Mercedes considering plug-in S-Class

words - Ken Gratton
Benz Australia carefully evaluates hybrid technology for its new flagship model

Mercedes-Benz will introduce a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version of its next-generation S-Class range – the question is when.

The existence of the new W222 S-Class PHEV was revealed in an infotainment graphic seen by Aussie journalists during a presentation by Benz development staff in Germany last week.

Although the graphic, which displayed remaining battery range, is clearly strong supporting evidence that Mercedes will introduce plug-in hybrid technology to its range-topping model, local spokesman Jerry Stamoulis said information concerning the first plug-in S-Class is yet to trickle down to the prestige importer's corporate HQ in the Melbourne suburb of Mulgrave.

"The reality is that there is a lot of spec still to be confirmed; the car is so far away for us," he told last week. "It’s (the mainstream S-Class is due here) in December – and if there were plug-in hybrid variants there's no guarantee that they're actually available from launch anywhere in the world.

"Any new tech we'll consider, but... I guess it all comes down to what will be available to us; we don't have the full picture yet."

If there's a new level of hybrid technology in the pipeline it makes sense for it to be introduced with the S-Class since that's the flagship of the range and the traditional technology trend-setter.

S-Class has been the vehicle to introduce new safety features in the past (anti-lock brakes, stability control, crumple zones) and it's a 'no-brainer' for it to be a fuel-efficiency pioneer in the environmentally-focused 21st Century.

But not all new technology is readily accepted by markets – especially a market such as Australia, where the consumers can be fickle about adopting new ideas in their early stages of development.

"If plug-in hybrid is available to us, especially on S-Class, yes of course we would consider it," said Stamoulis, "but is the S-Class owner in Australia that concerned about plug-in hybrid? It might be a deterrent to them..."

The Benz spokesman cites the high proportion of performance-oriented S-Class buyers during the 18-month period immediately after a new generation's launch. Typically, as many as 50 per cent of buyers purchase the S 500 or an S-Class vehicle of equivalent performance.

A PHEV could be an expensive proposition in the S-Class range, probably all the more for being packed with advanced comfort and convenience features to justify the inevitable marketing of such a car as a technology leader – and those two elements combined might lead to the PHEV being as expensive as the more broadly appealing S 500.

Other than reducing CO2 emissions, however, and likely serving up on a platter the sort of gadgets to shock and awe the neighbours, a plug-in S-Class would not necessarily fit the needs of buyers – or M-B Australia.

It could prove to be an expensive tour d' force that might conceivably detract from the core values of the S-Class range. And, as Stamoulis observed, if there's any concern about the cost of servicing a much more sophisticated and complex vehicle, buyers will stay away in droves.

That doesn't mean an S-Class PHEV would be ruled out for Australia, out of hand, but it could be difficult to incorporate in the local range. Unlike conventional hybrids, such as Benz's own E 300 BlueTec Hybrid, which is definitely to be launched in Australia shortly, a plug-in hybrid is virtually an electric vehicle.

Its advanced batteries and additional engineering input add considerably to the cost of the vehicle, as has been seen already in the case of the Holden Volt. And that's another mark against an S-Class PHEV for Australia – a market that hasn't embraced electric vehicles and PHEVs.

"It's something we would have to consider," Stamoulis warned, "especially if it comes at a higher cost to a diesel engine. It's something that a customer really – in Australia – isn't too concerned about.

"We're not talking high volumes here; to have something that isn't going to bring in more people to the S-Class range... it's a vehicle that won't appeal to that end of the market.

"What an S-Class customer in Australia is more [concerned by] are some of the comfort features, some of the engine technology – and we know that it will have fantastic engine technology; we don't bring out vehicles that aren't either class leading or [are] below par – and the safety technology, the entertainment technology.... Some of those things are certainly higher priority."

The sales volumes are unlikely to achieve the same level as variants that are closer to mainstream, and just as the company's E 63 AMG wagon has found just five buyers since being introduced to the Australian market, so might the S-Class PHEV struggle to find buyers – albeit in a very different demographic for target buyers.

Benz's alternatives to petrol

Mercedes-Benz, one of the automotive industry's leading lights in alternative-energy development, is well aware of what it takes to introduce new technology to a global market – and having that technology accepted by consumers. It's a question of taking baby steps, on the one hand, and not being sidetracked by technology dead ends on the other.

That's why the company is understood to be developing plug-in hybrid technology for its S-Class flagship.

Mercedes-Benz already has a conventional hybrid S-Class available (the S 400), and it has diesel models throughout the range, plus there's the promise of the company's patented DiesOtto internal-combustion process and, further down the line, commercialised hydrogen fuel-cell power.

There's an end in sight for diesels, arguably, as emissions standards become more stringent, but there are likely to be (expensive) answers to that issue, which is why Daimler AG (parent company of Mercedes-Benz Passenger Cars) is working with joint-venture partners on the roll-out of commercially available bio-fuel in the meantime.

Some aspects of DiesOtto are finding their way into petrol and diesel combustion, but as an holistic solution DiesOtto is still some way off. That hasn't stopped other companies – including Mazda and Hyundai/Kia – taking a long, hard look at it. It's a system of internal combustion that combines the virtues of petrol and diesel combustion, for driveability, fuel efficiency and environmental sensitivity.

In the longer term, Mercedes-Benz is working towards a clean, renewable solution to current environmental issues with its fuel-cell technology. The company has been investigating the hydrogen-based systems for decades and has been co-operating with other car companies to achieve large strides in the advancement of such zero-emissions hardware.

But PHEVs are debatably the best immediate stop-gap measure between the present – in which battery development is not keeping pace with the needs of the industry – and the future a decade from now, when a true hydrogen economy for places like Australia will likely be a less distant dream.

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Published : Monday, 25 March 2013
In most cases, attends new vehicle launches at the invitation and expense of vehicle manufacturers and/or distributors.

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