Mercedes-Benz Diesels And Hybrids: Green Goodness, Slow Sales?

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2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

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2010 Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid

2010 Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid

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Mercedes-Benz offers a clean-diesel Bluetec version of each of its large utility vehicles, the R-Class, GL-Class, and M-Class, along with a Hybrid version of the ML. But even combined, the standard gasoline versions of these vehicles are still far outselling their greener counterparts that don't cost much more.

In the case of Mercedes' R-Class luxury people-mover, only about five percent in the U.S. are purchased in Bluetec form—even though the 2010 Mercedes-Benz R350 Bluetec costs just $1,500 more than the V-6 gasoline R350 (2011 prices are pending but won't change significantly).

We find that a little puzzling, as after a First Drive of the spruced-up 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class last week posted at The Car Connection, the R350 Bluetec in particular remains one of our favorite long-distance road-trip vehicles. With its cavernous interior and adult-size seating for six (or up to seven), the R-Class is a step above minivans for anyone who places the priority on passenger comfort. And with the diesel it has plentiful load-stomping torque yet can return fuel economy in the mid-20s—quite the feat considering its 5,000-pound-plus curb weight.

No way around it, the R-Class has been a slow seller. M-B has sold around 3,000 R-Class models per year in the U.S. It sells many times more boxy GL-Class utes, and some months its M-Class sales have exceeded annual R-Class sales. But even for the slightly truckier (in image) GL and ML models, roughly 12 percent are Bluetec diesels.

Slow sales, despite plenty of arguments pro

Among older M-B models, diesels have had much better resale value, so combined with the better fuel economy and drivability we find the economics a no-brainer.

As a surprising number of shoppers still turn their noses up to diesel, Mercedes-Benz is covering all the bases; in addition to its Bluetec, the ML450 Hybrid first went on sale—or rather, on lease—late last year. The automaker is only offering it under a special lease, either at $659 per month for a 36-month lease or $549/mo. for a 60-month lease.

With a 275-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, and an electric motor system that brings output to a combined 340 hp, the ML450 Hybrid has roughly the same power as the gasoline V-8-powered ML550, while its EPA ratings are 21 mpg city, 24 highway. The packaging isn't any different than the standard ML, as the liquid-cooled nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is stored under the rear cargo floor.

But so far, the ML450 Hybrid hasn't exactly been screaming off lots either; the automaker has only been moving about 80 of ML450 Hybrid models per month.

Where did the demand for greener vehicles go?

Sheryl Crow loves BlueTEC

Sheryl Crow loves BlueTEC

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Back in the 1980s, more than 75 percent of Mercedes vehicles sold in the U.S. were diesels—and that was when they were dirty and had dubious drivability in some cases. In recent years, all the pro-diesel buzz somehow hasn't materialized in sales, even when the products are genuinely night-versus-day better: quieter, cleaner, more powerful, and more refined. Mercedes-Benz officials explicitly told us that, especially in the case of the Bluetec models, it's a question of demand, not supply, and that it would return to a higher level of diesels if the market supported it.

What do you think? Why are so few luxury utility buyers interested in diesels (or even hybrids) today?

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Comments (14)
  1. The fuel economy numbers of the diesels are not that much better than the gas versions. MB needs to certify a two turbo four cylinder diesel engine for a least one of these vehicles to really see the sales jump. Such an engine could probably yield fuel economy ratings near 30 for city and 40 for highway.

  2. The solution is that diesel/hybrid is not an either/or answer, but should use both. Then you'll see 35 city and 45 highway. $4 gas, which will happen eventually, would provide more incentive. For all the talk of a carbon tax, curious that a gas tax has not been the first and most obvious option.

  3. I've always been of the impression that Northern winters (like here in Chicago) are just too cold for diesel engines and that they may be very hard to start after sitting outside in the office parking lot all day. Is that still a valid concern?

  4. Diesel perception is still poor.

  5. 21 mpg city, 24 highway is just not enough for buyers looking for a greener vehicle. My Lexus RX450h easily gets 33 mpg city and highway (31@85mph) and I still think there is room for improvements. If they can cut the weight by 500 lbs it will probably get 35 mpg or more.

  6. I moved to southern New Mexico from central Florida about a year ago. It was surprising to me to see that, in NM, not only does nearly gas station have diesel, but nearly every island in every gas station has diesel. If you wanted to drive a diesel back in FL, you need to know where those rare diesel-carrying gas stations were, and which pump it was at. Then you wait in line for that particular island. If the car costs more, and the marginal improvement in mileage is unlikely to compensate for the additional cost, and you have to go out of your way, why bother?

  7. I would love to have a diesel, but car companies aren't interested in selling them in America. We have an obsession with hybrid electrics and diesel is still stigmatized as "dirty" because people associate it with 18 wheelers belching out clouds of black smoke.
    I wish some of the manufacturers would start bringing diesels to America and a marketing campaign to go with them. While VW has good sales, the only others to sell a diesel car in America are BMW and Mercedes which are out of the price range of most "normal" folks.
    I would love to see the BMW 316d come to America. I think I could swallow the extra price for a car rated at 70mpg hwy... 63mpg combined.

  8. I currently own a 2008 R350. And the car has surpassed by green expectations to the nth degree. This vehicle is the ultimate highway cruiser. Its interior volume is absolutely cavernous and wonderful for my use. I average about 28 on the highway and right around 20 in the city. The diesel's torque is spectacular in and around town and at highway speeds it is very quiet, only road noise from the large wheels and tires. You mention that sales are slow but when I ordered my car (18 months ago) the dealer had 2 diesels on the lot, one of which was already sold. I haven't gone back lately to check what they keep in stock but I see a diesel ML and a diesel E-class running around my none too large town. Thanks for pointing out MBs commitment to alternative fuels and being one of the first European manufacturers to bring some of their highly refined diesels to our shores.

  9. Diesels are the all around best cars. I'm waiting for my A5 3.0 TDI delivery.

  10. First, I've seen a thousand MB commercials on TV and this is the first I've heard of their clean diesels (and I do pay attention to this stuff). They're clearly not pushing it much at all. Second, who in America even knows what a "clean" diesel is? We've never had them before, so when you say "diesel", people automatically think of smoke belching trucks and you can't blame them.
    I'm not even convinced that diesels can be cleaner. Yes, they get better mileage, but not that much better. And what about CO2, sulfur, and particulate matter emissions? How do they compare? I don't know, and that's the problem. Even though I have an interest in this sort of thing, no one's bothered to advertise what "clean" diesel means. Don't just say it's better, show me. Give me some numbers! I might be able to look it up somewhere on the Internet, but I shouldn't have to. If MB or any other car maker is interested in selling these things, they need to make it obvious why they're better.

  11. I just think MB has the wrong line-up of diesel vehicles. I am from a younger generation that never really knew the soot-shooting diesels of yore... I am just frustrated by the lack of decent offerings on diesel vehicles. The M and GL class kind of make sense for the diesel (but I would never buy one), and the R class is just flat out UGLY. What is one of the most ubiquitous MB diesels on the road? A 4 door station wagon. Where is that blueTEC? I am personally saving my pennies for a BMW 335d but I am still miffed that you can't get it in a coupe or a manual (or a wagon). And if anyone came out with a utilitarian diesel truck (Toyota Tacoma Size) they would sell like hotcakes. The current diesel cars that are available in the US just don't make sense for the majority of people. And until someone starts thinking differently nothing will change.

  12. 1. Diesel is more expensive - about 20% more than regular, and during the last gas crisis was about 50% more in our area. That no good.
    2. I'm looking for wagon-capacity and 35-40mpg.
    3. Interested in an economical C-class wagon. With diesel.
    4. 24mpg for a hybrid? Surely you must be joking. Again, looking for numbers more like 35-40+ in a smaller vehicle.
    5. Waiting to see if Subaru brings their diesel over. Yes, I cross-shop Subaru with Mercedes. AWD is compelling.
    6. A diesel hybrid -- why is this not viable?
    7. Mercedes V-8: sublime. The V-6: boring.

  13. I would have loved to own the R-class diesel, but not with an automatic transmission. That is why it tanked, because people in the market for a wagon do not want an automatic. Especially not on a diesel. Diesel must have a manual transmission, especially if it is the one as beautiful and as elegant as the R-class Mercedes is; automatic transmission has no place in it.

  14. @Annatar: No, an automatic transmission is not why the R-Class BlueTEC tanked. It has exactly the same powertrain has the GL and ML BlueTECs built on the same production line, and they have been relatively successful.

    It tanked because U.S. buyers conclusively prefer SUVs and crossovers to station wagons and minivans. Half the buyer pool appeared to view the R-Class as a wagon, the other half as a kind of minivan (despite it not having sliding side doors). Both categories have limited appeal in this market, with wagons far LESS popular than minivans, and so the ML outsold the R 10-to-1 or more.

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