Test Drive: Mercedes-Benz S550 Hybrid

Mercedes-Benz USA

The new fuel-efficient, luxury hybrid car from Mercedes-Benz is extraordinary for both its performance and comfort.

Please turn left now,” advises the in-car navigation system. I’m test-driving the new Mercedes-Benz plug-in hybrid version of the S550 on a two-lane road east of Stuttgart, Germany. It’s the German company’s first plug-in hybrid, a car that won’t reach U.S. shores until spring 2015.

Never one to pass up an opportunity for a good meal, I’m breaking up the day’s drive with a traditional Swabian lunch at Lamm Hebsack, a restaurant that dates back to 1792 in the village of Remshalden-Hebsack and has been run by the last four generations of the Polinski family. I’m a little anxious to get there during the last leg of the trip, so, coming out of a not-very-sharp turn, I gun the accelerator to pass a slow-moving vehicle.

A simple passing maneuver may not seem like a big deal, but I’m in the car’s electric mode; the battery power alone is providing the speed. The car accelerates quickly and smoothly, putting to rest any lingering doubts that a car powered by an electric motor is slow. While the S550 Hybrid’s top speed is 130 mph, the electric motor can get the car up to 87 mph on its own—meaning that the S550 plug-in hybrid is quite capable of executing any required traffic maneuvers with the same aplomb as a gas-only car.

As emissions restrictions for all cars tighten, the industry is aiming to make big cars smarter, rather than smaller. With its numerous driving and safety features (including night vision, a collision-avoidance system that applies the brakes in an emergency and hybrid technology), the S550 is one of the most intelligent--and most energy-efficient--cars on the road.

There are four driving modes that help minimize the use of gas and maximize the regenerative-braking system, which recharges the battery. E-Mode means that the car is operating purely on electric power. E-Save allows you to postpone the use of electric power until you need it (in slow-moving traffic, for example, where the use of gas is most inefficient). The charge mode allows the battery to recharge with the aid of the gas engine so you don’t have to rely on plugging the car in to a socket. And the hybrid mode lets the car operate using both the electric motor and the gas engine for maximum efficiency. The four-door car also features haptic feedback, as in a slight impulse felt through the pedal that lets you know when to take your foot off the accelerator to ease into a driving style that feels like an electric glide (what Mercedes-Benz dubs “sailing”) and helps limit gas consumption.

But unless you’re a green geek, the driving-mode options—employed in conjunction with a variety of transmission settings (normal, efficient and sport driving)—can be dizzying. It’s far simpler just to enter your destination into the navigation system and let the S550 figure out the best mode for any given moment, like I do on my drive to Lamm Hebsack. Left to the car’s own devices, a large portion of the trip is completed with the gas combustion engine off. Now that’s smart.

As for the restaurant, I find the staff in traditional dress charming and the food delightful. I go for local bread-sausage dumplings, potato salad and crispy onions to start, followed by the organic rump steak with chanterelles, vegetables, potato balls and spaetzle.

And while it wasn't necessary on this trip (since I used the charge mode en route), I’m pleased to know that the battery could be fully recharged from a nearby household socket in less time (two hours) than it takes me to finish enjoying my admittedly lengthy lunch. Mercedes-Benz says that it’s working on a cableless method that will make recharging even simpler. While the company hasn't offered a timetable, it may be a new wrinkle for this sleek hybrid by the time it reaches the United States. That’s something I contemplate as I activate the driver’s-seat massage function for the very comfortable ride back to my hotel.

Pricing unavailable; look for the S550 Hybrid in California dealerships in Spring 2015. Go to mbusa.com for more info.

Lamm Hebsack; Winterbacherstraße 1-3, D-73630 Remshalden; 49-7181/45061