The proverbial Swiss Army Knife of the Mercedes-Benz line, the various variants of Benz’ mid-sized E-Class now total four: sedan, wagon, coupe and convertible. They all look good, perform well, and deliver enough luxury and technology to confirm the mojo is back. It wasn’t that long ago that the E-Class was a blobby, wobbly, oval-strewn runner-up. The current generation is leagues ahead and seriously worth a look.
1. Powered by a 382-hp 5.5L V8, the E550 Cabriolet can hit 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds.
2. The drop-top E-Class features the first use of the AIRCAP system that pops up from the top of the A-pillars to direct air around the cabin.
3. At $64,800 Mercedes bills the E550 Cabrio as the “most affordable V8 four-seat convertible” available.
The most intriguing – bar the hyper E63 AMG – are the convertibles. Taking the body from the coupes and just chopping off the roof is not the kind of product Mercedes-Benz hopes to rebuild its reputation on. There are unique body panels, additional chassis braces to add stiffness, and pretty trick technology designed to keep you and your passengers comfortable and safe at speed.
INNOVATION FOR COMFORT, PRACTICALITY
While so many other cars have moved towards folding-metal hardtops, the ‘E’ uses a traditional three-layer fabric top that powers down quickly with one button. That also means a reasonable 11.5 cu.-ft. trunk that loses less space when the roof is stowed than its rivals.
Perhaps the most aesthetically questionable new feature is Benz’ AIRCAP system, which is essentially an electronically activated spoiler that pops up off the windshield header to divert airflow over the cabin. It does work more deftly than the bulky screens and blockers that usually cover the rear seats in competitors’ models, but when deployed, looks a little foolish, especially in a brighter color.
Otherwise, the transformation from coupe to convertible hasn’t lost any of the former’s aggression. It’s a long way from the old CLK convertible this essentially replaces in Mercedes-Benz family. And if a buyer wants something a little more aggressive, there are optional AMG tweaks to spice things up.
BIG V8 DELIVERS FUN, NOT FUEL ECONOMY
Although there is a V6-powered entry-level version, the V8-powered E550 is hard to resist, so that’s what we’re focusing on here today. The large 5.5-liter V8 produces 382-hp and 391 lb-ft of torque, which is sent to the rear wheels through the standard seven-speed automatic transmission. Even with the convertible’s not-terribly tiny 4,050-lb curb weight, that’s still powerful enough to push the drop-top E550 to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds.
There is a penalty, though, and that’s at the fuel pump: the big V8 consumes 15 mpg in the city and just 22 mpg on the highway. If you put your foot in – as the rorty exhaust would encourage – expect those to drop off significantly.
But the payoff is a responsive throttle, aided by the smart gearbox that smoothly changes down a gear or two when called for. Switching to Sport and using the standard steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters gives you significant control over your progress, and is one of the better systems out there.
Perhaps the one big drawback is knowing what’s in the development pipe, with Mercedes certain to offer the E-Class drop-top with its new twin-turbo 4.7L V8 that makes significantly more power and vastly improved fuel economy.
The coupe’s responsive handling has been left nearly intact, but the added weight and loss of rigidity to take a small toll. Turn-in is good, the E550 is nicely balanced, and has one of Mercedes-Benz’ better steering setups that communicate what the 18-inch front tires are up to. The wider rears aren’t troubled much unless you’re truly vicious with your inputs, but even then the traction and stability control won’t allow much slip.
Other safety systems that help save your bacon include nine airbags, active front head restraints, pop-up roll bars, and the company’s PRE-SAFE, which activates seat-belt tensioners and moves the front seats to the best position possible if it senses that a collision is imminent.
BUYING A BENZ FOR VALUE?
It’s hard to imagine when a Mercedes-Benz is a segment value-leader, but the company claims the $64,800 E550 is the “most affordable V8 four-seat convertible” on the market. We suppose that’s true. The E550 is less expensive than the larger BMW 650i ($85K), or the $67K M3 Cabrio, but with 414 hp and a track-ready suspension, the M-badged Bimmer would be hard to pass up. Audi doesn’t play in this realm since it reserves its V8s for the S5 Coupe. The excellent S5 Cabrio is only $59K, but its supercharged V6 is down on power to the Benz.
In a truly literal sense, both Ford and Chevrolet offer V8 four-seat convertible Mustangs and Camaros for nearly half of what Mercedes-Benz wants for the E550, so that clearly disproves the claim. But the cross-shop between the two would be virtually nil. There isn’t likely to be a single ‘Benz buyer would put up with the hard plastics, and down-market feel compared to the solid E-Class. The three-pointed star does bring with it a certain air – earned or not – of exclusivity.
The E550 Convertible is a great car, and successfully banishes the old CLK from our consciousness. For the lucky few who purchase one, though, it will inevitably spend most of its life being a trophy, rarely topping the speed limit, never pushing the limits of the driver or the car itself. So kudos to Mercedes-Benz for making this car much better than it ever needed to be.