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.

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