KNOXVILLE, Tennessee - In June 2009, Mercedes-Benz introduced the ninth generation of its E-Class, in two-door coupe and four-door sedan form. At that time, the German automaker stated a Cabriolet body style would follow in a year or so.
That year has passed, and the 2011 E-Class Cabriolets are just about ready to reach dealerships.
The "entire car is larger, wider," said Bernie Glaser, general manager for product management, with more legroom than its predecesor. Glaser noted that the latest E-Class Cabriolet is meant for "four seasons, four passengers." The goal was to "extend the open driving season, as much as possible."
Engineers also sought to reduce noise levels, achieving a 4 db (6 percent) improvement. The new sound-dampening soft top is almost an inch thick, with three layers.
Mercedes-Benz also developed the AIRCAP system, which promises to keep the cabin quieter for conversation or phoning. The cockpit also stays warmer and calmer, because AIRCAP "keeps turbulence out of the cabin." Sitting atop the windshield frame, the special spoiler deploys at the touch of a button. "Air gets channeled high above the cabin, through a mesh," Glaser said.
Keeping occupants comfortable in another way is the AIRSCARF setup, which is also offered in SL and SLK models (two-third of them have it). Swiveling 36 degrees, the AIRSCARF outlets adjust to each passenger, sending warm air toward the neck and head which are quite sensitive to air. Three heat settings are available, and airflow adjusts automatically to car speed. In effect, it will "kind of create a cocoon," Glaser explained; like "a warm pocket of air."
As before, two powertrain configurations are available: V-6 or V-8, each driving a seven-speed automatic transmission. In the E350, a 3.5-liter V-6 develops 268 horsepower. The E550 Cabriolets contain a 382-horsepower, 5.5-liter V-8. Mercedes-Benz claims the V-8 version can accelerate to 60 mph in a swift 5.1 seconds. No guzzler tax is applied anymore, as Mercedes-Benz engineers have managed a 5-percent improvement in fuel economy.
Nine airbags are standard, including new head airbags in the door paneling. Rear side airbags are optional. Integrated rollover bars in the back headrests can deploy in three-tenths of a second. Mercedes-Benz's Pre-Safe system is standard, along with Attention Assist that can help keep a drowsy driver alert. Adaptive Highbeam Assist is available, using a camera atop the windshield. Also available is Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control, with Pre-Safe Brake. In June, a Blind Spot Monitor joins the option list.
Whenever you slip behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz, you expect something at least approaching perfection. All the more so if the top is down on the Mercedes that's about to be piloted. Searching for flaws is largely an exercise in futility, because this mid-level Mercedes-Benz model does just about everything well.
Ride quality almost approaches the sublime, despite a relatively firm suspension. There's no feeling of stiffness, yet the suspension is tight enough for superior, confident control. Steering feels just right, too, with fully appropriate feedback. These Cabriolets may not quite qualify as truly sporty, but they fall more in that direction than most luxury cars.
With a Sport Package installed, the E350 does show modest stiffness on city streets. But on the highway, there's little discernible difference between the Sport and regular setup.
With the E350's V-6 engine, there's no shortage of energy at takeoff, or to pass/merge, and it arrives in a smooth, effortless manner. The V-8 is undeniably stronger (but just as smooth); though neither yields a truly stimulating level of acceleration. (Nor do they have to, as these premium soft-tops aren't aimed at the all-out performance enthusiast.). On upgrades, the E350 can slow down notably until a downshift occurs, and the V-6 may feel strained in some moderate uphill situations.
With the top up, the V-6 seems very quiet. Driving top-down in an E550, the V-8 emits an enticing exhaust rumble when accelerating.
AIRCAP does its job well. With all windows up, the Cabriolet is amazingly quiet. With windows down, you hear wind rush by, yet it doesn't interfere with conversation.
Seats are firm, but deliver an astounding mix of comfort and support, accompanied by snug but wholly unobtrusive side bolstering. Front headroom and legroom are ample on the 14-way power seat, which includes four-way power lumbar support. Gauges are easy to read, including the large center speedometer and smaller tachometer to its side - though dark conditions can impair their visibility. Also easy to read is the inset navigation screen, which is high-mounted.
Mirrors are oddly-shaped but helpful. Windshield pillars don't look all that thick, but they can hide a portion of the road when rolling through twisting segments.
Pricing for the E350 Cabriolet starts at $56,850 (plus an $875 destination charge). The E550 stickers for $64,800. Cabriolets go on sale in May, to be followed in June by the new E-Class wagon. September brings a 50-state BlueTec diesel engine, but only for the E-Class sedan: no soft-top diesels.
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Click here for report on Special Drive of 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SE convertible - ancestor to today's E-Class.