Mercedes S400 Hybrid: Cost-effective, at What Cost?

Mercedes Benz S400 Hybrid

Mercedes’ S400 hybrid luxury sedan has received a lot of attention this month after a Canadian market study of 16 hybrids singled out the big Benz as the “only” cost-effective hybrid option on the market.  Let’s face facts, though: the S400’s clients are less interested in what’s cost-effective, and more interested in what they’re being asked to sacrifice (in terms of luxury) in order to greenwash their driveways.  I was curious, too, and when a showroom-fresh S400 made itself available, I jumped at the chance to poke around and see what was what.

How does Mercedes’ S400 hybrid stack up against its more conventional, V8-powered brothers?  Find out, after the jump.

The conventional thinking (among Mercedes clients, anyway) is that luxury takes many forms.  Comfortable seating is a must, soft leather is a must, a full orchestra of whirring and buzzing electric motors to adjust everything from seat height to suspension travel is a must, and—especially in a Mercedes—the luxury of being able to whip past a line of slow moving peasants in traffic. Is. A. Must.

Think that’s not what Mercedes buyers want? Watch this official Mercedes-Benz advertisement, below.

The video says it all, doesn’t it? MB buyers want, no, expect their cars to be performers. No matter how much wood is inlaid into the dash or how many cows have to be “processed” into leather seats and suede headliners:  if it doesn’t respond to the right pedal, MB buyers probably aren’t interested.  After all, “real” luxury means having your cake and eating it, too… so, does Mercedes’ hybrid offer enough “go” to convince S550 buyers to make the switch to hybrid power?

On the Switzer Performance dyno in Oberlin, Ohio, we had a chance to find out. This is what it looked like:

The results were a bit surprising.

First off, if they’ve already driven the S550, the S400 will not convince any but the most environmentally conscious Mercedes-Benz shoppers to switch to hybrid power. The S550, with its 382 hp 5.5-liter DOHC V8 engine, absolutely rockets to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds. That’s Porsche 911 territory, and Porsche’s idea of rear-seat legroom is bunk.

So, the S400 won’t be winning over the hearts of the S550 buyer… but, after talking it over with Jalopnik editor Ray Wert (thanks, Ray!), I don’t think the S400 is supposed to be an S550 alternative at all. What it really is, is an alternative to a used S500.

Think about it: in the heady throes of the easy credit real-estate bubble, scads of big V8 S class Benzes were leased and bought and repossessed and bought again. As such, the used car market is flooded with clean, used S500s that can be had for a fraction of the price of a new S550. With Mercedes-Benz’ carefully cultivated reputation for longevity, the company needs something to keep clients from buying a “previously loved” Benz, and get them into the showroom, where they can move a new car and keep the lights on at the factory.

Enter: the 295 hp S400.

The S400 can’t hold a candle to its contemporary V8 stablemate (the S550)  but the previous V8 Benz (the S500) was much more docile. With a 302 hp V8 and 5-speed automatic transmission, the car was quick in its day—but it was no rocket. The S400, with 295 electrically-assisted horsepower and a 7-speed gearbox, gives up nothing to the S500 from 0-60 mph.

In the photo, below, you can see the S400’s hybrid motor output in terms of percentage.  With the added boost of the “electric assist” motor, Mercedes’ hybrid really scoots… which should come as no surprise, considering the company’s 2008 SEMA GLK Spec.Rally show car featured a similar “performance hybrid” system.

At the end of the day, the S400 is pretty clever. It devalues the older V8 cars, attracts some positive press, helps keep the CAFE dogs at bay, and delivers a level of performance high enough to convince buyers of the previous S500, SL500, and CL500 Mercedes that they can have their cake and eat it, too.

Special thanks to Switzer Performance for the use of the Dynojet, and to Ray Wert and the guys at Jalopnik, who helped arrange access to the S400.

Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, out on two wheels, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.