It’s almost a little eerie at first.
You open the driver’s door and settle into a seat which is both supportive and so comfortable that you’ll be shooting critical looks at your living room sofa the next time you see it. You put on your seatbelt, press the Power button and the brake pedal, engage first gear and nudge the accelerator. And nothing happens. Well, something does happen, just not what you were possibly expecting. The car pulls away slowly, smoothly, majestically even. But engine vibrations and noise are conspicuous by their absence. You ask yourself what exactly is going on here. Am I dreaming? What has happened to the world as I know it? Do the normal laws of acoustics, inertia and gravity no longer apply? Get behind the wheel of the new C 350 e and existential questions quickly become the order of the day; the driving experience seriously challenges your understanding of “what is”. The plug-in hybrid sedan is fitted with both a 4-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric drive system, burns just 2.1 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres (112 mpg) and can run on electric power alone for 31 kilometres (19 miles). So if you’re cruising through the city at anything between 40 and 60 km/h (25–35 mph), the rev counter needle will remain rooted to the spot, the combustion engine unstirred.
C 350 e: Fuel consumption combined: 2,4–2,1 l/100km;
combined CO₂ emissions: 54–48 g/km.*
Silently through the night.
It’s 10 p.m. already. Familiar streets and houses cast out otherworldly shadows in the car’s headlamps. It all contributes to a slightly supernatural feeling. Because progress is so quiet, because the standard-specification air suspension has such perfect tuning, the car doesn’t look like it’s driving in the conventional sense, but floating weightlessly through the night. The streets are almost empty, cars and people few and far between. Those we do come across can do little but stand and stare. One reason for the open-mouthed attention, of course, is the absence of sound, which is still a spookily alien phenomenon. But passers-by are also stopped in their tracks by the simple handsomeness of the C 350 e. The swooping silhouette is sporty to the eye, but not showy or over-muscled. And you can only tell it’s a hybrid model from the flap for the charging socket on the right-hand edge of the rear bumper. This outer elegance perfectly matches the car’s inner values – with the electric motor that is such a soothing pleasure for our ears, our fellow human beings, nature and the environment.
All for this moment.
Just because the car is stylish and understated, it doesn’t mean it’s boring. It will leave pretty much everything else standing at the lights, for example, as its electric motor – typically of the breed – serves up the full slug of torque from its first revolution. Accelerate onto the high- way at 70 or 80 km/h (around 45–50 mph) as you leave the city limits behind, and you’ll feel a small ripple of resistance in the accelerator. Pushing the pedal beyond this resistance point triggers the entry of the combustion engine into the fray and the car shoots forward in a rush of release – as if it had been storing up all its strength for this one moment. The C 350 e sprints from 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 5.9 seconds on the way to a top speed of 250 km/h (155 mph). Jaws are no longer dropping at the car’s quiet discretion, but in response to its speed and vivacity.
Driving fun and good sense.
The boost provided by the electric motor gives this car an even more potent dynamic edge. It’s as if you’re driving not merely a car that’s a little better and more polished than its predecessor, but an-all new type of machine whose strengths and abilities will light a smile across your face time and time again. Sharing responsibility for this capacity to delight is the raft of usage possibilities that set the hybrid model apart from its conventional C-Class siblings. A switch on the centre console allows the driver to choose between operating modes: in E mode, the car uses electric power only, while in Charge, the battery is topped up during the journey, and Hybrid harnesses up the electric motor and combustion engine to optimum effect. Above the centre console switch you can select the driving program. For example, S + will raise the pulse of performance enthusiasts by maximizing output and tightening up the suspension and steering another notch, while Economy elevates a fuel-sipping driving style to top of the priority list.
Select the Economy program and Hybrid operating mode, enter a city into the navigation system as your destination, and the electronics will work to ensure there is enough power left in the battery at the end of the journey to allow emission-free driving through those urban streets.
If that all sounds a little cold and clinical, a glance at the energy flow image on the C-Class hybrid’s large central display will dispel such concerns. There, a stylized graphic of the car shows you how the invisible guiding hand behind the scenes has brought the electric motor into play on an incline, calling up a wave of green energy to the front line from the 100 kg (220 lb) battery in the rear. On the way down the other side, you can also see how the battery is recharged – guaranteed to bring yet another smile to your face. Something akin to performance art has been created on the screen, a bewitching creation that shows how fascinating state-of-the-art technology can be – and how apparent conflicts can be reconciled.
Indeed, it seems driving fun and good sense are not mutually exclusive after all, likewise the need for speed and the needs of the environment. Parked up back in the city, you might just discover you actually drove very quickly on frequent occasions during the journey, and over longer periods than you were originally intending. And you might also see that you’ve covered almost half the route on electric power – which will give you a slightly surreal feeling of pride and pleasure. You’ve experienced something new, something really good. Climb out of the car and lock the door a final time, and the car flashes its lights three times. This is the car winking, as if to say: “That wasn’t a dream, it was real.”