San Francisco, California – It’s taken a long time for the German carmakers to get smart about hybrids. They just didn’t get the whole thing about silently motoring across an intersection with electric power. We remember when they would brandish their pocket calculators while trying to convince Americans that diesel is a better alternative in the fuel-efficiency sweepstakes. “Numbers don’t lie!” they would shout. Meanwhile, other brands embraced a hybrid future.
Fortunately, the German carmakers have smartened up considerably since then, and the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e that will appear in U.S. dealerships this fall shows us just how serious they are about hybrid motoring. A plug-in hybrid like the 2016 C-Class is the smart way to go, and this Benz is particularly smart in the way it does the job.
Smartness disguised as a C-Class
This 2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e would look just like any other Mercedes-Benz C-Class if it didn’t have its name spelled out on the doors. This is the Mercedes way, as the company wants its hybrids to appear approachable, not intimidating. You can see this same design ethic even in the futuristic Mercedes-Benz F 015 autonomous-driving vehicle, which looks as familiar as a kitchen appliance despite the exotic technology hidden inside.
The C-Class also has its technology hidden away, notably a 211-hp, turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and a 60-kilowatt electric motor. There’s a water-cooled, 6.4-kW-hr lithium battery pack under the rear axle, and a 240-volt external quick-charger will juice it in 90 minutes. The real magic lies in the transmission because the Mercedes engineers have managed to adapt the company’s seven-speed automatic transmission for this application. A special wet-type mechanical clutch helps the engine and electric motor power the car either separately or together in a way that delivers seamless performance.
As plug-in hybrids go, the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e has a somewhat limited electric-only driving range. It’s rated at just 19 miles, and our test drive through the streets of hilly San Francisco ran it out of juice in just 10 miles. But as a European-style plug-in hybrid, this is probably enough because you’re meant to motor through your neighborhood in electric-only mode, use the gas engine to drive to the city, and then engage electric-only power to navigate the inner city where gas-powered vehicles might be prohibited. And since the C-Class hybrid’s control logic lets you determine where and when the electric motor is engaged, all this is easy.
Clever stuff that makes hybrid motoring better
Just like the all-singing, all-dancing Mercedes-Benz S550 plug-in hybrid, the C350e wants you to be aware of your car’s EV soul so you can use the car more efficiently. When you press down on the accelerator pedal, you’ll feel a measure of resistance when maximum performance from the EV drivetrain is achieved. This tells you that if you press down any farther, the engine will engage. (It works way better than a gauge on the dash.) And when you’re driving in Eco Assist mode, a double impulse from the go pedal tells you that you should ease up and let the engine disengage because the car has calculated that you don’t need engine power to sustain your speed. This feature is useful when the adaptive cruise control is engaged, as the car will automatically decelerate when it senses traffic and activate regenerative braking.
In the German way, things get ever more interesting (or just complex) when you match your driving preference to this car’s combination of five transmission modes and four hybrid modes. (Whew!)
With the transmission in Economy mode, engine output is calibrated for maximum mpg, plus the powertrain is optimized to prefer coasting for even better mpg. At the same time, the navigation system can even help preserve a level of battery charge according to the route you’ve selected. With the transmission in Comfort mode, the C350e behaves just like a conventional hybrid, and the powertrain will disengage for coasting at speeds up to 80 mph. In Sport mode, you get full-time engine engagement, full turbo boost, sporty gear changes, and a sportier suspension calibration. In Sport Plus mode, the gear changes get quicker and the stability control becomes more permissive. And in Individual mode, you can set your own combination of behaviors and suspension calibration.
But wait, you’re not done yet, because the Mercedes-Benz C350e lets you determine the way that you use up the juice in your battery pack. First, there’s the normal hybrid mode, so the engine is silent at a stoplight, EV power takes care of initial acceleration, and regenerative braking is fully engaged. In E-mode, only EV power is available. In E-save, EV power is only available to a certain extent because the car places a priority on preserving the charge status of the battery. And finally, Charge mode enables the battery to be charged by the engine, not just by regenerative braking.
All this trickery is meant to ensure that you have a fully charged battery for EV driving when you need it, whether this is leaving your neighborhood or arriving at a zero-emissions zone in the inner city. And the real clever part is the ability of the car to manipulate its systems to deliver this driving strategy according to a route that you program into the navigation system.
Well, you can’t have it all
We wish that we could tell you that we learned how to use all these drivetrain strategies as we drove along the Embarcadero, through the Marina and across the Presidio, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, down the coast to Half Moon Bay, up to the top of the peninsula and along Skyline Boulevard, down through Woodside, and then up the Junipero Serra freeway to San Francisco again and past AT&T Park.
But we didn’t learn it all, and probably it will take some time for anyone to learn to get the most from the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e. Perhaps in this way this C-Class plug-in hybrid is actually a driver’s car. Unfortunately its driving performance in other respects isn’t as interesting. The powertrain behaves pretty well, but it doesn’t make pretty noises. Also the car won’t creep at a walking pace in the way that conventional cars with automatic transmissions do. (German engineers hate creep; they say it wastes fuel.) This means that smooth getaways from a stoplight aren’t easy to accomplish, much as with cars that have dual-clutch transmissions.
Meanwhile, the brake pedal feels wooden, and the transition between regenerative braking and mechanical braking feels clumsy. This Benz is plenty fast, but it still weighs 3,924 pounds in European trim (the configuration in which we drove it), and you can feel its suspension reach its tipping point and sag if you get too aggressive with the run-flat tires.
Everybody’s plug-in hybrid
If you want to see what the plug-in hybrid automobile will become, the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e is the perfect example. It delivers the right kind of EV performance when you need it, then behaves like a regular car the rest of the time, which is pretty much what you want.
We’ll see how people respond to the C-Class hybrid when it arrives in Mercedes dealerships this fall at a base price that we think will be in the neighborhood of $45,000. It doesn’t look like a rocketship and it works just like a regular car, and we think this is the right choice for the future. At the same time, the people on the street still don’t know what makes a plug-in hybrid different from either a regular hybrid or even an EV, so it’ll be up to Benz believers to lead the way in embracing a car that is smart, not just fuel-efficient.
2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e Specifications
- On Sale: Fall 2015
- Price: $45,000 (estimated)
- Engine: 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/211 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,200-4,000 rpm; AC synchronous motor/80 hp, 251 lb-ft
- Transmission: 7-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan
- Cruising Range (EV): 27/34 mpg (city/hwy)
- Suspension F/R: Multilink, coil springs/multilink, coil springs
- Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs
- Tires F/R: 225/50YR-18 / 245/45YR-18 Continental ContiProContact
- L x W x H: 184.5 x 71.3 x 56.8 in
- Wheelbase: 111.8 in
- Headroom: 37.1/37.1 in
- Legroom: 41.7/35.2 in
- Shoulder Room: N/A
- Cargo Room: 11.8 cu ft
- Towing: 2,296 lb
- Weight: 3,924 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- 5.9 sec
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: 130 mph (80 mph EV)