Full electric cars dominate the headlines, but partially-electrified alternatives that promise cuts to CO2 emissions while still offering a source of petrol power are rolling out at a rate of knots.
Mercedes-Benz’s PHEV (plug-in hybrid EV) plans encompass petrol-electric options from A-Class to S-Class, with SUVs and vans in between. These models sit above internal combustion models with high-voltage (48V) starter-alternators, but below pure electric vehicles (EVs) such as the EQC.
One of the most important Mercedes PHEVs is the GLC 300e PHEV, which will hit Australia from the second-quarter of 2020. Its pitch says you can do daily commuting in pure-electric drive sans tailpipe emissions, switching to petrol power for longer trips.
It’s a cheaper solution than a full EV, since high-capacity batteries allowing ranges of 300km or more remain prohibitively expensive. You also get to leverage the existing network of fuel stations for longer road trips, which remains a compelling option for many buyers – at least right now.
It’s also a neat way to get diesel-style fuel economy without actually having to buy a diesel vehicle, and whether we like the fact or not, this fuel type is on the nose today. Mercedes-Benz Australia is steadily walking away from it in numerous vehicle segments.
The GLE 300e will wear a sticker price of $80,400 plus on-road costs. Its closest obvious comparative products include the Volvo XC60 T8 Polestar PHEV ($99,990), and the impressively affordable Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV ($47,490-$53,990).
But the better comparison is looking within the greater GLC family. This GLC 300e is only $2700 pricier than the GLC 300 petrol, yet this latter car has just one (less-potent) power source, uses more fuel, and lacks the GLC PHEV’s standard air suspension.
“We’re working hard to make it compelling,” said one Mercedes-Benz Australia staffer.
Moreover, while Mercedes admits to creating 20 per cent more CO2 in producing the PHEV systems than an internal combustion-only car, it claims that charging from the mains with the current (European) energy mix cuts emissions by 40 per cent, making it a net gain.
This GLC 300e’s dual-drivetrain combines a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine (155kW/350Nm) with an electric motor (90kW/440Nm) in the auto transmission.
Combined outputs are 235kW and 700Nm, and the car can dispatch a 0-100km/h sprint in just 5.7 seconds.
But it’ll also run for up to 43 kilometres as an electric vehicle thanks to a 13.5kWh lithium-ion battery powering said motor, which you can recharge in two hours via an AC Wallbox and Type 2 plug, or in about seven hours (overnight) from a regular domestic power socket in your garage.
Unlike the newer A-Class PHEV with its longer EV range, the GLC version cannot handle DC rapid charging.
Of course, this 43km is contingent on sensible driving. If you sit at 130km/h in EV mode (the highest speed before the petrol engine automatically joins in) you’ll drain the reserves far more quickly.
The last time I drove an Outlander PHEV its 12kWh battery gave me 48km of EV range, while Volvo claims its 10.4kWh-equipped XC60 T8 will do around 45km EV.
Mercedes also claims the GLC can achieve combined-cycle fuel consumption of 2.2 litres per 100km, though naturally once the battery is depleted and you’re relying on petrol power more, that figure about triples (the GLC PHEV runs as a mild hybrid in this situation, but the batteries add weight which makes the car work harder).
The upside is that on longer drives, the petrol engine is on its most efficient cycle.
Like other PHEVs, the GLC can recuperate otherwise wasted brake energy and return it to the battery. Descend a big hill and you’ll go some way to recharging that battery. The petrol engine can also decouple downhill and doesn’t kick in until you’re rolling, to make getaways smoother, while the navigation can choose the most efficient routes on-the-fly if you ask it to.
It’s a pretty seamless driving experience, all up. The EV acceleration is typically brisk and silent, and you can choose from various driving modes that can do things such as running the well-damped petrol engine concurrently, or switching off the electric motor to save battery reserves for a later time. And even without much electric assistance, it's never gutless or thirsty.
Dynamically, you get Air Body Control, Mercedes’ vernacular for air suspension, which fixes some of the ride issues (brittleness, sharpness over corrugations) we’ve had with this car on low-profile tyres before. That’s a huge tick. The extra weight that adds rolls through corners less so. You also get permanent all-wheel drive and a 2000kg braked towing capacity.
The GLC 300e’s cabin is pretty much familiar to other MY20 updated GLCs, aside from a few bespoke sub-menus. The 10.25-inch landscape screen runs the company’s MBUX infotainment system, unlike the updated C-Class which shares much of the GLC’s architecture.
The configurable interface is easier to navigate than before with tabs scrolling horizontally. The old rotary dial controller has been replaced by a flat trackpad like a laptop’s, but the system also operates via a new touchscreen, a touch-sensitive pad on the steering wheel spoke, or conversational voice inputs.
This system is activated by the voice command ‘Hey Mercedes’, and can change the station, find a destination, dial your phone, and handle more advanced functions such as asking for the passenger seat heater to be switched on, or opening the sunroof. The directional mic means the system knows which cabin occupant is speaking, and tailors responses to suit.
Of course, the downside is any time you happen to say the world 'Mercedes' in idle conversation, the system chimes in and asks what you want, cutting whatever audio you're listening to like a rude party guest. You can switch the voice assist off, but, unlike BMW's otherwise more primitive version, you can't change the callout that invokes it.
We love the augmented reality navigation mode pilfered from the EQC, in which a moving blue arrow is laid over the top of live front camera footage, and juxtaposed with a conventional map, pointing you in the right direction. Trust us, it goes from gimmicky to great within a few minutes of use.
This screen combines with a 12.3-inch digital instrument readout with three display layouts, with all manner of information menus that a touchpad on the other wheel spoke sorts through. The information overload is topped-off by a head-up display projected onto the windscreen.
Familiar Benz touches such as the delightful chrome window switches and Burmester speaker covers, seat buttons on the doors, plane-like round ventilation controls and the availability of various trims from real wood, to glossed plastic or brushed metal remain. Other nice touches include a Qi smartphone charging pad, different fob, and a system that changes the car’s scents and lighting based on driving mode.
Further standard features include ‘Artico’ fake leather upholstery, 'multibeam' active LED headlights, ambient cabin lighting in 64 colours, live traffic information and sat-nav, digital radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 20-inch wheels, an electric hands-free tailgate, and access to the Mercedes Me Connect smartphone app which enables remote access and pre-start cooling/heating.
Safety features include nine airbags, ‘Traffic Sign Assist’, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, ‘Active Parking Assist’ with a 360° camera, keyless starting, autonomous emergency braking, active cruise control, lane/steering assist, and lane-change assist.
Practicality-wise, “the GLC was designed for space-saving integration of a battery from the very start”, says Mercedes-Benz, citing the lowered rear axle and body shell designed for battery integration. The result is a level luggage compartment, though its 395L capacity is reduced over the petrol and diesel versions that offer 550L including an underfloor tub that’s not available on the PHEV.
In terms of ownership, Daimler’s PHEV battery warranty is six years (full EVs get eight) and 100,000km (EVs get 160,000km). Any battery degradation greater than 30 per cent is deemed warrantable. However it also insists you could only lose this much storage if you have bad habits, like DC-charging it daily or always running it to empty rather than saving 10-20 per cent charge.
Should you consider the GLC 300e? Well it’s faster, greener and rides better than the almost identically priced GLC300 petrol, so on that front you absolutely should.
Of course, we’d prefer a longer EV range (the A-Class model does around 70km) to cover for more zero-tailpipe-emissions commuting, and a bigger boot, but its positioning is certainly about right.