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Driving impression: Mercedes-Benz GLC 350e hybrid

26 October 2015

I have driven a few hybrid vehicles in my time, but I still haven’t found one that I’d recommend to someone looking for the most frugal car that money can buy.

There are two reasons for this. Hybrids tend to be a lot more expensive than their normally powered family members, and the sacrifices you have to make are just not worth it.

The worst thing about most hybrids is the fitment of a CVT transmission in an attempt to make the vehicle as frugal as possible. It probably works in theory, but anyone who has experienced that incessant CVT drone will know how wearisome it can be. Rather give me a turbocharged diesel model any day of the week.

But now Mercedes may have changed my mind with its new GLC 350e. It won’t be on sale in SA any time soon, which is a pity. I drove it in Germany and it’s by far the best hybrid I’ve encountered.

You climb aboard and are greeted by the same lush interior you will find in every other GLC, which will be close to its SA debut by the time you read this. The only noticeable difference is the addition of a few driving modes. It has Hybrid, E-mode, E-save and Charge.

In hybrid mode it uses both the engine and electric motor. E-mode allows for all-electric driving. The other two modes basically save electricity for later use.

The route Mercedes set for us was a mere 30km, so I chose to see how far I could get using electricity only. This is much more difficult than it sounds, because while the 350e is the eco warrior of the GLC bunch, it’s also the most powerful. If you try, you can accelerate from zero to 100km/h in less than six seconds. Since the polizei have no sense of humour, it seemed wise not to try the electrifying start myself.

The electric motor’s power delivery is instantaneous, which makes it fun to drive, until you hit the 30mph speed restriction in the village on our route. Then the lack of a noise strikes you. The GLC is a wonderfully insulated and refined vehicle when fitted with a petrol or diesel engine, so just imagine how calming it is with no noise at all from the engine bay. It’s so quiet you wonder about the safety implications for pedestrians. But then you remember the GLC’s pedestrian detection system, which will warn you when a child, drunk or inattentive person wanders across your path.

Free from the speed limit, I tried to reach the all-electric top speed of 140km/h, but the twisty, narrow roads made that impossible. However, I can vouch for Mercedes’ claim of a 34km range, because I did 32km on electricity before the petrol engine kicked in. If you live 15km from work, you could theoretically go for weeks without using a drop of fuel. And even if the engine eventually kicks in, Mercedes claims that it will use fuel at a rate of 2,6l/100km.

The best thing about this SUV is that there’s no compromise whatsoever. The driving experience was no different from those in the other GLCs, and that will undoubtedly be one of the main drawcards for the hybrid if and when it comes to SA.

It doesn’t shout too loudly about the fact that it’s an eco-friendly car, which means you won’t be judged as a smug wannabe eco warrior. This car is not about making a statement. It’s about truly believing in the advantages of hybrid technology, while keeping a low profile.

The main drawback will probably be the price, although the cost of hybrid and electric vehicles has dropped over the last few years, mostly because the technology has advanced and become more readily available.

South Africans have been hesitant to adopt hybrids, but cars like the 350e will make it a lot easier to let go of our reliance on fossil fuels.