With German automakers claiming to be leaders in new technologies, it becomes embarrassing that about a decade after the release of the Toyota Prius, none of them feature a hybrid-electric engine. But with energy savings and environmental impact suddenly becoming key issues for wealthy buyers, Daimler is finally about to enter this field.
In June 2009, the company will launch in Europe a hybrid version of its luxurious S-Class, which according to engineers will consume 7.9 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers. The launch is scheduled for the United States and China in September, Mercedes announced on September 11.
The builder has yet to set a price for its hybrid land yacht, but Sales and Marketing Director Klaus Maier says the option would cost less than $10,000 or $14,000. The S-Class starts at $88,000 in the US, though the top-of-the-line V12 comes in at a dizzying $145,000.
Why such a big car
Gossips will say that those who are concerned about global warming and the massive transfer of wealth to oil-producing countries should buy smaller cars. But Mercedes executives don’t think their customer base has reached that level of thinking. “Not everyone can drive a Smart,” ironically Maier, “we have to come up with solutions for big cars.”
Why did the firm take so long to infiltrate the hybrid engine market? One of the reasons is that Mercedes, as well as BMW and Volkswagen, have focused on improving and optimizing their diesel engines. The BMW Mini and 1 Series rival the Prius in terms of fuel consumption per kilometer and CO2 emissions. BMW announces that its line of diesel Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) called Blue Tec, launched this summer in the United States, accounted for 20% of its SUV sales in this country, a substantial percentage when we learn that diesel vehicles represent only 4 % of total market.
From a technical point of view, the diesel is the best technology because it has comparable characteristics, in terms of consumption per mileage, to those of a hybrid engine, and sometimes a higher mileage in highway driving, with a weight and a lighter expense. But the success of Lexus hybrids shows that American consumers prefer hybrids. “According to Mercedes: if you want to save the planet, buy a diesel,” said Christoph Stürmer, automotive analyst at Global Insight. “They are right in their own way but wrong according to the market”.
The S-Class is not a so-called full hybrid, it can only be driven with an accumulator. Best of all, the electric motor complements the six-cylinder, 279-horsepower engine, improving fuel economy by providing a boost during acceleration. The vehicle also recovers energy when braking and feeds it back into the battery. Additionally, Mercedes has included innovations that it hopes will put it out of competition with its Japanese rivals.
A better accumulator
The biggest innovation is the lithium-ion battery. Developed with the German component supplier Continental, this accumulator is lighter and smaller than those of competitors. Barely wider than a conventional battery, it fits under the hood and does not encroach on the interior space of the car. That being said, the hybrid components, including the electric motor, add just another 75 kg to the total weight of the car.
This accumulator uses the same chemical principles as those used for computers and mobile phones, but Mercedes executives insist that there is no danger of overheating. In the unfortunate event that the battery is overheated, the system would stop automatically, reassures Olivier Vollrath, director of the S-Class hybrid project. Either way, Vollrath says the power management system rules out any such issues. “You can be sure that the problems that arise in laptops will not arise in cars.”
In addition to being more efficient than that of the competitors, this engine allows Mercedes to maintain its objective of always, namely to offer better mileage without sacrificing performance and especially comfort.
Following the launch of the S-Class, the company intends to add at least one hybrid model per year to its lineup. “We have to make sure that in six years our customers will be able to drive big cars without sacrifice or bad conscience,” added Maier.