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Mercedes-Benz S400 hybrid 2011 car review

Mercedes-Benz gives some models in its S-Class flagship line a stupefying amount of horsepower for a dignified, prestigious sedan. Such power should be left to the automaker’s smaller, sportier models.

However, the $91,000 S-Class S400 gas-electric Hybrid model I tested is a sensible, reasonably fuel-efficient alternative to the gas-guzzling hot rod S-Class versions.

The S-Class once stood alone as the ultimate luxury car in America, far outdoing Cadillac. Caddy hasn’t offered an S-Class rival for a long time. But now rivals include the Audi A8, Jaguar XJ, BMW 7-Series and Porsche Panamera. All are excellent, but lack the formidable reputation of Mercedes.

“After all,” Mercedes spokespersons are fond of saying, “we invented the car.”

The standard 5.5-liter 382 horsepower gasoline V-8 in the S550 is fine for those who don’t crave the over-the-top 510-, 536- and 621-horsepower gasoline engines for other S-Class models.Mercedes-Benz S400 hybrid 2011 car review 1

The 5.5 provides an estimated 15 mpg in the city and 23 on highways —reasonable for a fast, 4,000-plus-pound luxury car, but nothing superior. The higher-horsepower versions deliver a miserable 11-12 mpg in the city and 17 to 19 on highways.

Even better than the 5.5 model, though, is the S400 Hybrid with its 3.5-liter gas V-6 and electric motor. They generate a combined 295-horsepower and estimated fuel economy of 19 mpg in the city and 25 on highways.

(A fuel-stingy 241-horsepower diesel is scheduled for later introduction in 2011, but buyers best have easy access to diesel fuel.)

Introduced for 2010, the S400 was the first Mercedes with hybrid drive. And it’s the first mass-produced car with a lithium ion battery.

Acceleration of the S400 is good, with a quick 0-60 mph time of 7.2 seconds and solid 65-80 passing. Cruising at high speeds is effortless. “Smooth” is this car’s middle name, which  can’t be said for some gas/electric hybrid autos.

The powertrain works with a seven-speed driver-adaptive automatic transmission. It has  sport and comfort shift modes and easily used steering wheel paddle shifters for manual operation. The car shifts a bit more slowly in comfort mode, but it will be difficult for most to tell the difference between it and sport mode.

And why bother with sport mode or the paddle shifters? Outside of the outlandish high-horsepower versions, the S-Class isn’t meant to be driven really hard.

Not that the S400 can’t be safely driven very briskly. It has precise speed-sensitive steering with the right amount of power boost, secure handling, reassuring ride control and strong braking, with an easily modulated pedal. The air suspension provides a ride that’s almost cushy over bad pavement.

The S400 looks as impressive as other Mercedes S-Class models. It has plenty of front and rear room. Even the middle of the back seat is soft enough to be reasonably comfortable, at least on shorter trips. That isn’t the case with most cars I test. If there’s nobody in the middle, a large rear center armrest with two hefty cupholders can be folded down.

The S400 feels rock-solid. It’s easy to get in and out. Especially noteworthy are long, wide-opening rear doors. Front seats are supportive in curves without being confining, and the upscale  interior is church-quiet.

The backlit gauges can be quickly read, but there are too many control switches to easily operate when driving. That’s a common problem with many high-class foreign sedans. And the turn signal lever to the left of the steering wheel can easily be confused with the stalk for the cruise control — an obvious and annoying flaw.

Mercedes long has prided itself on safety, and the S400 is packed with comfort, convenience and safety features. Safety items include all sorts of air bags and electronic stability control, just for starters.

If you don’t fully close the doors the last fraction of an inch, they automatically close by themselves. Lock the car remotely and the large outside mirrors automatically fold flush with the front-door glass to prevent expensive damage to the mirrors.

Comfort features include a dual-zone automatic climate control system and heated and ventilated front seats. Cabin storage is good, with such things as a deep covered front console storage bin, door pockets and a large glove compartment.

The large, nicely shaped trunk has a wide, moderately high opening, and the trunk lid has an automatic closer.

Mercedes often has made the S-Class a showcase for its technology, and the S400 Hybrid is a good example of this—especially as we’re entering a more fuel-conscious era.

Dan Jedlicka is the former automotive editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. To read more of his content, visit his web site www.danjedlicka.com.

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