A common bit of advice when weighing a big-ticket purchase is to separate the things you need from the things you want. Hard as it may be to distinguish sometimes -- a Rolex is better at keeping time, right? -- there's almost always a difference.
Mercedes' new E-Class Cabriolet is the kind of car that skews more to your wants than your needs. It's a luxury droptop that exudes loads of cruising style and possesses premium amenities designed to extend the convertible driving season.
The convertible is available in either V-6 E350 or V-8 E550 form. This review focuses on the E550 because that's the version I spent the most time driving, but I also had a chance to briefly test an E350. I'll cover its performance, too.
The convertible is the newest member of the redesigned E-Class family, joining the sedan and coupe that debuted last year, and the droptop retains the sleek lines established by the coupe. It's sort of like the Swiss bank account of convertibles: discreet but highly appealing.
The insulated three-piece soft-top maintains a graceful arc that's very similar to the coupe's roofline. The top stows under a portion of the rear deck without resulting in an overly tall trunklid.
It takes about 25 seconds to lower or raise the top, which is fully powered and works in near silence. The top is controlled by a lever hidden under a portion of the center armrest, and it can operate when the car is in motion, as long as you're not going faster than 25 mph.
One of the most impressive attributes of the E-Class Cabriolet is its quiet cabin when the top is up. It's practically as quiet as a metal-roof coupe, with just some slight wind noise right above your head when traveling at highway speeds.
The E-Class Cabriolet introduces Mercedes' new Aircap system, which features a power-operated wind deflector at the top of the windshield and a powered windscreen behind the rear seats. The system is designed to create a pocket of air around front and rear occupants when the top is down to better keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. For us, Aircap didn't really affect front occupants' experience, but it did help cut down on wind rush in the back seat.
Top-up visibility is a problem in some convertibles, but it's less of an issue in the E-Class. Over-shoulder visibility is good because there aren't any B-pillars to block your view, and the C-pillars are sufficiently thin. However, the Aircap windscreen between the rear head restraints partially obscures cars right behind you when you look in the rearview mirror.
V-6 or V-8?
So why should you spend even more money -- nearly $8,000 more -- for the V-8-powered E550 Cabriolet? You don't really need to, because the V-6 E350 Cabriolet is fairly quick, with a zero-to-60-mph time of 6.4 seconds, according to Mercedes-Benz. However, if you have a hankering for high-speed passing power or just like low-end torque, the V-8-powered E550 is the one you want. The V-8 knocks more than a second from the convertible's zero-to-60 time, to 5.1 seconds, and endows the car with the characteristics of a butler with a penchant for weightlifting: silent operation combined with formidable strength.
The E550's 5.5-liter V-8 makes a generous 382 horsepower, but if you're just out for a leisurely cruise it stays in the background and emits only a quiet burble. Press the gas pedal firmly -- you have to because the pedal takes some effort to push down -- and you'll experience that addictive V-8 rush of power. That high, however, comes at the expense of fuel economy; the E550 gets an EPA-estimated 15/22 mpg city/highway, compared with the E350's less thirsty 17/25 mpg rating.
Both the V-6 and the V-8 team with a seven-speed automatic transmission that drives the rear wheels. The transmission is all about unobtrusiveness through smoothness; with the gear selector in Drive, shifts aren't so much felt as they are heard when engine rpm changes. Even the transmission's manual mode maintains the focus on comfort and refinement; when you press the available upshift and downshift paddles on the steering wheel, you may have to wait a second before the gear change happens, which distances you from the driving experience.
Ride and handling
The suspension doesn't mask bumps completely, instead transmitting them to you in the cabin. Some of them are fairly jarring, too. The E550 Cabriolet's Sport mode firms up the suspension, which lets you feel the road even more and makes impacts sharper. It also holds the transmission in a lower gear for more responsive engine performance.
The firm ride doesn't really go with the E550's light steering, which doesn't demand much effort when turning the wheel. Turn-in response is quick and natural, but there's little feedback, and large bumps jiggle the steering wheel some.