By: Jason Woosey

Let's cut straight to the chase here: full electric vehicles are an unrealistic proposition at the moment, mainly due to the rather limited distances that you can cover between charges. Yet there is a bridge between today's internal combustion 'dinosaurs' and the longer-range battery cars that the future promises to invent for us and it's called the plug-in hybrid.

Following the Volvo XC90 and BMW X5 plug-in SUVs that were introduced earlier this year, the new Mercedes C350 e brings this 'best of both worlds' drivetrain format to the sedan segment and it also has the honour of being the first South African-built hybrid vehicle, following a R100 million investment in the company's East London plant.

At R804 900, the C350e doesn't come cheap, but for many it might prove the perfect compromise. The drivetrain mates an electric motor to the same 2-litre direct injection turbopetrol engine found in the C250, with total system outputs of 205kW and 600Nm when they're working together. Drive goes to the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic gearbox with an additional clutch for decoupling the petrol motor. When that happens, you can drive for a claimed 31km on electric power alone, thanks to the large 6.2kWh lithium-ion battery.

In theory you could use its battery-only mode to cover the average commute and then call upon the petrol engine as a back-up for those longer trips, and you really wouldn't feel any compromises as the C350e is as fast, smooth, quiet and comfortable as you'd expect any premium saloon to be, and practicality is hardly affected - with the battery's bulge reducing boot space by 125 litres to 355.

It can get thirsty on the open road

Yet for this car to really pay its green dues, you'll have to be disciplined enough to charge it every day and keep your highway driving to a minimum. There's the rub. The additional electric storage and drive components impose a weight penalty of almost 300kg over the C250 and that really affects your petrol consumption once the battery's juice has run out. The launch route took us between East London and PE, and while the first stretch was extremely economical due to the battery power, the full trip saw us average 8.0 litres per 100km. With that in mind, I can hardly see the 'certified' combined fuel consumption figure of 2.1 l/100km being relevant to many people.

Clever driving modes

Like most hybrids, the C350e does recuperate energy while braking and coasting and there is a glut of modes for the transmission and hybrid drivetrain that adapt to your mood and driving conditions, along the eco-to-sport continuum. There's even a mode that allows you to save the stored battery power if an urban stretch (in which petrol power is highly inefficient) exists towards the end of your journey and another one that will allow the engine to charge the battery for that 'use later' scenario. In fact, the car can even work all of that out on its own if the end destination is dialled into the satnav system.

Another help-you-along is the haptic accelerator pedal that warns you when to back off to avoid the petrol motor kicking in or when lifting off would allow it to switch off and save fuel.

The C350e comes standard with Airmatic air suspension and is available in Avantgarde, Exclusive and AMG Line trims.

S-Class goes plug-in too

For those to whom the C350e isn't quite big or grand enough, Mercedes-Benz has also introduced the S500e plug-in hybrid, with a claimed 33km electric range and 325kW/650Nm hybrid drivetrain that includes a twin-turbo V6 engine. It's yours for R1 875 500.

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