Review and photos by
Jil McIntosh, CanadianDriver.com
Although I’m very fond of the C-Class sedan – and it’s the furthest my budget could possibly stretch into the German automaker’s offerings – I’ve always thought of the E-Class as being the “quintessential Mercedes.” Large but not unwieldy, elegant yet modern, it’s simply a big, beautiful Benz. For 2011, it reaches out to even more people with the addition of three new models: a new station wagon, diesel-powered sedan and my tester, the E-Class Cabriolet. Any car where the roof goes down is a fine one in my books, but in almost all aspects, this one takes it a bit beyond.
Two powertrains are available, and mine was the E350, which uses a 3.5-litre V6 and, like all E-Class models, a seven-speed automatic transmission. It starts at $67,900; for $77,500, you can move up to the E550, powered by a 5.5-litre V8. Both come with a fully automatic soft folding roof – something that, after a flurry of retractable hardtops, seems to be making a comeback. It has much to do with weight, especially given the pressure on automakers to reduce their overall fuel consumption and the direct link between vehicle weight and vehicle thirst, as well as rear-passenger and trunk room.
My tester was further optioned with $8,650 worth of extra goodies, including an AMG sport package of 18-inch twin-spoke AMG wheels, body kit, sport steering wheel and multi-contour front seats; a Premium Package that added a Harmon/Kardon surround-sound stereo, media interface, parking sensors, navigation system, keyless entry and start and an Airscarf system (more on that later); and Distronic Plus, which monitors vehicles ahead and keeps a specified distance when the cruise control is on, or sends out warnings if the driver’s on his own and gets too close to another vehicle, to the point that it will stop the car entirely if possible.
The engines are the same as those found in the E-Class coupe, and like the two-door fixed-roof models, the cabriolets are rear-wheel drive only, without the four-wheel system found on the E-Class sedan. Seating is strictly for four people, and it’s a fairly tight fit for longer-legged passengers in the rear chairs.
At 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, the V6 is the little brother to the V8’s 382 horses and 391 lb-ft. It’s a deliciously smooth engine with linear throttle response, but it’s a heavy car, and zipping down a gear or two with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters is the best plan when serious passing power is needed on the highway. The official fuel figures are 12.7 L/100 km (22 mpg Imp) in the city and 8.3 (34) on the highway; in combined driving, I averaged 10.8 (26). Premium fuel is the requirement.
For all its size and weight, the E-Class certainly knows how to waltz. The seven-speed transmission is a great unit for smooth, seamless shifts. A button switches from the default “comfort” setting, which takes off in second gear and offers better fuel economy, to a “sport” mode that tightens up the suspension and transmission settings for more spirited workouts. The days of wobbly convertibles are just about over and the E-Class is a prime example of how to properly build one. Despite the lack of a roof, it’s rock-solid and doesn’t need to be handled with kid gloves; you can spin this one around corners just as if it was tied together at the top as well as at the bottom. The turning circle is tight and the speed-sensitive steering firms up nicely at higher speeds, while retaining the light feel you want when spinning it around parking lots at much lower trajectory.
It wasn’t all that warm during my week with the E-Class, and I really don’t like the cold, but what’s the point of a convertible when the roof is up? Sure, you can turn on the heater, but Mercedes takes that a step further with the combination of a standard AirCap and my car’s optional Airscarf.
The AirCap is a deflector in the windshield frame. It forms part of the frame when it’s down, and when it’s up – moved electrically, of course – it presents a mesh barrier that deflects wind to keep warm air in and cold air out. It isn’t pretty when it’s deployed, but it does seem to work, and it’s not visible from inside the car. The warm-air effect is even more noticeable if the windows are up, but if you drive a convertible with the top down and the glass raised, you look like a dork and should have your car confiscated. (For the record, I drove it that way for only a short period, solely for testing purposes, on a deserted road with no Taste Police around.)
The Airscarf is a vent in the top of the seat that blows warm air toward the neck. Throw in the heated seats themselves and while you probably won’t be dashing through the snow, it does do a considerable job of keeping out the chill on cooler days and increasing the length of time the top can stay down in many parts of our country.
The interior is Mercedes’ usual attention to fit-and-finish and design, although the centre stack buttons are small and hard to locate in a hurry. The automatic temperature control electronic display, at the bottom of the stack, is impossible to read when the top is down and the sun is out, so set it before you drop the roof. One final complaint is with the seatbelts. They come forward automatically when you enter, making it easier to reach them, but then their pretensioners pull back snugly before they loosen. Being claustrophobic, I found it very unpleasant to be snatched backwards and momentarily confined every time I did up the seatbelt. My husband simply found it tiresome.
There are no grumbles about the rest of the interior. The AMG part of the interior equation includes the flat-bottomed steering wheel, along with the multi-contour seats, which can be fine-tuned for bolster height, cushion length and other adjustments via a row of buttons along the side. The red leather looks pretty snazzy, too. As with most Teutonic models, the seats feel a bit too firm at first sitting, but reveal their supportive nature when legs and butts feel just as comfortable at the end of a couple of hours as they did at the beginning of the trip.
A little covered cubby on the centre console, which hides the telephone keypad on the coupe, here conceals the roof controls, as well as a button that handles all four windows simultaneously. It takes only some 20 seconds to raise or lower the roof, which can be done at speeds of up to 40 km/h. It’s also possible to lower the top remotely via the key fob, although I couldn’t convince mine to do it – which undoubtedly was more my inexperience with the buttons than any inability on the vehicle’s part. The cloth roof is lined and very little noise gets in when it’s up. I asked about automatic car washes and Mercedes told me it would be fine. It was indeed, without a drop of water getting in.
Unlike convertibles of old, where you were pretty much on your own if the greasy bits ended up pointing skyward, the E-Class is stuffed with the most modern of safety features. Integrated into the rear head restraints, roll bars will deploy faster than the blink of an eye if the stability program detects the possibility they’ll be required. Those annoying seatbelts are actually part of a “Pre-Safe” system that keeps everyone in the proper position in the event of a crash. And with no place to put a true overhead airbag, Mercedes came up with side head airbags that pop out of the door panels to protect in side impacts.
The roof folds into the trunk, where it’s hidden by a smooth hard tonneau cover. The trunk holds 390 litres when the top is up, and a respectable 300 when it’s down. A plastic cover must be pulled down before the roof can be lowered, which prevents too-tall cargo from damaging the top.
All in all, while it’s not inexpensive, the E-Class Cabriolet is a fine machine that’s made even better when open-air motoring is on the menu … even when the weather is a little chillier than what you’d expect on a “drop the top” day. With much of the Canadian climate, you take your open-roof days whenever you can find them, and this is the car that’ll handle them in comfort and in style.
Pricing: 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet
Base price: $67,900
Options: $8,650 (AMG Sport Package of 18-inch AMG wheels, body kit, sport steering wheel and multi-contour front seats, $1,450; Premium Package of Harmon/Kardon Logic7 stereo, media interface, parking sensors, navigation system, keyless start and Airscarf, $4,800; Distronic Plus, $2,400)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $78,645
Crash test results
Jil McIntosh is a freelance writer, a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) and Assistant Editor for CanadianDriver.com. Her personal website can be found at http://www.JilMcIntosh.com
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