Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mercedes-Benz 2010 S400 BlueHybrid

Gasoline-electric hybrids. So, you might breakeven in fuel costs in about ten years of careful driving. By then, the battery will need replacing, and to fix it, it may cost you just as much as your car is worth- or more. Are gas-electric hybrids really worth looking into? Well, that's still debatable, and more on that, a little later... I firmly believe, and a lot of other "car guys" will contest, the gas-electric hybrid is an intermediate technology at best- a solution till something truly superior or sustainable comes along.

Mention "hybrid" to most German manufacturers, and they'd almost scoff at the notion. Since the late 1970's diesel has always been their first choice in environmentally friendly, economical solutions to a greener automotive footprint, and they've done well with them. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi/VW all offer a lineup of efficiently powerful diesels to fit the bill, even importing a handful of models Stateside. But things are changing.

(You didn't think Mercedes-Benz would ever pattern a hybrid after what? A Lexus? Please….)

Mercedes-Benz is the first to unveil the production hybrid that uses a lithium ion battery. The very same type of battery found in your cell phone or laptop. But isn't this the same type of battery as found in the Tesla Roadster? It is- but the Tesla Roadster is an all-electric plug-in, a glorified kit-car in comparison; hardly a mass-produced, sophisticated road machine like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

The 2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHybrid™- is the first hybrid ever for the manufacturer; in fact, it's actually a "mild hybrid" with an electric motor kicking-in for a few seconds at startup, mostly. To note- even the use of the color "blue" over "green" sets this hybrid apart… But anyway… That's just marketing. It is the first-ever production car to use a lithium-ion battery, unlike most that use nickel-hydride types.

Being a "mild hybrid," its hybrid effect is subtle, with the thin, twenty-horse, 118 lb-ft electric motor wedged between the conventional 3.5-liter Mercedes V6 engine and the advanced seven-speed automatic transmission as found in any top-range S-Class sedan for a combined 295 horsepower.

The battery itself is about the size of a shoebox, made by Continental. It has 32 cells, (made by Saft of Europe) and has the output of 120 volts, 0.9 amps per hour, neatly positioned in the engine bay- with the rest of the engines and motors, of course. A cooling system tied to the S-Class' HVAC system ensures the battery is kept at safe, optimal temperatures all the time, even while the car is parked, with the aid of a dedicated electric cooling motor.

The engineering is so unique, that according to Mercedes-Benz, they're confident the battery will last the lifetime of the entire car. Now, if these were the Mercedes-Benzes of 20 years ago, I'd say that's a good thirty years of operating service; but well, I suppose a battery that lasts as good as the car is a good estimate for "a long time." Whatever that is these days, I really don't know anymore.

The electric motor kicks-in under heavy load conditions, engine re-starts and kicking-in at very low speeds from a complete stop; unlike most hybrids in the market that can and will drive under complete electric power, a hybrid like the S400 uses electric motors minimally- aiding in the engine stall/shut-down to a stop and from a slow start-up in stop-and-go city driving. The whole process is silky smooth, so unnoticeable; you have to watch the dash-mounted display to know what exactly is happening if you really care at all.

In typical Mercedes-Benz fashion- the S400 is a masterpiece of cutting edge technology, but, it comes at a price- almost $90,000. But then again, this is a big, heavy, loaded high-performance luxury sedan; that can still do zero-to-sixty in just over seven seconds, all while still getting an additional 165 miles per tank of gas over a similar traditional S-Class. According to the manufacturer it can get 19 city/26 highway, its some 26% more efficient than the standard S550 sedan for about the same money! You're even eligible for a one-time tax credit of about $1,200- something to put towards rubber floormats, wheel locks, plastic driving mugs and diecast models for the kids in the dealer's boutique.

In comparing the S400 to its contemporary full-diesel, CDI S-Class siblings (not offered Stateside) the economy and footprint on the environment with the carbon emissions is about equal. But the Swabians are not ditching diesel, the old Otto cycle just yet; diesel is technology they pioneered in 1936. Don't be shocked if a diesel hybrid is next.

The 2010 S400 maintains, that, while cars are clearly not what they used to be, alas, a Mercedes is still a Mercedes, and one that is "Engineered Like No Other Car..."

Remember those days? I do.

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