2011 Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet: First Drive

Having retired the CLK, Mercedes adds refinement and style with the all-new E-Class Cabriolet

2011 Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet: First Drive
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Mercedes-Benz’ previous four-seat convertible was based on the C-Class sedan, but for 2011 the drop top is based on the E-Class cars, adding a bit more room and prestige. So the E-Class now has two sedans, two coupes, two convertibles, in both 350 or 550 engine designations, plus a wagon with the 350 designation only.

FAST FACTS

1. Like the Coupe and Sedan, the E-Class Cabriolet is offered in E350 and E550 trim with either a 276-hp V6 or 382-hp V8.

2. Unlike most of the competition, Mercedes has opted for a soft top that still provides excellent sound deadening, while keeping weight down and giving plenty of cargo room, with 10 cubic feet available with the top down.

3. Pricing for E350 Cabriolet models starts at $56,850 and jumps to $64,800 for the E550, a respective increase of 8,000 and $10,000 over their coupe counterparts.

4. A new AirCap feature includes a deployable wind deflector above the windscreen that keeps air from flowing though the cabin. Heated and cooled seats are also available.

SOFT TOP DELIVERS QUIET MOTORING, CARGO ROOM

Mercedes chose to build its E-class convertible in rag top form, rather than use the folding hard-tops that are fitted to most of the competing cars including BMW, Volvo, Lexus and Infinity, and that’s a good thing. It helps with the styling of the cars – no bubble top look – and it greatly increases the useable trunk space when the top is up, and especially when it’s down. Total cargo room is rated at 13.7 cubic feet, and even with the top down it's still a substantial 10 cu.-ft.

With the top stored in the trunk, owners will still be able to pack some soft flat luggage for a long weekend getaway for two, and there is a locking pass-through to the rear compartment for longer items. And with a luxurious multilayered headliner, outside noise is nicely controlled for a quiet cabin when the top is up. Mercedes boasts that the top can be raised and lowered in 20 seconds, and even when the vehicle is moving up to 25 miles per hour.

AIRSCARF AND AIRCAP DESIGNED TO EXTEND TOP-DOWN SEASON

The primary goal of a Mercedes cabriolet is to offer the best and most luxurious package for enjoying top down motoring. And while convertibles of all sorts are most popular in southern climates, Mercedes has also made it a priority to focus on extending the open-air season for those living in colder locales. My passion for top-down driving here in Chicago has often meant putting on a heavier jacket, turning up my collar, wearing a hat and driving gloves, and even raising all four windows with blast of heat from the floor and dash outlets in late fall and early spring.

But Mercedes is shooting for a kinder, gentler driving experience. To that end, they offer heated seats and their new AirCap system that you see on all their TV commercials. With the push of a button a body colored wind deflector wing rises up from the windshield header to direct airflow up and over the front and rear passenger compartment. The rear headrests also raise a few inches, and a wind net connected to them raises up to help push the windblast higher and over the heads of the passengers. In addition, there is Mercedes AirScarf system, which blows warm air from just beneath the headrests onto the necks of the front seat passengers, for that extra cozy feel. Surprisingly, however, there’s no heated steering wheel.

I couldn’t really test the effectiveness of the heated seats and AirScarf systems, because of the temperatures being in the low 90’s on test day, but I did roll up the side windows and deploy the AirCap to see how it kept the windblast from getting into the cabin. The verdict? It’s a neat system for the copywriters to write about, and to show off to your friends, and it looks cool on the TV commercials, but it wasn’t easy to determine if it did much to move the airflow out of the cabin, (which wasn’t bad to begin with) and I sense that it is one of those features that turns out to be much ado about nothing. The perforated heated leather seats are also cooled (if you get the $6,450 Premium 2 Package), and are a very nice touch on a hot and humid day to keep your pants and shirt from sticking to your body as you drive.

YOUR CHOICE: MODEST V6 OR MOTIVATED V8

There are two choices for buyers of the cabriolet. The standard engine is a 3.5-liter V6, that makes 268-hp, and powers the car from zero to 60 in 6.4 seconds, or you can upgrade to the 382-hp 5.5-liter V8, that will scoot you to 60 in 5.1 seconds. The 3.5 engine will get 17 and 25 miles per gallon, and the 5.5 will get 15 and 22 mpg. Other than the motors, the cars are pretty much the same.

I had a chance to drive both models on the rural roads outside of Road America Race Track in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Those roads were the original race course for the Road America races before the track was built in 1955, so even though they now have posted speed limits, they’re still a good way to judge performance and handling of the cars, and it’s rare to see a police car in the sleepy town of 1100 people.

CAPABLE HANDLING AND A COMFORTABLE RIDE, BUT TOO MUCH COWL SHAKE

Again, the cabrio wasn’t meant to be a sportscar, but it handles quite capably. Suspension settings are on the luxury side, but there isn’t too much body lean under hard cornering. Naturally, all the sophisticated electronics are in place like traction control, and stability control. The large ABS brakes are outstanding, and steering has good response and feel.

The output from the base 3.5 engine is enough to power this 4,000 lb. car smartly from a stoplight, and in any normal driving situation. Move up to the 5.5-liter engine, and you get more than enough grunt for aggressive driving stints that will put a larger smile on your face. The 7-speed manumatic transmission works smoothly, although the wait time for the paddle shifter to actually change gears is long enough that you won’t bother using them much, except maybe to hold a gear on a downshift.

One fly in the cabrio’s ointment is the chassis stiffness. With the top down, both models will flex and exhibit more than a little cowl shake. Going over railroad tracks, or just finding broken pavement in mid-corner will cause juddering that one doesn’t expect from a Mercedes. Building in structural stiffness to an open top car is always a trade-off between adding weight for additional bracing, but not so much as to affect the performance. A few ticks slower to 60 might be worth a more composed structural feel. But with either car, it’s not a deal breaker.

THE VERDICT

The price of top down luxury ain’t cheap. The MSRP on the 350 is $56,850, and the 550 starts at $64,800. And the option packages shoot the final prices up pretty quickly. Plus, you’ll need to upgrade into a Premium Package to get the AirScarf and heated/cooled seats. My 550 test car had a bottom line of $74,910. But if that’s in your range and you’re in the market for a stylish and luxurious 4-seat convertible, these are good cars to consider.

LOVE IT
  • Luxury amenities abound, even on base models
  • Beautiful styling
  • Usable trunk with top up or down
LEAVE IT
  • Too much cowl shake
  • Rear seat legroom very tight
  • AirCap system of dubious value

RELATED READING

2010 Audi A5 Cabriolet Review
2010 Audi S5 Cabriolet Review
2010 Infiniti G37S Convertible: First Drive
2010 Lexus IS250 C: First Drive
2010 Mercedes-Benz E350 Coupe Review
2010 Mercedes-Benz E550 Coupe Review

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