If you want a four-seat cabriolet that doesn't give off the distinct aroma of naffness, Mercedes-Benz have something for you with their latest E-Class drop top. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet has quietly become something of a standard bearer for its class. BMW doesn't have anything directly comparable and the Audi A5 Cabriolet is a bit thrusting for many. This much-improved car features cleaner styling, greater efficiency and more equipment. Many big convertibles tend to be a bit of a joke. Here's one that's anything but.
If you wanted to find the last sanctuary of lazy vehicle design, I would unhesitatingly point you in the direction of the four-seat convertible. Here you will usually find cars that are poor to drive, are often converted to drop-top guise in a half-cocked fashion and are marketed to comparatively wealthy but largely clueless buyers, gulled by the prospect that they'll look like Audrey Hepburn while driving the things. It's easy to poke fun at these cars and vehicle manufacturers don't do a great deal to hide the fact that they represent big money for very old rope, but once in a while we get an example that feels like a very thorough job and which makes one pause to reassess the whole genre. Such a car is the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet. Get into one and you have the suspicion that you're going to look a bit of a schmuck. Get out of one after a drive and you'll come to the conclusion that was a wholly charming and largely de-stressing experience which is not something we always associate with modern motoring.
The E-Class Cabriolet used to be all about big capacity, relaxed engines that actually worked very well with the personality of the car. But times change and if you tried to sell this car predominantly with six or eight cylinder petrol engines now, it would likely fall flat on its face. Hence the decision to base the range around high efficiency four-cylinder powerplants. The E200 and E250 petrol models get 2.0-litre fours that develop 184 and 211PS respectively and both get stellar economy figures and deliver decent acceleration. They're a long way removed from the rough Kompressor fours of the past, so don't fret that your drop-top is about to sound as refined as blender full of pocket change. Diesel buyers choose between the 2.1-litre four-cylinder E200 CDI (136PS), E220 CDI (170PS) and E250 CDI (204PS) or else there's a 3.0-litre V6 E350 Bluetec with a healthy 252PS. There are a couple of transmissions for the E-Class Cabriolet: a six-speed manual transmission with short shift travel and the 7G-TRONIC PLUS automatic transmission with gearchanging available either automatically or by using the wheel-mounted paddles. This latest version of the 7G-TRONIC box now features short-term M mode. If the driver has shifted up or down manually, after a set period of time the transmission independently switches back to the fuel-efficient automatic shift mode. As standard, the Cabriolet is fitted with the AGILITY CONTROL suspension with selective damping system. Buyers can choose firmer damping characteristics as part of the Dynamic Handling package. This offers a choice of driving mode settings for sportier accelerator pedal characteristics and gear shift points, as well as electronic damping control, allowing the driver to adjust the damping to their requirements at the touch of a button, depending on whether they want a comfortable or sporty ride. I'm guessing they'd want comfortable.
Design and Build
Without wishing to pander too far to the superficial, it virtually defeats the object of a cabriolet car if it doesn't look good. Fortunately this latest E-Class does. Now that the more angular design theme of this model has bedded itself in nicely, Mercedes has taken to refining the detailing and giving the car a more cohesive look. The old car's four separate lights have been replaced by a pair of elegant one-piece headlamp units. Mercedes deemed the four-eyed look to be one of the E-Class' design staples though and have replicated that with separate LED elements within the light pods. Partial LED lights come as standard, but the optional full LED system is not only better looking but incorporates a jaw-dropping host of adaptive lighting tricks. One special benefit of the new E-Class Cabriolet is that, thanks to the acoustic soft top with its particularly high-grade insulation, the vehicle has the lowest noise level in its class. The acoustic soft top ensures that even at high speeds, only very little wind noise is heard in the interior. That cabin has been tastefully developed, with better quality upholstery and a two-part trim which stretches across the entire dashboard. It can be selected in a wood or aluminium look, irrespective of the equipment line. You'll also notice a three-clock instrument cluster, the trapezoid-shaped, high-gloss framed display in the head unit with flat-frame look, the design of the air vents as well as an analogue clock between the two central air vents. The centre console is extremely tidy, with a small controller to operate the COMAND system and no gear lever.
Market and Model
For improved comfort when driving with the top down, the speed-dependent AIRCAP system is offered as standard equipment. This reduces wind swirl within the vehicle interior and therefore noise levels too. The AIRCAP system deploys automatically at speeds exceeding 25mph and the wind deflector in the front windscreen frame automatically retracts again below 9mph. This ensures that the E-Class Cabriolet looks clean and elegant when driving slowly and when stationary. The draught-stop between the rear head restraints responds to the number of vehicle occupants, with passengers in the rear detected if the seat belts are in use. The positions of the extendable wind deflector in the windscreen frame and the draught-stop are then adjusted accordingly. Other interesting bits include Collision Prevention Assist, a radar-based warning system with adaptive brake-assist systems. An improved Attention Assist system is also standard, which warns the driver when they are showing signs of fatigue. Optional safety gear includes Distronic Plus with Steering Assist, which can keep the car firmly in its lane at a safe distance from preceding traffic, while Pre-Safe Brake can detect pedestrians and brake to avoid a collision at up to 30mph. Pre-Safe Plus senses when a car is approaching too fast and first warns them by flashing the hazard warning lights, and then braces by applying the brakes and tensing the seatbelts to lessen whiplash.
Cost of Ownership
Switching to a range of largely four-cylinder models has meant that the average cost of running an E-Class Cabriolet has been slashed. Even when compared to the outgoing four-pot Cabriolet models, there are real improvements to be had thanks to the efficiency of the latest direct injection systems. Go for a four-cylinder unit and you're looking at around 48mpg from the petrol E200 and E250 models. Choose a diesel engine and economy ranges from around 60mpg for the E220 CDI to around 51mpg for the E350 Bluetec V6. Residual values are some of the best in the sector, although you will have to keep an eye on options pricing if you want to keep a cap on your pence per mile figures.
The Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet might not seem as if it's had a lot done to it upon superficial examination. Yes, it looks a bit cleaner and if you've owned one of the old models, you'll appreciate that the interior has been tidied up a bit, but other than that it looks much as you were. Under the skin, however, it's a markedly different car with far more modern running gear that results in a drive that can be sportier and more comfortable. Plus you end up with running costs that are a good deal more affordable than before. Mercedes could really only go so far down the road to making this car a more dynamic proposal. After all, many E-Class Cabriolet buyers still want something that can be driven gently with the roof down without causing major trauma to their hair piece/do. In that regard, it's still a go-to choice. There really is nothing better. Yet should you require the car to up its game, it's good to know that it has that ability in reserve. Excess capability. Always good to have isn't it?