Meet your new best driving friend: a dinky sports car with virtual reality
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Which of this week’s new Mercedes is this? Yep, Mercedes has been rolling out a seemingly endless stream of new models – and in particular SUVs – recently. Which seems at odds with the company’s big claim at the Frankfurt motor show that, by 2039, the whole company will be carbon-neutral. This is a step in that direction, though. It’s the GLE 350de 4Matic, a plug-in hybrid version of Merc’s middle-sized SUV. It combines a four-cylinder diesel engine with electric power for peak outputs of 316bhp and 516lb ft – equivalent to a six-cylinder diesel GLE 400d. Will it glide around silently? It will, and for a useful 50 to 60 miles if you’re reasonably light-footed. That means a claimed 29g/km of CO2 emissions and 257mpg, figures best taken with a good handful of salt, of course, but ones which betray that this is a hybrid car able to do more than just trickle off your driveway before the engine kicks in.
Is there any sense making such a big car a hybrid? Well, the SUV is having a hard time. A handful of climate change groups have locked their crosshairs on bigger cars, with Greenpeace decrying “the SUVisation” of model ranges. “Even iconic small cars from bygone eras, like the Fiat 500 or the Mini, are now available as SUVs,” they say. “Large cars are proving increasingly hard to avoid. And that is very bad news.” In Germany, the negativity has extended beyond environment concerns and towards safety, with calls for a ban on SUVs in cities where their extra bulk and weight make pedestrians ever more vulnerable. If cars like the GLE are going to successfully counter the increasing criticism, whispering quietly around with zero emissions may be one step towards it. What do companies like Mercedes think? Mercedes boss Ola Källenius implied as much when we asked him how he feels about the unrest swelling around SUVs. “Individual mobility and business use mobility is absolutely crucial for the world, and now we have to reinvent the invention,” he says. “We have to make it sustainable, and it’s much less a debate on the specific shape of any one of the vehicles. “Regardless of the shape, we have to go toward the path of sustainability, and that goes for SUVs, passenger cars etcetera. And when it comes to safety, we are investing millions and billions into the ultimate goal of making transport accident-free.” Does this GLE feel like a step in the right direction? It’s initially very eerie driving a car so large with very little sound emanating from it. The GLE does a fabulous job of keeping its diesel engine hushed, with even boisterous uses of throttle refusing to kick the internal combustion into life if you’ve got the 350de prodded into fully electric mode (top speed 99mph) or the ‘Comfort’ hybrid setting. For longer journeys, you can use ‘Sport’, which basically uses the electric power to supplement diesel and provide a more conventional driving experience – as well as a 6.8sec 0-62mph time – or a battery save function that’ll favour the engine over distance so you can save the zero emissions stuff for when you’re back in town. Does it handle? Given the GLE’s hardly slimline already, it’s not like the driving experience has changed with the addition of batteries. It drives neatly and will serve up everything its owners want – with decent (if loud) pace when you need a sudden burst of acceleration. More pertinently, those batteries have been positioned so as not to impede on passenger space, while the boot is marginally smaller, but retains a flat floor. It’s clever, too, with a forward-facing camera combining with the sat nav to manage the amount of energy recuperated from the brakes. The GLE’s brain will spot cars in front or speed limit changes ahead, using the information to decide how it’ll modulate the braking power. You can adjust such things yourself with the steering wheel paddles, but why would you? The joy of driving an electrified car comes from the calming hush it envelops you in, so embrace it and let its processors worry about the nerdy details. So it’s a success? Yes, but with the caveat that like a lot of plug-in hybrids, it feels like a stepping stone rather than a vision of the future. But a perhaps crucial one if the SUV is to keep its head held high. This represents one of four types of electrified Mercedes that’ll be offered, though, known as ‘EQ Power’. Those are plug-in hybrids. There’s also ‘EQ Boost’ (cars with a mild-hybrid system that powers the ancillaries rather than the wheels), ‘EQ Performance’ (petrol-electric AMGs that favour performance over range) and straight ‘EQ’, the full-strength EVs like Merc’s EQC crossover. Will it appease the protesters? Undoubtedly not, but it’s a step in the right direction and on an individual level, it’ll at least lessen the guilt of its driver. Plug-in hybrid tech feels more at home in larger cars, where the weight penalties aren’t as noticeable and you won’t really be too concerned about how the handling’s afflicted. This offers everything a regular GLE does – right up to its 3.5-tonne towing capacity – but with the added bonus of making less noise. Both for you and passers-by. 7/10