Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile as he arrives at the Lavacolla airport in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in this file photo.
updated 6/21/2011 6:35:38 PM ET 2011-06-21T22:35:38

Last December, we told you that the His Holiness The Pope was keen on swapping his large gas-guzzling Mercedes SUV 'popemobile' for a suitable electric car.

Now Vatican officials have confirmed the details of Pope Benedict XVI’s latest ride: a custom-made M-Class plug-in hybrid based on the technology found inside the Mercedes Vision S500 plug-in hybrid shown at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show.

Why not a pure electric-vehicle, as the Vatican hinted last year?

Papal safety. In short, the Vatican doesn’t think an all-electric popemobile could accelerate fast enough to get His Holiness out of trouble in an emergency.

Ever since Turkish sniper Mehmet Ali Agca attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City on May 13, 1981, the Vatican has done everything it can to keep the pope safe when he is being transported.

Much like The Beast — the U.S. president’s heavily armored limousine — the popemobile is a highly sophisticated, heavily armored car, much heavier than the M-Class Mercedes it's based on.

It’s the extra armor, bulletproof glass and emergency equipment that gives the popemobile its extra weight. More weight equals higher energy consumption.

However, we do have to disagree with the Vatican on its assessment of an all-electric popemobile.

While it would obviously require a much larger battery pack than those normally found in production electric cars, we think it would be entirely possible to engineer an all-electric armored car with four-wheel electric drive, complete with enough torque to accelerate His Holiness away from an incident quickly and safely.

The real reason for a plug-in hybrid rather than pure electric popemobile lies not with the Vatican, but Mercedes, the automaker of choice for recent papal vehicles.

The Vatican does not pay for vehicles, which means Mercedes has to foot the bill for any vehicle it develops for the pope. Given that, we think Mercedes is reluctant to spend money developing a drive train that simply won’t be used in any other vehicles.

With a possible production version of an S-Class plug-in hybrid in the works, making the popemobile a plug-in hybrid is a no-brainer.

Neither the Vatican nor Mercedes has given any more details on the popemobile for security reasons, but have hinted that the pope will be able to travel about 16 miles in all-electric mode.

We’re not sure if that’s at regular road speeds or the walking pace used at official engagements, but with the extra weight the popemobile certainly won’t be getting anywhere near the promised 85 miles per gallon electric of the 2009 S-Class concept.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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