As part of Mercedes-Benz's plan to have no fewer than 10 plug-in electric offerings available by 2017, the C350e ushers in a new era for the entry-luxury segment. Based largely on the C300 that debuted last year, the '16 C350e combines the latest generation's elegant design and technology with a hybrid gasoline-electric powertrain.
The C350e features a four-cylinder turbocharged engine paired with an electric motor powered by a 6.2-kWh lithium-ion battery (4.4 kWh usable). The engine, on its own, delivers 208 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, while the motor produces an additional 80 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque. With both working at full tilt, you're looking at a combined system output of 275 hp and a beefy 443 lb-ft of torque.
This powertrain is mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission (yes, with obligatory paddle shifters, though we really question their necessity here) that also incorporates a clutch between the engine and motor to enable multiple methods of getting the power to the pavement. In pure electric mode—E-mode, in Mercedes lingo—the C350e is supposedly able to travel up to 20 miles on battery power alone (we weren't able to test this claim), whereas in full Hybrid mode, the car uses all available power to hurtle itself to 60 mph in just 5.9 seconds. There are two other power modes, E-save and Charge, which maintain existing battery levels for later use and charge the battery while driving, respectively. As seen in pure-electric cars, battery recharging while driving is achieved by using the electric motor to decelerate the vehicle, unless a brake pedal threshold is passed and the traditional discs take over for stronger stopping power.
Par for the course nowadays, the C350e also offers a number of drive settings (Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+, as well as a customizable Individual mode) to further fine-tune the driving experience by altering the characteristics of the transmission timing and gear changes, powertrain output, standard AIRMATIC suspension, steering, and even climate control.
The C350e is good to drive, especially if you aren't expecting a canyon-carving sports car terror with the ruthless anger that could only be brought to you by an AMG V-8. The power is impressive, almost instant, and the transition from gas to electric (and vice versa) is just about imperceptible. Even all-electric mode got the job done just fine for putzing around town. It's an impressively smooth, stately sedan for the entry-luxury segment and its seamless integration of new technologies is groundbreaking. Like the other C-Class variants, the cabin is very well appointed and immediately comfortable, although not terribly intuitive in terms of controls and interface (looking at you, COMAND).
There were a couple inventive new uses for existing technologies that we liked in the C350e: First was the haptic feedback motor built into the accelerator pedal. Reminiscent of the way some cars add a spot of resistance right before kick-down, the new pedal is designed to send signals to the driver through dynamic pedal resistance and quick pulsations. For instance, when using pure electric power, the pedal will offer resistance that must be overcome to engage the gasoline engine, encouraging the driver to stay frugal where possible. It can also send impulses to suggest to the driver when to release the throttle in order to return to electric power, or to alert the driver of slow-moving vehicles when using the ECO Assist radar functionality. The latter can even tell the driver the ideal time to lift off the gas in order to coast up to a slow-moving vehicle ahead, without having to use the brakes. This all may sound overly complicated, but in practice, it was intuitive—and super cool.
Even more impressively, the C350e can use the GPS to plot the most effective use of its powertrain energy throughout a pre-set course. If you enter a destination into the navigation system, the car will analyze which stretches are best to charge and discharge the battery. For instance, if urban stop-and-go trouble spots are on the route, it will plan to be as efficient as possible (ideally electric mode) for those portions of the drive, using the engine to charge the battery when the opportunity cost is lowest.
Like the rest of the C-Class, the new C350e seems content to define itself as purely entry-luxury rather than try for the sport-luxury achievement as well—a battle it's fought (and largely lost) for decades now. The new vehicles seem perfectly at home with this new role, and the added technologies seen in the C350e only further reinforce this.
For what it is, the C350e is a great addition to the market, and we expect MB will sell some in single-family-home suburbia. Like the rest of the growing plug-in segment, however, it will continue to be an uphill battle finding owners among apartment renters and city dwellers, given the difficulty in actually utilizing the primary feature—plugging it in. We'll have to see how the car fares once it hits dealer showrooms this fall. Pricing is yet to be determined, but we'll hazard a guess with a starting price somewhere just north of $40K.