Mercedes, BMW Hybrids Lure CEOs Who May Avoid a Prius

To the great oxymorons of our time, like “military intelligence,” “clean coal,” “reality TV” and “easy mortgage loan,” I propose to add “green luxury sedan.”

Titans of industry flaunt power, prestige as they sweep through traffic, not environmental consciousness, right?

So for the past few years, the only choice for chief eco-sensitive officers has been Toyota’s $110,000 hybrid Lexus LS 600h L, sporting a whopping 5-liter, 438 horsepower V-8 married to an electric motor -- the low-emission duck among preening swans.

No longer. Let me introduce you to the BMW ActiveHybrid 7 and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class Hybrid. Big, bruising and beautiful, these two sedans for the executive set have taken a cue from Toyota’s playbook. When the Germans start producing hybrid luxury sedans, however tentatively, it signals an industry shift.

Still, before you invite the president of Greenpeace to a Four Seasons lunch, let’s qualify those Environmental Protection Agency numbers. The Mercedes S400 gets 19 miles per gallon on Manhattan’s Park Avenue and 26 on the Long Island Expressway. The BMW’s results aren’t official, but I saw numbers of around 16 while idling on Worth Street and 24 when whipping to Chappaqua on the Saw Mill Parkway. The Lexus gets 20 and 22.

Prius numbers? Hardly. That’s because none of the three can move under electric power alone. The gas engine is shut off when stopped and the electric motor temporarily provides power. It can also provide extra torque when moving. Toyota’s Prius, which can briefly run on electric power alone, gets 51 mpg in town.

Dismal V-12

Still, the fuel consumption is about 15 percent to 20 percent better than the regular V-8 models. Both the 7 and S-Class also are available with 12-cylinder engines, which get a dismal 11 to 13 mpg around town. (The V-12s, which have massive premiums, are the equivalent of a pricey wristwatch with fancy complicated mechanics -- unnecessary, but see how it moves!)

You can buy the S400 today, leaving BMW in the dust as showrooms must wait until this spring for the ActiveHybrid 7.

Moneymen talk figures, so to price: The BMW will go for $103,125, with a more desirable long-wheelbase version starting at $107,000. That’s a $20,000-plus premium over the gas-only version, or the salary of a worker in the mailroom.

Mercedes has positioned the S400 at less than $90,000, making it the economy player in the S-Class lineup -- $3,600 less than the S550. That’s a bottle of 1982 Chateau Petrus.

Audi Plan

Other than the hybrid badging, both sedans look identical to their all-gas counterparts. Which brand you choose partly depends on which look appeals -- the BMW’s modern slickness versus the strong solidity of the Mercedes. (Audi plans to show a full hybrid based on the new A8 at the Geneva Motor Show.)

In terms of comfort, the 7 Series’ front seats are my favorite of any modern car, comfortable for bodies big and small. The back seat is huge, and the overall padding throughout the cabin is lovely to feel. Every button and knob is firm and pleasant to the touch -- the best build quality of any Bimmer.

Not that the Mercedes is a slouch. I hauled three passengers to Delaware from New York and they later complained that their hotel bed wasn’t nearly the equal of the S400’s cabin. It’s got beautiful burl walnut and leather all around.

The big difference in price comes from the S400’s power deficit over the 7. The Mercedes is a comparatively gentle machine with a combined 295 horses and 284 pound-feet of torque out of its V-6 and electric motor. You can get to 60 mph in about 7.2 seconds.

German Roads

I experienced no real lack of zing, however. The S-Class is not supposed to make burnouts at traffic lights anyhow. It’s bred for the wide-open roads of Germany, and on that Delaware drive I made excellent time without even approaching the electronically controlled top speed of 130 mph.

The ActiveHybrid 7 Series is a power player, with a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 married to an electric motor with a combined 455 horsepower and 515 pound-feet of torque. It’ll get to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. Yowza.

Throttle and suspension settings include comfort, normal, sport and sport sharp, and they change the temperament faster than a CEO on a golf trip being called to appear before Congress. Both cars are more manageable in traffic and windy roads than oversize SUVs.

And in these days of foregone bonuses and carbon footprints, CEOs may like to show that it’s not just the color of their money that’s green.

The 2010 Mercedes S400 Hybrid and

BMW ActiveHybrid 7 at a Glance

Engines: 3.5-liter V-6 and electric motor with 295 horsepower; 4.4-liter V-8 and electric motor with 455 hp.

Transmissions: 7-speed automatic; 8-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds; 4.7.

Gas mileage per gallon: 19 city, 26 highway; 16, 24 (estimated).

Price as tested: $105,230; $107,300 (estimated).

Best feature: Decent gas mileage in a classic S-Class package; rip-roaring performance with all the comfort.

Worst features: Both are mild hybrids, which don’t get the same gas improvements as full hybrids.

Target buyer: The executive who wants to be seen to be green.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

(Corrects release date of BMW ActiveHybrid 7 to this spring in eighth paragraph of story published Feb. 25. Incorrect information was based on BMW press release.)
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