New German Hybrid Vehicles Are Not Fuel-Sippers

You Can Buy a Hybrid for the Green Image, or Buy a Diesel to Actually Save Fuel

By Kevin Miller


2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHYBRIDHybrid cars started off simply enough, with the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight whirring along our roads a decade ago with the goal of frugally motoring from place to place. While European automakers maintained that diesel powertrains instead of hybrids were the answer, Ford (and, to a lesser extent, GM) joined Toyota and Honda in bringing hybrids into the mainstream.

It is true that a vehicle with a hybrid powertrain is much more complex than a vehicle that operates only on petroleum products or only on electric power. Because both methods of propulsion and energy storage cost money, putting both systems into a vehicle costs more money than putting in only one propulsion system, driving up the cost of hybrid vehicles in comparison to the prices of their non-hybrid counterparts.

For example, the entry level 2010 Toyota Prius II costs $22400, but the similarly-sized Corolla LE costs $16750. The Prius has 51/48 MPG fuel economy ratings fuel economy ratings, compared to 26/34 MPG ratings in the Corolla; it will take a lot of driving at current fuel prices to make up the difference in purchase price between the two vehicles. A similar comparison can be done with the Honda Insight and Honda Civic. Or against either of the aforementioned hybrid vehicles and the VW Golf or Jetta TDI.

At the dawning of the Prius movement, when rainbows, flowers and smiles were all the buzz, celebrities and the image-conscious just HAD to show up in a Prius. The high “smug factor”, amplified by the fact that single-occupant hybrid vehicles got to use HOV lanes in California, propelled the mundane Prius hybrid to rock-star status. European luxury automakers must have decided that if the Prius could get such attention and status just because it is a hybrid, they needed to make a hybrid for their brands.

That said, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have joined the hybrid party, and the smugness is now available at a much higher price point, though without the minimalistic fuel consumption typically associated with a hybrid badge.

2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHYBRIDMercedes launched their S400 BlueHYBRID in the US in August. The $88,000 BlueHYBRID has the distinction of being the lowest-price S-class available in the US, coming in around $3600 less than the V8 powered S550, before an $1150 tax rebate from the US government. With an EPA rating of 19/26 MPG, the S400 BlueHYBRID gets about 26% better fuel economy than the S550 (rated 15/23 MPG). The S400 BlueHYBRID is a parallel hybrid system similar in concept to the system used by Toyota in their Prius; an underhood lithium-ion battery is used for start-stop of the 275 HP V6 engine, and to power the 20 HP electric motor (for a combined total of 295 HP). That electric motor is also used to supplement the gas motor when extra acceleration is called for. So the S400 BlueHYBRID costs a bit less and gets a bit better fuel economy, though it is far from being classified an economy car.

Most American consumers and C-list celebrities would assume that if you have the “Hybrid” badge on your S-Class, you’ve got the most efficient Mercedes that money can buy. However, better fuel economy is available in an S-Class. The not-in-North-America S350 CDI BlueEFFICIENCY is rated 235 HP, it lumbers from 0-62 MPH in 7.8 seconds, and has a European fuel economy rating of 7.6 l/100km combined, or 31 MPG, which is significantly better than the S400 BlueHYBRID’s 21 MPG combined rating.

I had the opportunity to take a quick 15-minute drive in the S400 BlueHYBRID last week at the LA Auto Show. Right away, the hybrid drive made itself evident with the confidence-sapping, nonlinear brake feel of regenerative brakes as in the Toyota Camry Hybrid, and the hesitant power delivery from a stop. While the S400 BlueHYBRID has all of its luxury cred intact, the feel of the hybrid system when underway cheapens the experience. Of course, there are “Hybrid” badges on the trunk and both front fenders, so the smug factor of driving this visibly-hybrid car will likely overcome the reduced driving dynamics caused by the hybrid system.

2011 BMW ActiveHybrid 7Meanwhile, at the BMW stand in the LA Auto Show, BMW announced pricing for their hybrid offerings, the ActiveHybrid X6 and the ActiveHybrid 7. The ActiveHybrid X6 is BMW’s first hybrid, and is being built in the US at BMW’s Spartanburg plant for all world markets. Priced at $89,725, the BMW ActiveHybrid X6 drivetrain consists of a 400 hp twin-turbocharged, High Precision Direct Injection, V8 gasoline engine and two electric synchronous motors delivering 91 hp and 86 hp, respectively. Maximum system output is 480 hp, and peak torque reaches 575 lb-ft. EPA Fuel economy numbers are 17/19 MPG. While not great economy, that rating is significantly better than a non-hybrid X6 xDrive50i, which costs $67,050 and has 80 fewer HP (just 400 HP), with a fuel economy rating of 12/18 MPG.

By comparison, BMW offers two diesel versions of the X6 in markets other than North America: the 235 HP X6 xDrive30d and the 286 HP xDrive35d, with 8.2 and 8.3 l/100 km respectively, or 28.27 mpg combined for the larger motor, which is again about 10 MPG better than the combined fuel economy rating of 18 MPG for the ActiveHybrid X6.

2011 BMW ActiveHybrid 7The 2011 BMW ActiveHybrid 7 pricing was announced in LA at $103,125, with the long-wheelbase version priced at $107,025. The car has a 0-60 MPH time of 4.7 seconds in addition to a claimed 15-17% improvement in fuel economy compared to the 750i.  The twin-turbo V8 engine, 8-speed automatic transmission, and 20 HP synchronous electric motor use start-stop technology to save fuel at rest, as well as providing extra boost from the electric motor when needed, with a combined output of 455 HP. The electric motor receives its supply of energy from a 1 cubic-foot battery lithium-ion battery developed specifically for use in this automobile. By comparison, the 750i starts at $80,455 (15/22 MPG city/highway, 17 MPG combined) and has a 400 HP V8. Is the $23,000 premium for the hybrid worth the extra 55 HP and 3 MPG?

BMW offers two diesel versions of the 7-series in other markets; the 245 HP 730d with 34.5 MPG combined rating, and 305 HP 740d with a combined rating of 23.7 MPG. So BMW’s ActiveHybrid vehicles actually provide relatively small improvements in fuel economy while increasing vehicle performance. Of course, this comes at a significant cost increase compared to non-hybrid vehicles. Too, the “Hybrid” badge on the BMW vehicles doesn’t denote the best fuel economy available, as the fuel economy leaders are diesel versions of those vehicles not offered in North America.

2009 Porsche Cayenne DieselNot a company to be left in the technological dust, Porsche has also developed a hybrid version of its Cayenne SUV. The Cayenne S Hybrid has preliminary figures of 374 HP from a combination of supercharged V6 and 38 kW electric motor, estimated 27 MPG combined, and a price higher than the$60,000 V8-powered Cayenne S, whose combined mileage is 15 MPG. While I wasn’t able to drive the Cayenne S Hybrid nor either of the ActiveHybrid BMWs in LA last week, I had the opportunity to sample a Porsche Cayenne Diesel. The Cayenne’s the direct-injection turbo-diesel V6 produces 240 HP and 400 ft-lb of torque. The Cayenne Diesel has a 0-60 time around 8 seconds, off-the-line torque was instantaneous and plentiful, making the SUV feel quicker than that number suggests. Converting the European fuel economy ratings shows a combined fuel economy of approximately 30 MPG, which is better than their hybrid offering. Other than audible diesel noise in a low parking garage with the window open, on our in-town driving loop the Cayenne Diesel gave no indication that it is diesel-powered. The Porsche’s driving experience goes to show that driving the diesel versions of big BMW and Mercedes-Benz sedans and SUVs can deliver an engaging driving experience and respectable fuel economy that is better than the hybrid version of the same vehicle.

2010 BMW ActiveHybrid X6Admittedly, the 8-second run to 60 MPH in the Cayenne Diesel doesn’t hold a candle to the BMW ActiveHybrid X6’s sub-five-second time, but your preference in vehicles depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you want a car that says “Hybrid” on it so that you can have that smug, I-love-the-earth attitude about your car, you can buy the ActiveHybrid X6 and use fuel at a combined 18 MPG miles per gallon. If, instead, you don’t need the snooty “Hybrid” badge but you want to get good fuel economy in a BMW SAV, you can save yourself $38,525 and get even better mileage (22 MPG combined) in the $51,200 X5 xDrive35d. Unfortunately, limited consumer acceptance of diesel vehicles in North American means that relatively few diesel vehicles are offered here.

I’ve long been a proponent of efficient, clean diesel vehicles as a better solution than hybrid vehicles. Hybrid systems employ heavy redundant propulsion systems and batteries, and the non-linear feel of their power delivery and regenerative braking systems are a detriment to the driving experience. As demonstrated by the new hybrid vehicles coming from Mercedes-Benz and BMW, you can almost always pay more for a car with the “Hybrid” badge. But while the badge ensures a superior attitude by a smug, look-how-green-I-am driver, it doesn’t ensure superior fuel economy.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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  1. The diesel versus hybrid discussion has always ended up with diesels the winner, as long as facts are used.

  2. The X6 is WAY more expensive than the Cayenne, so no wonder the performance is higher. More to the point, I don’t see myself dropping $60K on a Porsche that does 0-60 in 8 secs.
    Obviously, I’m on your side in the diesel vs. hybrid question. I had a wonderful time in a previous generation 3-series diesel rental (and not that good of a time in a rented Prius).

  3. The “smug” stereotypes of hybrid drivers are quite tiresome. I know a lot of normal, unassuming people who drive hybrids because they like the idea of using less fuel and putting out less emissions. Get over it.

  4. If gasoline costs in the United States what it costs in Europe, you can believe we would have more diesels and less hybrids roaming the streets here. I don’t think hybrids will ever sell that well in Europe because now electric vehicles are almost here, and soon it will be diesels and electric cars in Europe. The hybrid got a foothold in America because of the weird emissions regulations and the fact that gasoline costs about the same as diesel fuel.

  5. I love me a diesel!

  6. Gosh, how many times can the word smug be used in one article? Isn’t it possible that hybrid drivers are just trying to use less fuel and emit less crud? Are you so certain, Kevin, that driving a hybrid all about posturing and appearance?

  7. I think that image is a big part of the choice for a lot of hybrid drivers; it is one of the reasons that dediated-bodystyle hybrid vehicles like the Prius and Insight outsell hybrid versions of standard sedans like the Civic and Camry.

  8. I think it’s a lot more likely that the Prius outsells the Camry hybrid because it’s had more time on the market, is cheaper, and gets significantly better fuel economy.

    I do agree that hybrid-only models enjoy a marketing advantage over hybrid versions of standard cars — not because of the “smug factor”, but because it makes the car appear unique and not as likely to be cross-shopped with other cars. Someone can look at the Insight and simply consider “is this car worth $20k?”, whereas someone looking at the Civic hybrid will inevitably ask, “Is this really worth $3k more than a regular Civic? The Corolla? The Elantra?”.

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