are actually car-sharing to help save the planet.