By Mike Hanley
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 E-Class Cabriolet is, in short, way more than you need -- but just what you've always wanted.
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.
On the plus side, the E550 feels planted in corners. It's low-slung, which helps, and there's very little body roll.
Like other Mercedes cars, the Cabriolet has a way of making the cruising experience serene. You can take the E550 up to 70 mph, but it hardly feels like it's making an effort. It seems to be saying, "Is that all you got? I can do this all day." There's a substantialness to the car that's reminiscent of Mercedes' S-Class full-size sedan.
There is one glaring issue with the convertible, and that's shudder in the body. It's not so excessive that I wouldn't recommend this car because of it, but there's more than I was expecting.
The E550 Cabriolet's cabin is similar to the sedan's, an interior that garnered praise in a recent Cars.com luxury sedan faceoff. It features materials quality and an attention to detail that's expected in this class but sometimes not delivered. The center of the dash is a little busy-looking, with its multitude of buttons, but the rest of it has that timeless Mercedes design that should age well.
The leather-covered front seats have firm, supportive cushions, and apart from some mild soreness near my hips, I was comfortable after a three-hour drive. My E550 had the optional multicontour seats, which add adjustable air bladders in the front seats for tailored lumbar support and side-bolster width.
The front seats also have some of the longest seat cushions I've ever seen. The cushions stretched nearly all the way to the back of my knees (I'm 6-foot-1) and provided quite a bit of welcome thigh support. If you'd rather have less, the multicontour seats include an adjustment for the driver.
The convertible has two rear seats separated by a cupholder console. The seats are decently sized, but the rear of the cabin is short on legroom, and passengers other than small children might need to bum some space by getting their compatriots up front to move their seats forward.
The trunk measures 11.5 cubic feet, but if you want to lower the top you'll have to pull down a partition from the upper part of the cargo area that reduces total trunk space to 8.8 cubic feet.
The partition is taller than ones in other convertibles, meaning that it takes up valuable trunk height -- so much that I wasn't able to fit my small suitcase in the trunk with the partition lowered (it wasn't a problem at all with the partition out of the way).
The E550 Cabriolet comes standard with numerous airbags. They include front-seat side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags up front that deploy from the doors, pelvic airbags for the front occupants, and a driver's knee airbag. Side-impact airbags for the rear seats are optional.
Also standard are antilock brakes, an electronic stability system, active front head restraints, pop-up roll bars and Mercedes' Pre-Safe system. Using sensors in the brake assist and stability systems, Pre-Safe aims to better prepare occupants for an impending collision by cinching the front seat belts, adjusting the front passenger seat for better seat belt and airbag orientation, and closing the side windows. The optional Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control system includes Pre-Safe Brake, which automatically brakes the convertible if a car in front of it slows or stops suddenly, and it prepares the brakes for full stopping power the moment you press the brake pedal. If you don't brake hard enough, an audio-visual warning will ensue.
Attention Assist, a technology designed to detect when a driver becomes drowsy and activate alerts, is also standard.
E550 Cabriolet in the market
The E550 Cabriolet starts at $64,800, and the as-tested price of our test car was $74,910 with options. That may seem like an extravagant sum -- until you look at the convertible's two primary competitors: the BMW 650i convertible and Jaguar XK convertible, both of which start at more than $85,000. There's no question these two cars are luxurious, powerful and stylish, but so is the E550 -- and for a whole lot less. I didn't think I'd ever say this about a Mercedes-Benz, but against these competitors, it's actually the value choice.
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