2017 Mercedes S550e

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A $100,000 hybrid makes me think of Gloria Steinem’s quip about a woman needing a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

But I’d still much rather have the Mercedes 550e than a Prius.

They are both hybrids (the Benz is a plug-in hybrid) but they otherwise have as much in common as Felicity Jones… and Jill Stein.

WHAT IT IS

The 550e is the hybrid version of Mercedes’ S-Class uber sedan. It’s basically the same chariot-of-the-gods as the S550, but instead of a turbocharged V8, there’s an electrically-boosted twin-turbo V6.

The reason here isn’t so much saving gas – the overall difference in MPGs is only about 5 MPG – but rather to extend the lease on life for cars like this, which are being targeted for termination in das Heimat (that’s Germany) and other EU countries, where there are already IC engine No-Go zones. Where it is illegal to operate a car that isn’t a “zero emissions” car. Only electric cars – and hybrids that can operate for awhile as electric cars – qualify.

Hence the 550e – and rivals like the new-for-2017 BMW 740e – which is the BMW cross-shop and main rival of the electrified Benz.

Audi is temporarily out of this game.

The A8 is going to be made-over for 2018 and it’s a near-certainty there will be a hybrid version, too – taking the place of the force-retired diesel-powered A8 (which was a great car, incidentally – and arguably at least a plausibly sensible car, if you can say that about any six figure car).

Base price for the 550e is the same $96,600 that Benz asks for the non-hybrid/V8-powered S550 – and the two cars are otherwise equipped identically.

The one  missing element – vs. its chief rival – is all-wheel-drive, which the BMW 740e comes standard with but the Mercedes hybrid doesn’t offer.

The BMW’s also priced lower – $90,095 to start.

It’s also “down” in one other way, which we’ll get to in a minute.

WHAT’S NEW

A new Magic Sky blue-tinted/auto-dimming sunroof is available. Otherwise, the 550e carries over largely unchanged.

Word is wireless charging is on deck for next year.

WHAT’S GOOD

No extra charge – the hybrid S costs exactly the same as the standard S.

You can charge it up – and drive it on electricity only for about a dozen miles

Beyond sumptuous. A Taj Mahal that rolls.

The back seats are where it’s best.

More engine – and power – than the BMW 7 hybrid.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

A six figure hybrid makes about as much sense as a celibate Felicity Jones.

No AWD option; this RWD-only tank will be as helpless in snow as a Panzer that’s lost its treads.

Beyond complex. You almost literally need an engineering officer to manage the gadgets.

The hybrid’s trunk is ludicrously small (9.5 cubic feet vs. 18.2 for the 7 Series).

BMW’s electric-only range is greater – and its price tag is lower.

UNDER THE HOOD

The 550e is the only S that doesn’t come with at least a V8 (the S600 has a V12).

Instead, there’s a twin-turbo 3 liter V6 supplemented by an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack. All together, the combo makes 436 hp and 479 ft.-lbs. of torque – a bit less torque than the S550’s otherwise standard turbo 4.7 liter V8 makes (516 ft.-lbs.) but made almost instantaneously (from 1,000 RPM all the way through 4,750 RPM) because that’s what electric motors do.

And it all gets put down via the rear wheels, too.

This is a burnout-friendly hybrid!

The hybrid is heavier, of course – and that plus a bit less total power means it’s a bit less quick than the V8 S550. But both of them are first-string heavy-hitters. The V8 S550 can achieve 60 in under 5 seconds; the hybrid’s a half step behind. This is Mustang GT/Camaro SS acceleration capability in a car twice as large and nearly twice as heavy.

The grosser Benz will give either a run on top, too.

But the hybrid – uniquely – can run on battery power alone. About a dozen miles, depending on how you drive (faster/harder and the range goes down) and you can “top off” without tanking up.  Hook the charger up to a  household outlet and let it sit for a few hours and you can go another dozen-ish miles.

The system also cuts in during light-load/coast conditions (watch the tachometer in the central LCD flat screen gauge cluster; it’ll register “0” when the gas engine cycles off) to further reduce fuel consumption.

But that’s not really the point.

The difference in MPGs between the S550e hybrid and the V8 powered S550 is  modest and besides, if you’re someone who can afford either version of the S, are you really sweating the cost of … anything?

So… why?

Two reasons – one of them relevant to American prospects.

The relevant one is range. The 550e can go farther on the 16.6 gallons of fuel and batteries it carries around than the gas engine-only S550 can on its 23 gallons.

Less time spent refueling.

And time is money – usually more so, when you’re someone who can afford a six figure car.

The second reason for the existence of the hybrid S (and the hybrid BMW 7) isn’t relevant to Americans – because (so far) there are no IC Engine No Go Zones here. As there are in Europe.

Hence six figure hybrids.

No matter how much car you can afford, if the law says you can’t drive it, what good is it? So Mercedes electrified the S, just as BMW has done the 7 (and Audi soon will the 8). It lets the affluent have their cake and eat it, too.

Sort of.

The poor BMW 7 hybrid has just a four cylinder (2.0 liters, 255 hp plus another 111 from the electric motor for 369 all told) and even though its acceleration is about as good as the Benz’s (and its electric-only range – 28 miles – superior) it’s still kind of sad to pop the hood and find nothing bigger under there than you’d find in a 3 series. And no matter how well the 7 hybrid runs, it sounds like what it is… a four-cylinder-powered six-figure car. Which is like paying for a marbled rib roast and getting a plate full of steamed Tilapia. They both nourish, but… . 

Of course, this doesn’t mean anything to American drivers… yet. But in a tangential way, it’s important nonetheless. Because it’s a way for these big Kahunas to continue to exist at all in a regulatory environment that’s hostile toward IC engines – in particular, big ones in big cars. If Mercedes (and BMW and Audi) were no longer able to legally sell their big Kahunas in Europe because “climate change” and IC engine No Go Zones , probably, they’d stop making them altogether – and that would mean none for us, either.

So, be grateful for the hybrid S and cars like it.

PS: The mileage figures for these things are confusing.

EPA gives the 550e the standard “city/highway” numbers (24 and 30, respectively – vs. 18 and 26 for the V8 S550) and then something called “e” MPGs – which is a measure of how far you can maybe go on the gas-hybrid combo. EPA says 54 “e” MPG in city driving and 63 “e” on the highway.

But  54 “e” MPG is not the same as 54 MPG.

A Prius this is not.

What the “e” number means is that if you manage to drive a few short hops – under the car’s 12 mile-ish range on the batteries alone, relying on the twin-turbo V6 for back-up only occasionally, then maybe you might average something approximating the “e” number.

In real-world/everyday normal driving, you’ll likely see about 5-8 MPG overall lower fuel consumption than you’d see in the V8 S550.  But you’ll need to top off less often, especially if you remember to plug in.

That’s the main perk – especially since the 550e doesn’t cost any more than the V8 550.

ON THE ROAD

You’ll notice the size of this thing more so than what propels it.

Seventeen feet and change. With 124.6 inches between the front and rear axle centerlines. 5,115 lbs. at the curb.   

It’s a lot of car.

The power is such that you don’t feel the weight (except in a good way, the way a certain someone probably felt inside the Fuhrerbunker, safe from Russian artillery under all that reinforced concrete) but there’s no getting away from the mass of the thing. The world is not built for cars this size anymore. Back in 1970 – when Electra 225s and  Caddy Brougham d’Elegances abounded… things were different. But today, parking spots are Camry-sized and the Benz is a almost two feet longer and its turning circle – 40.4 feet! – is such that it needs tugs, almost, to maneuver.

Pulling out from side streets can be a challenge also because of the vision-obscuring width of the B pillar (which is huge because it must support that flight deck-length roof) but you feel less shaky taking the plunge because this isn’t a Camry. The T-bone hit this thing could take… anything less than another S Class and it’s like Bismarck vs. a dinghy.

Just keep in mind that it’ll also be as helpless in snow as Bismarck was after a lucky torpedo hit jammed her steering gear and all she could do was steam in circles, awaiting her end. Rear wheel drive,  19 inch/55 -series sport tires and not much ground clearance (5.1 inches) equals stay home – or drive something else –  if it’s slick out.

The good news is, if you wreck… you’ll live.

As mentioned above, the Benz and the BMW are dead heat as far as acceleration – even though the BMW has a lot less power (because it’s a lot lighter).

But its four cylinder gas engine doesn’t feel – or sound – right in a car at this level. It feels – and sounds – like a four cylinder. It’s an excellent four cylinder. But in a six figure car, it’s as out of place as a velvet Elvis at the White House.

It’s impressive as hell that BMW engineers could get a four to more-than-adequately propel a huge sled like the 7 (and with AWD, too).

But sound matters.

The Benz’s twice-turbo’d V6 has the inches to deliver the right pitch.

See for yourself.

PS: Before you drive one, go for a ride . . . in the back.

Settle in, they recline. Power up the seat massagers. Pull up your Airbus 380 First Class-style folding tray table. Turn on the private/personal LCD flatscreen, crank up the Burmester uber-uber-premium (24 speaker) audio rig and gaze upward through the blue-tinted and electro-auto-dimming Magic Sky sunroof and be glad you went to law school or learned to flip houses or whatever it was you did to earn a seat like this.

Up front’s pretty nice, too.

There are massagers  there, too – plus heated arm rests and center console. Infra-red night vision (Terminator style) can be called up via a button to the left of the steering wheel. It’s supposed to be used to help you avoid totaling a deer (or a kid) but you can use it to drive without looking out the windshield. With the headlights off. At 80. Like Arnold.

I see everything… .

Including potholes ahead. The car changes suspension calibrations in anticipation, to tamp down any unpleasantness.

No, really.

It’s called Magic Body Control. A windshield-mounted camera scans the road for irregularities and makes the adjustments before you get to them – so that you hardly notice them. Hey, you did just spend $140,000 (well, someone will).

The hybrid uses a seven speed conventional automatic; not a continuously variable (CVT) automatic. Many hybrids use CVTs (which have just one forward speed) because they’re a bit more efficient than an automatic that shifts through five or six (or seven or eight or nine) forward speeds but they also tend to be noisy and just feel weird. A CVT-equipped car surges forward; the usual transitions from gear to gear eliminated. Which also tends to cause the engine to rev – and hold revs – and that’s not super-appealing in a car like the S, which is no Prius.

Again, because the object of this exercise isn’t efficiency uber alles. It is end-running PC-ism.

You’ll be surprised, too, at how well it bobs and weaves. Well, the guy in the Mustang trying to keep up in the esses will be.

I amused myself with one such mark, who figured the grosser was easy meat for his pony car. He figured wrong. Though the front half of the S is already through the apex by the time the other half is entering it, you can still do tricks with it. And because even the hybrid has close to 500 ft.-lbs. of torque (and 436 hp) apex exits are … spectacular. Like igniting a RATO (the German version of a JATO) on a short runway with trees up ahead.

You’ll clear them, don’t worry.

And the look on the Mustang driver’s face was just priceless.

Well, maybe that’s not exactly the right word. But it was worth every pfenning, let’s put it that way.

AT THE CURB

Awesome is an over-used word. But it is apt.

This car inspires precisely that… awe.

It looks every bit of six figures. Other cars defer to it like people do Mike Tyson when he enters a room. No accountants involved in this car’s design. From the hand-fitted suede Alcantara headliner to the gas door that opens when it senses your presence. Quilted leather. A cabin atomizer – with four different fragrances to pick from. Six different kinds of massage.  

Good god almighty.

No, that’s not right.

You will feel like a god.

And you will need a deity’s omniscience, too, to keep track of everything this car can do. There are two 12.3 inch flatscreens,  for openers. Configurable in more ways than the Bible can be parsed.

Then the knob/mouse on the center console. Swipe, rotate, press and click.

The quantity of info and multitude of  various operations that can be scrolled up, viewed, clicked and adjusted multiple ways can be overwhelming.   

This is just as true of every car at this level – including the BMW 7 hybrid, which actually ante-ups the Mercedes with things like Gesture Control (swirl your finger to increase the volume of the stereo or wave your hand to dismiss a call) and flat screens for the key fobs (front and rear).

The BMW 7 is also fractionally larger overall – 206.6 inches (vs. 206.5 for the Benz) and has just slightly more backseat legroom: 44.4 inches vs. 43.1 in the Mercedes. But spaciousness is not a concern in either of these rollers.

Except as far as the trunk.

Here the Mercedes comes up short. As in Mini Me short.

Pop the lid and behold a Miata-sized 9.5 cubic incher, the space sacrificed to make room for the hybrid battery/electric motor and the 24 speaker Burmester audio gear. The BMW 7, meanwhile, has a full-size car’s 18.2 cubic footer.

It’s as weird to find such a small trunk in such a big car as it is (in the BMW) to find such a small engine under the hood of such a big car.

Which matters more to you: Lack of inches under the hood… or lack of cubic inches under the trunk?

THE REST

The Mercedes is the oldest of the uber hybrids (Mercedes brought the current model out for the 2015 model year) which has its pros and its cons.

On the pro side: It still has a fairly big engine… or at least, a not-too-small engine. The newer BMW 7 hybrid is making the best of an increasingly bad situation. Remember, this isn’t about efficiency. If it were, we’d see diesel-powered versions of these cars, like the force-retired A8 TDI. It had tremendous power, effortless acceleration and fantastic mileage (almost 40 on the highway, better than either the Benz or the BMW hybrids).

But diesels are as politically incorrect as a blackface frat skit – probably because they make sense and we can’t have that.

That said, the Mercedes’ gas engine is preferable on the intangibles; the way it sounds, the way it pulls and the fact that it’s at least a six.

Maybe not exactly a well-marbled rib roast. But better than baked Tilapia.

On the con side: The Mercedes, being a little older, hasn’t got some of the latest gadgetry, such as the LCD key fobs the BMW has (and the Gesture Control stuff). At this price point, stuff like that sometimes matters more than price. Six figure people may care less about a $10k price difference (the Benz vs. the BMW) than they do about the presence or absence of the latest gadgetry.

THE BOTTOM LINE

You aren’t going to save the planet by buying a car like the S500e. But you might just help save cars like the S Class by doing so.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Whatever you do, if you buy one make double darn sure you trade it before the warranty runs out.
    If and when that dash panel goes red, be ready to take out a second mortgage to fix it.

      • I used to adore BMW’s until they became the “cool” car for lawyers and MBA’s
        I have so many happy memories of my old 2002. They were different cars back then.

        That is where VW has a wonderful consistency. I had an original MK1 Rabbit bought in 1975, 3 days after I bought it I drove it across country, Oh then wonderful memories of that trip, but the Rabbit was uniquer in 1975 there was nothing really quite like it, it was exhilarating and addicting. When I tried the Golf Alltrack, I got those very same feelings I got when I was in the first Rabbit. The Alltrack followed me home 🙂

        My wife’s ’14 E350 Cabrio is wonderful car, it looks and drives so fine, but if that convertible mechanism ever breaks…..

        I plan to get her an Arteon as soon as they are available, the MB goes before the warranty runs out, my new policy.

        • The speedo cable in my Rabbit broke around 260k miles, it was actually the very fIrst thing that ever went wrong with it. I drove it for 2 more years. I wish I still had it

    • And an expensive bill at that too.

      That is the reason why stuff like that won’t happen overnight. But it will happen at some point.

  2. I owned a Merc when I lived in Europe in the ’70s. Just had to have one! I think it was a 230 gas model and was a four-door sedan (or salon as the Europeans call ’em). Nice car. But, the damn VW’s still took me on the Autobahn! Had an unfortunate coming together of the car and a telephone pole during the winter on an icy road. Got the need for a Merc out of my system. Went back to Volkswagens.

  3. GE makes a pretty nice “hybrid” too:

    Couple your custom private railcar up to the back and you’ll be close to the new Merc. And probably get better fuel economy too. Let the hoi-poli have their Gulfstreams, you have style!

    • Hi Eric,

      I was reading about Porsche a little while ago; turns out the Professor had the hybrid bug, too! He developed a prototype hybrid Tiger tank… and that’s my kind of hybrid!

      • Speaking of tanks, my neighbor showed up a bit ago with his new Chevy 3/4 T 4WD crewcab gas engine company pickup. He said it was a beast power-wise and would burn the tires up without trying. He drives the whee out of it going and coming back from the leases he takes care of and has to 4WD it a lot in mud. He said he was glad he didn’t have to pay the fuel bill at 9mpg. It has some amazing lights in the side mirrors that are shielded to the driver but light up the whole country down the side and a couple hundred feet to the rear. That’s a neat feature but not sure it’s worth whatever that behemoth cost. My 2000 Z 71 beside it looks like a baby pickup. I could see the tops of most stuff in the bed but down below 5 gallon bucket height it was anybody’s guess. He’s a really short guy and just grins and shakes his head. He uses the Mexican method of the rear tire being a step into the bed. The tire is a lot lower than the bumper. The main gripe he had was 97 mph governor, guvnah. Don’t know why they didn’t get him a diesel…..with 910 lb ft of torque he could drag us all around.

        I’m amazed at how pumped up the new pickup diesels are with Ford having 925 lb ft and Dodge coming in last with 900 even. To put it into perspective, a bit over 6 liters produces that much power compared to something like a C10 Cat truck engine with 1250 lb ft. Is there anyone who thinks those pickup diesels will go the million plus miles of a 10 liter engine? He has a FIL with a 94 Chevy 350 with over half a million miles and I have two friends with with an 89 GMC and the other with a 93 Chevy pickup that both have over half a million miles and counting. Once GM upped the ante to the newer engine, the 5.7L, engine life went down as well as mpg. Dodge has had hell with their 5.7 that simply breaks the bottom end at low mileage and Ford is still trying to build a decent gas engine for a truck while Toyota has a 400 hp 5.7 that gets 13 mpg in a bare truck. There’s always a trade-off for more hp and generally that trade-off is a much less reliable, less mpg engine. I wanted an old 350 TBI but have more power in the 5.3 and much less expected engine life and way more crap to go wrong. I’m a KISS type of guy so I’m still looking for that early 90’s pickup and they seem to get more expensive every day. I can find good ones for $6K and can’t even find a diesel and rarely a long bed. The neighbor said he got the short bed because of trade-in value since nobody wants a full bed which tells you what sort of person buys pickups now……those who could do with an SUV and a trailer……or not even the trailer. Most could do everything they do with a Corolla….uh, not a cigar. Hybrids, sheesh. I had my fill of hybrids in the 50’s and 60’s, gasoline and propane.

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