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Luxury carmakers rev down the hybrid road

Mercedes-Benz offers its wonderful E300 BlueTec Hybrid, while Lexus introduces the quiet, supremely comfy ES300h

Hybrids are fast gaining popularity due to their excellent fuel economy and low emissions that even luxury brands are introducing these eco-friendly variants in their model line-ups.

I recently got behind the wheel of two luxury hybrids that compete in the same segment, although apart from the fuel and emission benefits they have a clear difference in the type of customers they're targeted at.

The Mercedes-Benz E300 BlueTec Hybrid and the Lexus ES300h are hybrid models that carry high hopes for both manufacturers in terms of sales volumes both in global markets as well as in Thailand.

Mercedes-Benz E300 BlueTec Hybrid

First off, let me say that I'm not a hybrid-car fan. But after driving this car from Bangkok to Krabi, I admit I was highly impressed - not only by the fact that it didn't need to be refuelled on the 800km-plus journey, but also because it was such a wonderful car to drive.

Driving from the Mercedes-Benz Thailand head office in Sathorn, participants were started off on a "free-run" basis, which means that we didn't have to form a caravan, which allowed each of us to drive it the way we wanted. You see, people have different driving habits, and test drivers are no different. So by not having to follow a caravan, each driver was able to concentrate more on the car, and not the driving.

The E300 BlueTec Hybrid's power comes mainly from a 2,143cc 4-cylinder turbo diesel engine that pumps out 204hp and 500Nm, but an electric motor also provides assist, producing another 27hp and 280Nm. The result is even better fuel consumption - an estimated 24km/l in the city or on the highway. The vehicle's carbon dioxide emission is claimed to be 144g/km (EU6). And the 1.8-tonne car isn't a wimp when it comes to performance either, clocking 7.5 seconds from 0-100 kmph, while its top speed is claimed at 242km/h. You get a 7-speed automatic gearbox with shift paddles and a sport mode that has been improved for efficiency and practicality.

Mercedes officials said that in certain situations (such as before entering a high-speed curve), the engine might completely switch off in order to save fuel. But I didn't experience this during the drive though, perhaps, because I wasn't going fast enough most of the time. But when the road ahead was clear, I did floor the throttle and, believe me, the E-Class hybrid did not disappoint. Even at very high speeds it was able to accelerate further like a car with a much larger engine. This model's handling has also been improved over the previous one, with the steering and suspension offering good precision and control. Cornering performance is great - it's easy to turn in and you can feel the grip holding the car to the road in mid-corner.

While many hybrid vehicles have braking idiosyncrasies, there is none here and the car's stopping performance feels just like a normal car.

Indeed, a good car doesn't exhaust you even during long trips and this is exactly what the E300 BlueTec Hybrid is capable of.

After covering all that distance, I got out of the car and felt like I had just completed a three-hour drive to Hua Hin, ready to take on the next activity. The good news for potential buyers is that the car is priced at just Bt3.69 million for the Executive version, thanks to the hybrid vehicle tax break from the Excise Department, not because features have been removed. But, of course, those who want more can opt for the AMG Dynamic version, which costs Bt4.09 million and comes with an Avantgarde styling package including sunroof, 18-inch wheels and sportier looks featuring a more dynamic front grille with a centrally positioned star in the middle.

Mercedes-Benz E300 BlueTec Hybrid

Engine: 4-cylinder DOHC 16-valve common-rail turbo diesel Displacement: 2,143cc

Compression ratio: 16.2:1

Max power: 204hp/4,200rpm

Max torque: 500Nm/1,600-1,800rpm

Electric motor output: 27hp

Electric Motor torque: 280Nm

Transmission: 7-speed automatic

0-100km/h: 7.5 seconds

Top speed: 242km/h

Average fuel consumption: 24 km/litre

CO2 emission: 144g/km

Suspension (f/r): strut/multi-link

Steering: powered rack-and-pinion

Brakes (f/r): vented discs/discs

Dimensions (mm)

Length: 4,879

Width: 1,854

Height: 1,474

Wheelbase: 2,874

Track (f/r): n/a

Weight: 1,845kg

Wheels: 17-inch alloys

Tyres: 245/45R17

Fuel tank capacity: 80 litres

Price: Bt3.69 million

Distributor: Mercedes-Benz Thailand



Lexus ES300h

The right-hand-drive version of the Lexus ES has been launched for the global market and Thai customers can expect it to be introduced in the country soon.

I was invited to Malaysia for the ES launch event some time back, but unfortunately didn't spend much time with it. The test route covered 120km, and we had the ES250 and ES300h to switch among three people, meaning that I drove the cars for just about 20km. In addition, the event was also staged in a caravan format, which made it more difficult to try out many of the features of the cars.

All Lexus cars offer one thing in common and that's excellent comfort. There is plenty of space both in front and at the rear as the vehicle length has been increased by 45mm compared to the previous generation. The seats are comfortable, while noise, vibration and harshness levels are profoundly low, offering a serene environment. Music sounds better in a cabin like this, since you can hear more sound details from the high-end Mark Levinson audio system.

The steering-wheel position, sideview mirrors and seat position are all memorised and automatically move away to create more space while entering or exiting. Meanwhile, the climate-control system comes with nano technology that helps moisturise your skin - no kidding.

The ES300h is powered by a 2,494cc 4-cylinder 16-valve petrol Atkinson-cycle engine (octane 91 capable) that is also used in the Camry. It's capable of producing 160hp and 213Nm, which is mated to an electric motor with 142hp and 270Nm.

According to Lexus, the total package delivers a combined 205hp. The 6-speed automatic transmission is smooth and acceleration from 0-100km/h takes 8.5 seconds, but the top speed is claimed at just 180km/h. Average fuel consumption is claimed at 18.5km/l and carbon dioxide emission is 127g/km (Euro 4).

The target customer group for the ES300h isn't sporty drivers, and focus on the suspension and steering is on stability and comfort rather than agility and response. While the car was pleasant to drive on long and straight highways, it didn't like the short strip of winding mountain road up to Genting Highlands north of Kuala Lumpur. The tyres, which were perfectly happy and quiet on the highway, signalled that it's time to lower the speed through its constant squealing while going past sharp corners.

Like other Lexus hybrid models, the ES300h also has a regenerative braking system that uses the electric motor as a generator. The brakes are all new, with 296mm vented and 281mm solid discs doing their job nicely.

The ES300h hasn't been officially launched in Thailand, and my guess is that it will be some time before or during the Bangkok Motor Show in March.

One of the weaknesses of Lexus in Thailand is that despite the lower popularity when compared to its German rivals, the retail pricing isn't so welcoming for those who don't necessarily understand the brand value of this Japanese luxury car. Local assembly would be needed to lower prices to a more convincing level, but then considerable sales volume must also be guaranteed in order to make it profitable.

Lexus ES300h

Engine: 4-cylinder DOHC 16-valve

Displacement: 2,494cc

Compression ratio: 12.5:1

Max power: 160hp/5,700

Max torque: 270Nm/4,500

Electric motor max power: 142hp

Electric motor max torque: 270Nm

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

0-100km/h: 8.5 secs

Top speed: 180km/h

Average fuel consumption: 18.5km/litre

CO2 emission: 127g/km

Suspension (f/r): strut/strut

Steering: powered rack-and-pinion

Turning circle: 11.4 metres

Brakes (f/r): vented discs/discs

Dimensions (mm)

Length: 4,900

Width: 1,820

Height: 1,450

Wheelbase: 2,820

Weight: 1,690-1,705kg

Wheels: 17-inch alloys

Tyres: 215/55R17

Fuel tank capacity: 65 litres

Price: n/a

Distributor: Toyota Motor Thailand


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