The Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet, true to tradition

After unveiling the new generation of its popular E-Class Sedan, Mercedes-Benz went to work on the Coupe and introduced it last summer. Now, as we wait for the wagon’s impending arrival to North America, the firm from Stuttgart, Germany, is presenting the Cabriolet.

For Mercedes-Benz, this new convertible is the logical extension of a series of four-seater cabriolets. With a hint of nostalgia we recall the sublime 500K of the 1930s and the 280 SE of the 1970s. For all you antique car lovers, it’s also worth mentioning the lovely 1949 170S, which belong to Quebecker Neru Spiratos. Oh, what a spectacular cabriolet that was, as much for the story behind it as for its delicate restoration. But as nice as it is to reminisce, let’s get back to Mercedes’ new cabriolet!

In using the E-Class Coupe as its starting point, Mercedes-Benz couldn’t really go wrong, as the chassis was splendidly rigid. Of course, when you remove the roof you always get more flexion, which is why the engineers working on the convertible decided to reinforce the pillar behind the doors. They also made a point of making the A pillars (the ones supporting the windshield) more rigid – a so much so in fact that if this cabriolet flipped over, it would be is as resistant as the coupe. And if that should occur, the rear headrests would rise enough (in a fraction of a second) to create a kind of protective cage. Fortunately, we weren’t able to try this system during our test drive. But speaking of safety, it’s worth noting that the passenger compartment boasts eleven air bags, no less. If all eleven were to inflate at once, you’d need a compass just to find the door! At least, that’s how I envision it... The folks at Mercedes-Benz even managed to squeeze an air bag into each door to protect your head. And don’t get me started on all the various driver-assistance systems and collision prevention technology – we’d need new servers for our website in order to list them all.

Montreal’s Olympic Stadium could use a roof like this...
Bucking current trends, Mercedes has given the E-Class Cabriolet a canvas roof. We were assured that die-hards prefer soft tops, as they make it abundantly clear that you’re driving a convertible. Another reason for the soft top – which is more practical and no doubt more important – is that this type of roof takes up less space in the trunk when stowed. The cabriolet’s roof is stowed in a compartment that can be slid back when not in use, thus increasing the trunk space from 300 to 390 litres (compared to the coupe’s 450 litres). The rear seatback doesn’t fold down, but there is a small door for skis. The roof can open or close in 20 seconds at up to 40 km/hr in what is an impressive choreography that really no longer impresses anyone, unfortunately. I’d be curious to know how this complex mechanism could be re-adjusted after an accident (this observation applies to ALL systems of this nature, regardless of the manufacturer).

To prevent the inconveniences normally associated with cabrios, Mercedes-Benz has come up with some solutions. Naturally, there’s the draught-stop between the rear headrests, but the AIRCAP system is particularly worth mentioning. A wind deflector located over the draught-stop directs the air and reduces turbulence, making all four passengers more comfortable. This deflector, operated by the driver (or the passenger, as the case may be), also includes a net, whose primary function seems to be trap any mosquitoes encountered along the way. A few kilometres down the road, you’ll start to find this problem rather pesky. The two solutions are: close the deflector to get the insect cemetery out of sight or get out the vacuum cleaner. But hey, that’s just a small detail. Meanwhile, having been a back-seat passenger in this vehicle for a good 50 km while the temperature dropped on the island of Mallorca (Spain), I must say I was not particularly impressed with the AIRCAP.

Sure, you feel a difference when it’s on, but it’s not as pronounced as Mercedes would have you think. However, it does work better when the side windows are up. And at least conversing with the other passengers, both in front and in the back, is easy – there’s certainly no need to shout. The engineers could have programmed the AIRCAP to start automatically, a little like the spoiler that is deployed once you reach a certain speed. But the people at Mercedes are convinced that some people enjoy letting their hair fly in the wind and consider it part of the outdoor experience.

Airscarf

In contrast, I was much more impressed by the AIRSCARF system, which was already featured on the SL. Vents on the front head-rests blast warm air onto your neck. Actually, it’s more of a gentle breeze; and though you hardly notice it, you appreciate it. If the system could be adapted to the back seats, now that would be something!

When the roof is up, the vehicle’s lines hardly compare to the fluidity of the Coupe, but they’re definitely not ugly either. Cozied into the rear bucket seats, you’ll find decent leg room, though you may also find your hair developing an intimate relationship with the canvas roof if you’re 5’10" or taller. Side visibility is very good. And you definitely don’t feel like you’re riding in a freight car. The driver can see fairly well in all directions, which is rare in a soft-top convertible. I should also mention that this roof is nearly one inch (23.5 mm) thick, so to say it’s silent would be the understatement of the century.

Like a coupe without a roof

As for the rest of the vehicle, the E-Class Cabriolet is nearly identical to the E Coupe, except about 75 kilos in the coupe’s favour. Mercedes-Benz brought mostly diesel versions to the launch, though these will not be imported to Canada. Since it seems to drive just like the coupe, and given that the cabriolet features the same engines as the coupe, I can already say that the power of the 3.5-litre V6 is adequate, while the 5.5-litre V8 is more than adequate. The seven-speed transmission transfers power to the rear wheels with no hesitation. The cabriolet, like the coupe, will only be available in rear-wheel drive (AWD being reserved for the sedan). Thanks to the reinforcements placed here and there, the chassis is incredibly rigid, while the steering is precise and offers great feedback. There’s no doubt about the comfort, and the road handling, though extremely sporty, is perfect.

There will be an E350 and an E550, and the vehicles will be offered with AMG sport features, taking the appearance up a notch. The prices aren’t out yet, but a little bird told me the starting price should be around $65,000. That said, this gossipy little bird has been wrong before... In this vehicle category, I’d be surprised to see an Audi fan shop for a Mercedes-Benz and vice versa, which means the price is less important. The brand’s loyal clients will be ready and willing to pay whatever it costs!

As far as I can see, the E-Class Cabriolet is just about a total success. I have some reservations about the AIRCAP system and the overall look of the vehicle, but the latter point is entirely subjective. One thing’s certain: some people will be willing to sell their soul to get behind the wheel of this vehicle just once, and get a taste of the fun and prestige that goes with it.

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