2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e Plug-In Hybrid First Drive
Harnessing the Power of Software
Not that the proclamation broke any new ground, but Nvidia cofounder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang's assertion about the automobile could certainly sway the tech-savvy throng assembled for his keynote opening address at this year's GPU Technology Conference. "A car is essentially software -- computers -- on wheels," Huang matter-of-factly declared some 48 hours before we were scheduled to drive the newest hybridized species of Mercedes-Benz's C-Class genus. His company's automotive division recently enjoyed a record year selling graphics processors to big-time entities such as BMW, Honda, and Tesla. Out in the void, the treasurer of the Mechanical Fuel Injection 4Lyfe Club needs smelling salts.
Software may very well be mankind's most crucial technological enabler over the past half-century, so would it be a complete surprise if we single out the navigation system as the most compelling feature on the 2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e? Not its standard air suspension (a novelty itself in the C-Class' segment) or the overall performance capability (billed as "six-cylinder performance with three-cylinder consumption"). If a destination is entered into the nav system and the C350e's seven-speed automatic is in the Economy transmission mode with the Hybrid powertrain operation mode chosen, the car can proactively regulate the traction battery's state of charge as the software sees fit in order to maximize fuel economy over the plotted route. Amazing. And, dare we say, inevitable?
BMW has been quietly inserting its own versions of this software into its hybrid lineup for a while (ActiveHybrid 3, i8, and the upcoming pluggable 3 Series and X5 xDrive40e), but wider adoption will undoubtedly strengthen the underlying message: The computers are here to help. The foundation is simple. Advance route knowledge allows the battery to charge and discharge as deemed necessary, and the car can conserve electrical energy when it recognizes city-style, low-speed driving is near. Many nav systems can plot the most energy-conscious path to your destination, accounting for topography, known speed limits, traffic, and, in the Tesla Model S' case, weather and wind. There are fewer that can orchestrate battery-charge manipulation in real time independent of driver inputs. Such adventurous programming is designed to encourage and empower economical driving habits. The readership perusing this story realizes the feature is an intricacy that'll neatly drop into the greater autonomous driving fold.
Humans reluctant to relinquish battery-monitoring duties to software can still drive the C350e to their heart's content. There's plentiful altitude-resistant thrust out of the turbocharged, 208-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which is not the best-sounding engine in the world at full song. Pair it to an altitude-indifferent, 80-hp, 251-lb-ft electric motor, and there's no moxie lacking when the highway is wide open. Combined vehicle system output is a satisfying 275 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque, unearthing a Mercedes-estimated 0-60 mph run of 5.9 seconds for a near two-ton sedan. We've run this generation's 241-hp C300 4Matic to the 60-mph point in 6.4 seconds.
As is the norm with plug-in hybrids, the C350e comes standard with selectable personalities. One persona happily flies the green flag, motoring along by the grace of its electric motor and 88-cell, 317-volt lithium-ion battery sourced from Magna Steyr. We'll know the all-electric EPA range nearer the car's fall sale debut, but Mercedes is throwing out a 20-mile approximation for now. The car is quite willing to lock into its EV mode and could pleasingly ascend modest San Francisco grades at modest speeds on battery power alone. (The hilliest streets where residents must park perpendicular to the direction of travel are a different matter.)
It took time to get used to the brake and accelerator pedals in both electric and hybrid driving, though. Neither feels as natural as we'd hope, especially in stop-and-go conditions. The accelerator takes a bit of prodding to get results and generally seems more resistive against light foot inputs than other hybrids. The energy-recuperating brake pedal's dead-feel zone at the very beginning of engagement leads to grabby city driving behavior. And as we've experienced in other cars sporting similar parallel-hybrid setups with a step-shift transmission, downshifts through multiple gears (e.g., when coming to a stop) are felt in a stuttered progression. The electric drive motor sits where the torque converter would normally exist, and the C350e loses the comfort-oriented damper.
Some code checking should rehabilitate the downshift issue, but the software enables the C350e to have four operating modes and five transmission modes, all at the brush of two buttons. Modes of operation include Hybrid, E-mode, E-save, and Charge. Hybrid is the basic drive setting. E-mode leans on the 6.2-kilowatt-hour battery till the juice runs dry and up to 80 mph for propulsion. E-save is akin to the Chevrolet Volt's Hold mode where the battery-charge state is saved/held, leaving the engine to do the heavy lifting. Charge instructs the engine to charge the battery whether the car is moving or not. A charge-percent display in the gauge cluster makes it easy for the driver to eyeball the battery's state.
The transmission settings are Economy, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Individual. Individual allows the driver to customize the drivetrain, suspension, steering, climate control, and Eco Assist independently of one another. Eco Assist uses the car's forward-facing radar to calculate the distance of a vehicle ahead and can buzz the driver's foot with the accelerator pedal. The purpose of the Continental-supplied haptic-feedback accelerator pedal is to give the driver guidance on distance keeping, thereby minimizing use of the disc brakes. The pedal can also increase the resistance in its travel to clue the driver in to the limit of fully electric driving. The feedback, odd as it sounds on paper, feels helpful, and we can see the most eco-devout C350e drivers using it all the time.
Our brief introductory drive revealed qualities we've seen from the W205 series thus far. The C350e's cabin contains a beautiful mix of aluminum, leather, and soft plastics, a truly aspirational Zen zone to take in daily. The seats can be adjusted until you're comfortable, and interior touch and feel is tremendous for the class. The steering, chassis, and air suspension response, along with our test car's Pirelli Cinturato P7 tires (225/45-18 front and 245/40-18 rear) demonstrated the car's heart is in luxurious cruising, fuel scrimping, and number crunching, not messing with BMW wannabes. Overall handling is acceptable, though feedback is less a stream of data and more lumps periodically hurled at the driver's hands and backside. The dynamic latency is not there.
Obviously, we need a more elaborate test before passing full judgment on the C350e. We haven't yet taken advantage of the 11.8-cubic-foot trunk (1.0-cubic-foot less than a conventional C-Class). The battery's charge socket is located near that trunk's opening under the passenger side taillight. We'll want to check the rate of replenishment (quoted to be as quick as 1.5 hours from empty to full if the onboard charger can hit 3.7 kilowatts). Perhaps the transmission shifting will be smoother. And there's always the navigation/battery overlord feature's mettle we want to prove on the roads we drive every day.
|2016 Mercedes-Benz C350e Plug-In Hybrid|
|BASE PRICE||$48,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||2.0L/208-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus 80-hp/251-lb-ft electric motor; 275 hp/443 lb-ft comb|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,900 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||184.5 x 71.3 x 56.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.9 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||Not yet rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Fall 2015|