German Automakers, Led by Mercedes, Make Big Push for Plug-in Hybrids

By · March 18, 2015

2016 Mercedes-Benz-350e

The 2016 Mercedes-Benz-350e is due in the US in fall 2015. The “e” designates plug-in hybrid for Mercedes.

Mercedes today announced an aggressive schedule of plug-in hybrid introductions that includes 10 models by 2017. At that pace, there will be a new Mercedes-Benz plug-in hybrid model introduced every four months on average for the next two years. It's not yet clear how many of those models will be widely available in the United States.

“Plug-in hybrids are a key technology on the way to the locally emission-free future of the automobile,” said Prof. Dr. Thomas Weber, a member of the Daimler board responsible for Mercedes research. “Plug-in hybrids offer our customers the best of two world. In the city, they drive all-electric. For long distances, they benefit from the range of the combustion engine.”

We haven’t see U.S. sales reported on the Mercedes S550 plug-in hybrid, which the company's website indicated will be available in spring 2015. This month, Mercedes is launching the C350e, which is expected to go on sale in the United States in fall 2015. (The letter “e” in the vehicle’s badge signified a plug-in hybrid.) A plug-in hybrid midsize van is also in the works. Based on today’s announcement, it appears that Mercedes will offer a plug-based version in a wide range of its product lines.

2016 BMW X5 xDrive40e

The 2016 BMW X5 xDrive40e is another German luxury vehicle with an “e” at the end. And it's also due in the US in fall 2015.

Plug-in Hybrid Brands: Mercedes, Audi and BMW

Mercedes is not the only German automaker with big plans for plug-in hybrids. More than two years ago, we got our first glance at Volkswagen’s extensive plans for plug-in hybrids and some pure electric cars. Audi, VW’s luxury brand, is prominent in the company’s electrification plans. The Audi A3 PHEV will be the first of its plug-in hybrids to become available in the United States in fall 2015. Forbes recently reported that Volkswagen will “launch over twenty electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles over the next few years” in China.

Meanwhile, BMW this week announced its first plug-in hybrid, a grid-enabled version of the X5 SUV. The X5 xDrive40e combines a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo engine with an electric motor integrated into its 8-speed automatic transmission. When fully charged, the X5 xDrive40e will go about 13 miles in electric mode, before the 308-horsepower engine is utilized.

That compares to the expected electric range of plug-in hybrids from Audi of about 30 miles, and about 20 miles from Mercedes plug-in hybrids.

The 2016 BMW X5 xDrive40e will arrive in US showrooms in the fall of 2015—a season which represents a wave of introductions for German plug-in hybrids. A plug-in version of the BMW 2-Series Active Tourer is also expected later this year—adding to the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid supercar, and the i3 city electric car that is also available with small gas engine to extend its range.

The current era of plug-in cars began in late 2010 and early 2011, when the Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt first hit US roads. At that time, it appeared that the move toward electrification would be led by Japanese and American automakers, including Tesla Motors. (Toyota and Honda mostly remain on the sidelines.) The LEAF, Volt and Model S remain top-sellers in the space, but based on this week’s announcements, German luxury automakers are ready to take the lead—perhaps not in total sales, but in terms of the number of available models that can travel some distance without using gasoline.

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