You might be wondering what we’ve been doing driving the all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class S 500 Plug-In Hybrid in Sweden, with the car itself having little chance of making an official launch here in Malaysia. Yes, it would be as expensive as you’d expect, and seeing as how owning a Mercedes-Benz is more important than a Mercedes-Benz Plug-In Hybrid here, chances are at best, slim.
However, the reality for the Stuttgart-based carmaker is that in a matter of 10 years from the point of this article being written, nearly every one of their passenger vehicles will offer a plug-in hybrid variant – in line for a global debut next will be the more affordable C-Class C 350 Plug-In Hybrid we saw on our trip and then on, it’ll be four months at a time that the German carmaker will launch its planned remaining plug-in vehicles, all the way into 2017.
Closer to home, having seen Mercedes-Benz Malaysia (MBM) been able to locally assemble its S 400 Hybrid here to make the most of the local auto policy’s excise duty exemptions for CKD hybrids, maybe there’s room in Malaysia for a more approachable/ affordable vehicle – something like a CLA 200 Plug-In Hybrid, perhaps?
A solid business case for MBM already exists, and its customers are only to gain – remember the S 400 Hybrid had nearly half its price knocked off. But of course, this all depends on national policy-makers maintaining such a stance for locally-assembled hybrids in the future. Malaysia has been poised as a regional hub for hybrids and electric vehicles, but who knows.
As it stands, we’re a long way away from something like the CLA 200 Plug-In Hybrid specifically, but the general idea of the technology’s arrival is to give you the option to own a vehicle that won’t need a single drop of fuel where routine commutes are concerned (to work, etc.), and not bother you with having to calculate your vehicle’s possible driving range before planning any out-of-town visits.
Plug-In Hybrids pair the best bits of a true hybrid and an electric vehicle. True hybrids like the Toyota Prius depend largely on its petrol power- and drivetrain to recharge its batteries, while it’s no surprise that full electric vehicles have a limited driving range before going empty and needing a stop at a power outlet to recharge.
A Plug-In Hybrid can recharge its batteries from either a charging station or via its powertrain, and can choose between driving in full-electric mode, pure petrol, or combine the two for a massive total system power output, and much further driving distances.
In the greater scheme of things, this sort of warrants our trip to Malmo, Sweden, where the business begins for Mercedes-Benz with the S-Class S 500 Plug-In Hybrid in review.
Here’s to hoping that one of these actually makes their way to Malaysia.
So, what is it?
The S 500 Plug-In Hybrid is very different from other hybrid Mercedes-Benz vehicles we’ve seen – such as the S 400 Hybrid we have in Malaysia. Apart from being able to charge its batteries via plugging it into a wall socket, there’s also a much larger and more powerful lithium-ion traction battery and 85kW electric motor. Spatially, the new motor compromises the S-Class’s boot space, which has now shrunk to 395 litres of usable space, from the original 510 litres. However, there are quite a lot of returns to make up for the lost space.
A REAL S 500?: For starters, you may expect that to match the S 500 badging, Mercedes-Benz would’ve strapped on a V8 for the occasion. In reality, there’s just a 3.0-litre bi-turbo V6 in there, and I know what you’re thinking: “Even the S 400 Hybrid gets a 3.5-litre V6!” Don’t be fooled – the S 500 Plug-In Hybrid has all the necessary performance to boast.
The 333hp engine is complemented by an 85kW electric motor for a total system output of 442hp and 650Nm of torque – compared to the regular S 500 V8’s 449hp and 700Nm. The Plug-In’s 5.2-second century sprint isn’t all that far off the regular S 500’s 4.8-second dash either.
Claimed fuel efficiency figures for the two-tonne S 500 Plug-In Hybrid luxury saloon is a bold 2.8-litres/100km, and to comply with coming European legislations, it’s also listed with a tree-hugging 65g/km of CO2 emissions – achieved on the current NEDC test cycle.
The high-voltage 8.7 kWh lithium-ion battery is said to pack 10 times more power than what’s available to the S 400 Hybrid and S 300 BlueTEC Hybrid, and can drive the 2.2-tonne car on pure electricity for up to 33km – to give you a bit more of a perspective of that, the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid has a range of 50km, and weighs 1.5 tonnes.
How does it work?
Based on the 240V, 13A power supply available in Malaysia, we’re told that recharging the batteries from empty to full would take roughly two hours and 45 minutes to achieve. Of course, with an internal combustion engine and various energy regeneration methods, you don’t ever have to plug it in for a charge if you insist as such.
The 85kW electric motor is located within the 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission and displaces the torque converter, while the lithium-ion battery sits above the rear axle – as mentioned, this compromises boot space (510 litres to 395 litres of space).
Moving on towards what the eyes first see, and there’s an immediately noticeable problem beyond all the regular charms of an S-Class. Stepping around to the rear, you may notice something a bit peculiar about the charging socket’s location: it’s smack in the mid-section of the bumper, over to the right side where we imagine there being too much potential for minor scuffs or worse.
Calming our disbelief, Mercedes-Benz’s designers points out that the first obvious reason for its positioning is that they couldn’t have the charging socket placed right next to the fuel-filler for safety reasons. Secondly, having the plug-in socket on the opposite side of the fuel filler means that drivers would have to step over the cable to get to/from the driver’s door – this means to trouble owners, which Mercedes-Benz says it won’t do. Having it anywhere in front of the car would mean unnecessarily lengthy wiring, so it’s a no go for that as well.
Resorting to place the socket on the rear bumper, Merc’s engineers tell us that if damaged, the plug itself is inexpensive to replace, and there’s absolutely no chance of a short-circuit frying any of the electrical components. We could think of a few other positions worth considering, but Benz engineers remind us that is a modular system that needs to inexpensively to installed on every other passenger vehicle in their range. Keeping the design applicable to all models (FWD, RWD, AWD etc.) makes the most business sense. In any case, you’d be relieved to know that there’s quite an extensive six-year factory warranty on all electrical components of the car.
THE S-CLASS: If you needed one, a brief summary of driving an S-Class typically consists of a very luxurious and cushy ride, a lump of acceleration without too much of the forward forces affecting your stay, and class-defining tech to keep you busy and entertained well into your years of ownership.
The huge proportions of an S-Class aren’t noticed at all from the driver’s seat. Being more familiar with right-hand drive vehicles and Malaysia’s matching road rules, we barely broke a sweat adapting to Denmark and Sweden’s narrow city streets, insane amount of cyclists, and entering roundabouts to the right, with your eyes focused on the left. There’s superb surrounding visibility and confidence of where the four corners are at all times with this limousine.
Introductions to the S-Class itself aside, it’s time for some electric driving, and ‘completely seamless,’ is how we’d best describe Mercedes-Benz’s electrifying of the S 500. There are four electric driving modes and three transmission habits you could choose from, but leaving everything in auto mode (HYBRID) doesn’t make driving the Benz feel any way out of the ordinary.
DRIVING MODES: The four modes include HYBRID (effectively the auto mode), E-MODE (pure electric driving), E-SAVE (full petrol driving) and CHARGE (prioritises charging the batteries).
As mentioned, you could keep it in its HYBRID mode, and let the car’s GPS-based decision-making systems decide where and when to best deploy its petrol or electric power, or combine the two for maximum efficiency throughout your journey.
GPS-BASED CHARGING: For example, if you use your car’s navigation to get you from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, the car will on its own fix to use its electric power in the city to save fuel where stop/go driving is predominant, switch the engine on and charge itself back up along the highway via regenerative coasting or braking, and make sure you have enough electric power again for the next spot of stop/go city driving.
Likewise, this sort of decision-making is used for negotiating hills and slopes (terrain) too – the electric motor is switched on to boost engine power up a hill and minds to charge the batteries on the way down. Where applicable, traffic conditions are another influencing factor of when the car decides to use between combustion and electric power.
HAPTIC FEEDBACK PEDALS: Of course, all this automatic energy-saving is easily overridden by you at any point. In the same way that your smart phone lightly vibrates every time you key in an alphabet, the S 500 Plug-In Hybrid issues a buzz when it thinks you can save more fuel – it’s your choice to ignore the alert. For example, when the radar detects a slowing car ahead, a double buzz is issued, suggesting that you should start coasting – this happens faster than you can anticipate. A single buzz is issued to your foot in full electric-driving mode if you step the accelerator pedal too far, warning you that the petrol engine is about to fire-up for more power.
BRAKING: Even the result of depressing the brake pedal is tweaked to make it so that lightly stepping on the brakes doesn’t immediately involve any use of the brake pads, instead relying on the electric motor’s reducing rotation (energy regeneration) to slow the car. You can clearly feel your way to using this method of braking intuitively without wearing your brake pads as quickly as natural.
OBSERVED FUEL CONSUMPTION: With this in mind and the discipline to test the claims, we drove from Copenhagen, Denmark to Malmo in Sweden with fuel consumption averages nearing the claimed 2.8-litres/100km – set in HYBRID (auto) mode and largely depending on the car to do all the thinking. It wasn’t until we decided to test the 3.0-litre Plug-In Hybrid’s claim of having the performance to match a full on 4.7-litre V8 that fuel efficiency went out the window, taking what electric charge there was with it.
PRE-ENTRY CLIMATE CONTROL: When we did make stops for coffee along the way, there was another bit of all-new tech worth a try in Denmark’s freezing temperatures and strong winds. Unique for now to the S 500 Plug-In Hybrid is a feature called Pre-Entry Climate Control – using a Mercedes-Benz app called Connect Me on your smartphone, you could pre-set the car’s cabin temperatures before ever getting inside the car. We were quite appreciative of being able to heat up the AC, armrests (doors, center console) and seats beforehand.
Looking to the future
Believing that full-electric and fuel-cell vehicles suffer from a lack of recharging/refilling infrastructure globally at the moment, Mercedes-Benz is keener than anything to push forward its plug-in hybrid solutions. Fortunately, the cost of these transferable modular hybrid systems aren’t all that much more expensive either, says Mercedes-Benz; in Germany, the regular V8-powered S 500 and its plug-in hybrid counterpart are priced nearly identically.
Another highlight of the Plug-In Hybrid’s future includes wireless charging, something that was even demonstrated to us at the drive event. By simply driving over a flat console placed in the ground of your garage, the S-Class will charge itself. While the technology appears to be ready for mass use, there are still some complications tied to it, such as how these wireless charging platforms affect other electric devices – one scary example being a human’s pacemaker. Mercedes-Benz are taking their time with wireless charging, saying only that it will hit the market sometime in the W222 S-Class’ life cycle.
What they aren’t waiting around for is to get their Plug-In Hybrid variants fired up and in market, a.s.a.p.
*This article first appeared on Live Life Drive