New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet

The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class cabrio is based on the 2010 E-class coupe that debuted last year. Bringing the total Mercedes-Benz E-class family to four members—sedan, coupe, wagon, and convertible—it goes on sale in the USA on May 10, 2010, as two well-equipped models: the V-6 E350 and the V-8 E550, which reflect the same powertrains as the coupe. The E350 cabrio is expected to start at about $58,000; since the E550 coupe costs about $7000 more than the E350 coupe, we would expect the same price spread in the E-class convertible, such that the E550 cabrio will likely start at about $65,000.

Clearly, a member of the E-class family

The last four-seat Mercedes convertible was the CLK, which was based largely on the C-class sedan. Although the E-class coupe and cabrio also derive some of their parts from the C-class, Mercedes is repositioning these new 2-doors as distinct members of the E-class family in an attempt to recapture some of the E-class 2-door glamour from the 1980s and 1990s. To that end, if you line up all four members of the E-class lineup—sedan, wagon, coupe, and cabrio—you’ll see that they share much of their styling and are clearly all siblings, with similar front ends and the signature hockey stick-shaped LED turn signals.

Mercedes wisely decided not to make the E-class cabrio a hardtop, like Lexus, Infiniti, Volvo, and BMW have done with their competing cars. The E-class cabrio is certainly all the better for it, both in terms of its looks and in its efficiently packaged trunk. The heavily insulated canvas top can be lowered or raised in only 20 seconds at speeds of up to 25 mph. When it’s raised, you’d be hard-pressed even to realize that you’re in a convertible, so well does it seal out noise and vibrations. The trunk itself is fairly roomy, at 13.8 cubic feet. If the top is down, a rigid barrier in the trunk separates the cargo space from the top itself. With the top up, you can easily move the barrier down and out of the way, which makes it easier to load cargo.

Top-down: a special environment

The E-class cabriolet has one principal purpose: to make the top-down experience as comfortable and as pleasurable as possible for the driver and three additional passengers. The biggest innovation to make that happen is a new system, which will be standard on all U.S.-spec cars, called Aircap. Push a button in the center console and an aerodynamic wing that spans the exterior of the windshield header is deployed several inches to deflect air flow higher over the vehicle to better insulate passengers, especially those in the rear seats, from the turbulent air flow. Additionally, the rear headrests and a wind net that links them automatically rise several inches when Aircap is engaged to further deflect air from the cabin.

Aircap worked reasonably well during our drive on the Spanish island of Mallorca, but it is still no match for the fierce winds that buffet rear-seat passengers if all four windows are lowered when the car is being driven at speed. We sat in the back seat while our codriver sped through groves of olive trees in one of Mallorca’s lush green valleys, and there was a minor but discernible reduction in the amount of wind swirling through the rear part of the cabin when Aircap was engaged with the windows up. From the front seat, deploying the Aircap wing created a hissing noise over the windshield header at speeds between about 50 and 70 mph; disengage Aircap and the wind noise moved behind the heads of the front passengers. The hissing noise did dissipate, however, at higher speeds.

Aircap is meant to complement the latest version of Airscarf, the system that Mercedes debuted some years ago in the SLK roadster which blows warm air on the back of your neck if you’re in the front seats. With Airscarf, Aircap, heated seats set to the highest of their three positions, and the side windows up, heck, you could drive the E-class cabrio in relative comfort at any temperatures above freezing as long as there was no precipitation. Conversely, with available cooled front seats and a climate control system that is specially designed to react to the different microclimates, if you will, in the vehicle, the E-class cabrio also has the capability of making passengers more comfortable on a scorching hot summer’s day.

Behind the wheel: carrying on the Mercedes cabrio tradition

The Mercedes-Benz E350 cabrio that we drove provided the sort of relaxed, luxurious, isn’t-life-grand top-down experience that M-B open-top cars have offered sybarites since the Jazz Age. This is no sports car, and that’s fine; there’s sufficient power from the 3.5-liter V-6, which is mated to a seven-speed automatic with paddle shifters, and there’s far more than sufficient grunt from the E550’s 5.5-liter, 382-hp V-8. This is a grand touring convertible that’s all about giving you an unimpeded look at the world, not about making you fantasize about going racing. We’ll leave that role to the inevitable AMG version.

Although it’s not a sports car, the E-class still steers well, with good self-centering, and it has perfectly good body control and a ride that strikes the right balance between supple and firm. Sightlines are good, although the rear seatbacks and net do impede rearward vision a bit. If the V-6 doesn’t purr with pleasure when you hammer the accelerator, nor does it moan in protest. We’d think carefully about springing for the V-8 model: this car is all about what’s under the canvas top, not what’s under the hood, and the V-6 will handily meet most people’s needs and desires. Heck, we even drove a European-market four-cylinder turbodiesel model with a six-speed manual, and it did not lack for go.

Passenger pleasure

Strong winds were no match for the optional Harman Kardon stereo in our test car, which could be heard with clarity even in the rear seat. The rear-seat compartment, naturally, is a fairly intimate space, as passengers are staggered slightly behind the front seats, but there’s still room for a pull-down armrest between the rear seats, and the rear seats themselves are nicely sculptured, supportive, and comfortable. Rear legroom and footroom aren’t bad, either, unless you have a six-foot, three-inch driver in front of you.

The E-class cabrio: pure indulgence

So, no one needs a four-seat luxury convertible, but if you’re looking for a way to reward yourself or someone close to you this spring and summer, the new 2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class cabrio makes quite a statement. We prefer it in principal to any of the hardtop convertibles and therefore see the still-sharp Audi A5 cabrio, which also has a handsome fabric roof, as its main competitor. The A5’s biggest advantage is available Quattro all-wheel-drive, whereas the E-class is available only with rear-wheel drive.

The E-class, though, follows in the footsteps of an incredible array of large Mercedes cabriolets over the years, cars like the 220SE and 300SE cabs of the early 1960s and the W124-series droptops from the early 1990s. Those 1990s cars were amazing: solid, really good to drive, handsome, and painstakingly engineered. We’d venture that the new E-class cabrio does a much better job than the CLK cabrio at carrying the Mercedes-Benz torch

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