2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet: Continuing Legendary Tradition

Cabriolet was originally a term that meant “to cavort” or “cut a caper.”  In the 1700s, the term came to be used to describe a two-wheeled horse carriage with a folding leather top.  Later, any carriage for hire became known as a “cab,” hence today’s synonym for a taxi.  In the late 1800s, the first motor vehicles were all open cars, with no tops at all.  As automobiles developed in the early 1900s, most were still convertibles.  As the automotive industry evolved through the 1900s, the term “Cabriolet” acquired a specific meaning – a convertible that seats at least four people.  While Mercedes-Benz produced some of the world’s most collectible convertibles and Cabriolets across a 120-year history, its modern era began with the launch of the 1993 E-Class Cabriolet, its first four-seat convertible in several decades.  A slightly smaller CLK Cabriolet followed in 1999, and a second-generation CLK Cabriolet line was offered through the 2009 model year.

It was Mercedes’ passion for open-air motoring at its best that led me to purchase a mint 1994 E-Class Cabriolet.  My car has won awards with my local Mercedes-Benz club, and folks are always offering me wads of money for it.  No deal.  This one stays with me.  Why?  Because it was ahead of its time, offering four seat convertible luxury, with stellar safety features such as automatic roll bars, anti-lock brakes and traction control.

When you get behind the wheel of my ’94 and turn the key, the seatbelts are “presented” to you by motorized arms.  Burl walnut adorns the center console, with premium leather cosseting your body.  Under the hood lives a straight six that pumps out 217 horsepower.  Plenty of get-up-and-go, but certainly not barn-burning performance.  My E320 sold for $85,000 new, mostly because the complicated canvas top mechanism was hand assembled.  It was and still is an amazing car, though more of a boulevard cruiser than canyon carver.  After test driving the 2011 Mercedes E350 and E550 Cabriolet, many of the attributes of the 90s E-Class Cabs are present, with serious updates on luxury, performance, handling and safety.

The new Cabriolets are not only stunning in design, and fully complemented with luxury, but they also kick some major tail when you don your leather driving gloves for a serious performance drive.

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee provided the testing ground for the solidity and rigidity of the new E-Class Cabriolet platform during the U.S. press launch for the car.  Removing the metal roof from a vehicle presents major challenges for convertible designers, as the roof is a major structural member.  Cut the “roof” off of a sturdy eggshell, and the “body” becomes a quivering mess.  The same applies to convertible cars.  The new E Cabriolets use high strength steel and full chassis bracing in all critical areas and exhibited absolutely no cowl or body shake over varied road surfaces.  I expected that, as my ’94 was extremely rigid, with just a hint of cowl shake over the worst of roads.  I knew that Mercedes would not launch an all-new E-Class Cabriolet until they had it just right.

What I did not know was that this topless machine would be such a stellar handler. Get a bunch of automotive journalists together and toss them the keys to a V6 or V8 powered automobile, and you are bound to have fun.  Toss in heavy spring rains and rough road surfaces on day two of our test drive, and you are bound to have some sad faces.  No problem with the new Cabriolets though, as both models feature a unique and innovative “AIRCAP” system, an amazing piece of engineering comprised of over 200 parts.  At the push of a button, AIRCAP reduces air turbulence at all four seats, allowing year-round driving with the top down.  AIRCAP consists of two units – a wind deflector with a mesh screen that can extend about 2½ inches above the windshield frame, and a second deflector between the rear seats.  In short, the deflector on the windshield frame raises the airflow over the interior while the mesh screen raises the air pressure in the interior slightly.  The second deflector between the rear seats reduces backflow into the cabin.  AIRCAP literally creates a sea of heated air in the winter and cooled air in the summer. Additionally, AIRCAP quiets the interior, making it easier to communicate among all four occupants.  In comparison to many other air management devices, AIRCAP doesn’t require any installation or removal, and doesn’t take up valuable room in the trunk or the rear seats.  It looks odd when it is in the open position, as it messes up the smooth lines of the car.  It works so well however that you will not mind the temporary disruption of exceptional styling. AIRCAP works in conjunction with the AIRSCARF head and neck level heating system that debuted on earlier Benz convertible models. Combining the two innovative systems truly means the new E Cabriolet can be used with the top down in all but the coldest weather. The AIRCAP system also has an ancillary benefit.  Of course when testing the new model, we wanted to lower the power canvas top to experience open-air motoring.  We did just that and got caught in a heavy downpour midway through our trip.  Yes, most convertible cars will keep you fairly dry if you drive fast enough that the wind rushes over the windshield frame and pushes the rain that would normally drench you out of the way.  The AIRCAP raises the wind zone so high that you can cruise at lower speeds in pouring rain with just an occasional drop or two of rain to wipe from your brow.  Yes, we caused quite a scene with our fellow drivers, who must have thought we were getting wet and just didn’t care.  Now Mercedes does not promote this as a benefit of the AIRCAP system, but I sure think it is.

Under the hood, the E350 comes with a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.  V6 acceleration time is 0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds.  The V6 returns 17 mpg city and 26 mpg highway.  The 5.5-liter V8 in the E550 is a beast, with 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque.  Zero to sixty mph comes up in a scant 5.1 seconds, and the V8 returns a surprising 15 mpg city and 23 mpg highway.  The sound of the V8 under partial or full throttle is worth the additional cost you’ll pay in reduced fuel economy.  Both engines channel power to the ground via a seven speed automatic tranny with manual shifting capability (console shifter or steering wheel paddles).

On the road, the E-Cabriolet is so well sorted, I thought the driveline was all-wheel drive.  Handling in the rain at high speeds was just phenomenal, and thoroughly reassuring.  Handling in dry weather reminded me of my canyon runs in the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG supercar. The E-Class Cabriolet makes use of a strut-type front suspension that combines two lower links with a coil spring strut, along with twin-tube gas shocks and a stabilizer bar.  At the rear, Mercedes’ venerable five-link suspension has been refined for use in the new Cabriolet.  The links, wheel carriers and struts have all been revised.

Convertibles have and will always be less safe than there hard-topped cousins (for the E-Class Cabriolet that is the E-Class Coupe), but that does not mean they are unsafe.  To help prevent rollover accidents, Mercedes employs the latest electronic stability control on the Cabriolet.  Should you in fact roll over, automatic rollover bars pop up in milliseconds to protect you.  Nine airbags are standard, including a driver’s knee airbag and side head airbags for front seat occupants.  Rear side airbags are standard, with two additional rear bags optional, for a total of 11 airbags when fully equipped.  The innovative “ATTENTION ASSIST” system couples a steering sensor with intelligent software that can identify behaviors that drivers make as they begin to get drowsy.  The system senses drowsiness and alerts the driver.  Optional automatic emergency braking, which is activated if a collision is likely, and adaptive high beams that use a small windshield-mounted camera to control high-low beam operation automatically are additional safety features.  PRESAFE collision mitigation is also standard.  The E-Class Cabriolet is now the “Gold Standard” for convertible safety, surpassing Volvo’s excellent C70 droptop in standard or available safety features.

So why did Mercedes-Benz use a traditional canvas top instead of going with a retractable hardtop convertible roof?  To me, the styling of the new E-Class really answers that question.  The car has powerful, dual character lines that strengthen side panels.  Aggressive rear wheel flares tie in into a raised decklid.  Dual exhaust tips are oval on V6 models and square on V8s.  The canvas top, available in black, blue or beige, just looks right on this powerful cabriolet. Nearly an inch thick, the three-layer insulated soft top is waterproof and windproof.  The top opens or closes in about 20 seconds (we appreciated this closing speed during our rain drive!). Pushing a short lever between the front seats or pressing a button on the “SmartKey” remote unit operates the top.  If the automatic closing system ever fails, for example if the battery goes dead, the hydraulic system can be de-pressurized quickly, so the top can be closed and locked manually.

You already know that this convertible is a stellar handler, but is it comfortable?  Yes it is.  Seats are firm but supportive, and ride quality is just superb.  It absorbs bumps and other road imperfections with ease.  Interior luxury is also first rate, with wood, leather and quality plastic trim all melding without a fuss.  Yes, my favorite seatbelt presenters still hand front occupants the belts via power arm extenders.  Premium harman-kardon audio cuts through wind noise well with the top down, but lacks low end bass power.  Rearward vision with the top down is good, but shorter drivers complained about the rear mesh screen that works in conjunction with the AIRCAP to reduce interior turbulence.  Rear vision with the top up can be a challenge when checking your right blind spot, which is sizeable.  I never felt unsafe when changing lanes, you just have to look carefully and be sure your side view mirror is properly aligned.

I did have a surprising vision problem looking out the windshield.  At the upper center of the windshield, the rearview mirror is connected to a plastic housing that contains a camera and sensors for onboard safety systems.  Very tall drivers (I am 6’9” tall) will find this a major blind spot as you cannot see over the top of the rear view mirror.  I found several occasions where I had to dip my head to see under the mirror/housing, particularly on the curvy roads in the Great Smoky Mountains.  If you are tall, take a long test drive to see if this is a problem for you.  I checked with other tall drivers on the press launch event, and they were not bothered by this at all.

The 2011 E-Class Cabriolet is a complete, four seasons fun machine.  The E350 retails for $56,850 while the E550 sells for $64,800 – both prices about the same as the outgoing, smaller, CLK models.

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