Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2016 Mercedes-Benz S 550e

Some cars, as great as they are, just beg the question as to why they even exist.

Whether running on pure gas or hybrid, the S-Class is a vehicle worth every bit of its myth, and as far as I’m concerned, it can do no wrong.

The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is a no-brainer. For decades now, the S-Class has been the go-to luxury sedan to serve as the traditional status symbol for bankers, real estate moguls, royalty and high rollers. With the arsenal of Mercedes’ research and development behind it, it is the launching pad for new technologies every generation, and has a level of luxury most will find hard to comprehend.

But what we have here is a new middle ground in the S-Class lineup, between the base S 400 twin-turbo V6 and S550 V8 model (with the sporty AMG models on another level entirely), the S 550e plug-in hybrid for the well-funded and environmentally conscientious CEO. That’s a pretty small demographic to target with a vehicle whose development surely cost the company more than a bushel of Apple shares.

Then again, anyone considering a base powertrain in their S-Class may well consider their time more precious than their money, and to this end the S550e has a secret weapon: green plates. Full electric vehicles and some plug-in hybrids qualify for green plates here in Ontario and in many other jurisdictions, so any exec commuting in from the suburbs might well appreciate the time savings over the equivalent gas-powered S-Class.

Because whether running on pure gas or hybrid, the S-Class is a vehicle worth every bit of its myth, and as far as I’m concerned, it can do no wrong. You could likely say that about every vehicle in this class, from the fellow German BMW 7 Series and Audi A8 to the Jaguar XJ or Lexus LS, these flagship sedans are all spacious, comfortable, capable and competent with varying degrees of sportiness, technology, flair and reliability. No doubt each of the others appeals to fans of its brand, but the S-Class to some degree transcends even its respected brand and serves as the standard of luxury flagships the world round.

And if there is one thing that makes it worthy of that status, it is the interior. Short of the exotics from Roll-Royce and Bentley, the S-Class features a cabin of unquestionable quality, taste and craftsmanship, with leather, wood, metal and quality plastics coming together in harmony and ergonomic excellence. Except for that damned shifter. We hate that thing, and the ‘Distronic’ adaptive cruise wand –on the left side and below and behind the turn signal stalk – isn’t much better. The steering wheel is a luscious, curvy affair with creamy leather wrapped around wood nestled on its inner rim and various controls at your fingertips. The armrests and seats are covered in more leather and the seats are heated and cooled and have an available massage function that helps relieve the strain of any drive.

Alternate power showdown: Comparison Test: 2015 BMW 740Ld vs Audi A8 TDI

Ahead of the armrest is a control centre for cabin and vehicle functions, displayed on the more central of the two 12-inch info screens, while another resides in the gauge cluster with vital driving stats and corollary information. There are seemingly dozens of options for audio sources, all of them played to the highest quality of the material itself through Burmester amplifier and speakers in our test car. If there’s a better automotive sound system out there, I haven’t heard it, and the speaker covers are gorgeous as well.

With over a dozen adjustments and massage, of course the front seats are impeccable, and rear seats are as well, with more limited adjustments but also heating, cooling and massage like the front, plus lounge-worthy legroom and headroom for VIPs. While manufacturers are fixated on promoting the technology and self-driving capabilities, to me it is the comfort and pampering (like power trunk closing) that are the hallmark of this car.

But if you’re interested in the technology, the S-Class pretty much has it all. Intelligent Drive is Mercedes-speak for automated driving assistance systems, of which there are many: automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning, lane-keep assist, active parking assist, attention assist (which warns you if it detects you getting tired), and the pinnacle of the breed, adaptive cruise control with steering assistance, which is as smooth as they come in the S-Class. It keeps you locked in your lane and following at a safe distance behind the car ahead within the flow of traffic on the highway. It takes a large measure of the stress out of a busy highway commute, and although you must still have hands on the wheel and eyes on the road, the car itself can handle all the details to get you to your exit.

Of course, the S550e is equipped with another entirely different technology as well, and that is the hybrid powertrain. The gasoline engine in use is Mercedes’ familiar twin-turbocharged 3.0L V6, starting with 329 hp and 354 lb-ft. In addition to the biturbo 3.0L V6, this S-Class packs a 114 hp, 251 lb-ft electric motor, powered by an 8.7 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Electric range is up to 33 km, but even with our best effort to drive efficiently, we only managed to get 25 km on our commute to the office and home. Official fuel ratings offer an optimistic rating of 11.1 L/100 km in city driving, 8.1 on the highway, and 9.7 combined, but this can sway drastically depending on your access to charging. The 8.7 kWh battery pack can charge in as little as four hours on a 24V charging station, and overnight (8–10 hours) should do it on household 120V, so if you have charging at the office and a short commute, you can spend much of the week driving on electricity.

The hybrid system also has some tricks up its sleeve, working in tandem with the car’s radar and route guidance to optimize efficiency. Just as all the sports cars have their Sport and Sport+ modes, the S550 e offers a range of modes to optimize efficiency through its driving characteristics. Hybrid mode is your basic auto mode that allows the vehicle to dictate when to use full electric, when to blend in the gas engine, and when to charge the battery on the go. E-Mode locks the car in fully electric driving mode until the battery is exhausted (or until you exceed 140 km/h, at which point the gas engine will kick in to assist). E-Save uses the gas engine exclusively in order to save the battery charge for later use, should you wish to conserve your electric driving for city use, where it is more effective compared to high-speed highway cruising. A Charge mode is also available, which attempts to restore and replenish the charge, and is most useful when descending fairly significant distances, such as when cruising from Whistler down to Vancouver for example.

But that’s not all! There are also E, E+ and S modes, for efficiency, efficiency plus and sport, respectively and in E+ the powertrain management works in concert with other vehicle systems to be as efficient as possible. Two examples highlighted by our Mercedes representative were radar-based recuperation and route-based operating strategy. Radar-based recuperation means that the car will increase regenerative braking when approaching a slower moving vehicle with adaptive cruise engaged, or will double-pulse the gas pedal if not, encouraging you to lift and allow the car to go into sail or regen mode. Route-based operating strategy, when Hybrid and E+ are used in tandem with a destination set into the nav system, will take into account the roadway types en route and use more of the combustion power on high-speed sections, saving just enough battery charge to go into fully electric mode on lower-speed roads or heavy traffic areas.

Most of the time, however, we simply enjoyed the effect of the system’s combined 436 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque on the 2,215 kg luxury cruiser. That’s quite heavy, even for this large, full-size luxury class, but between the immediacy of the electric torque and plenty more juice from the twin-turbo six down low in the rev range, the car accelerates swiftly and easily with a typically effortless waft and seamless gear shifts you would expect from an executive limo. Braking, on the other hand, can be a bit jerky as it shifts from regenerative braking to the conventional brakes.

Like the acceleration, the ride was immaculate, with the very best in suspension technology and damping moderating any harshness from the road to go along with the whisper-quiet interior. The steering is light and precise, and the two-mode suspension allows for a bit more level cornering should the urge to tuck into a corner come upon you.

It should be noted that the S550e is only available in rear-wheel drive, so Canadians that prefer to have the added benefit of all-wheel drive will have to turn to the conventionally powered S-Class models.

While it’s unlikely that the S550e will steal many sales from the rising Tesla star or represent a huge portion of S-Class sales, it’s easy enough to charge the hefty premium that development of the technology no doubt cost. As time goes by, and as with so many other Mercedes tech, what debuts on the S-Class will spread to the rest of their product range at more affordable levels, be it the lithium-ion battery cells, hybrid management software or the wireless charging that Mercedes has said will debut with the 2017 S550e.

The S550e is a hefty premium over the base twin-turbo V6 S 400, but it’s a shade more affordable than the V8-powered S550, with only a touch less power and greater expected efficiency. Add in the green plates that open up access to HOV lanes and you have an S-Class that could save you time and money over its traditional V8 counterpart.

4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance roadside assistance

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Model Tested 2016 Mercedes-Benz S 550e
Base Price $117,300
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,075
Price as Tested $135,425
Optional Equipment
$15,950 (Premium Package - $6,100; AMG Sport package – $5,900; Intelligent Drive Package – $2,700; 20-inch AMG multi-spoke wheels – $1,250)