Fri11282014

On The Road

A car for all seasons: New convertible Mercedes is a year-round, top-down hit

Photo Photos By Gary Anderson/Special To The Town Crier The Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet, scheduled for release this month, is designed so that four passengers can ride in turbulence-free, top-down comfort. There are two models, the E350 and E550, selling from approximately $56,000 to $64,000.

 

Convertibles traditionally have been relegated to sunny summer days. But why shouldn’t it be possible to make an all-weather convertible – or as Mercedes-Benz describes it, the “four-seasons, four-people” E-Class Cabriolet?

Certainly our short experience with the new E-Class soft top in the Smoky Mountains in late March suggests Mercedes has come as close as anyone to this goal of year-round, top-down motoring. During the few days we drove the car, temperatures ranged from 45 to 80 F, and the weather went from partly sunny to downright wet and depressing.

But through it all, the E-Class convertible – or Cabriolet, as Mercedes prefers to call it – came through with flying colors. The latest addition to the models in the middle of the Mercedes lineup, the E-Class convertible replaces the CLK in the Mercedes model range. It hits the market this month.

The keys to the claim of four-seasons motoring are threefold: the AirCap (a registered trademark), the AirScarf (also registered trademark) and the heated front seats. All are designed so that four passengers can ride in turbulence-free, top-down comfort, with at least the front two passengers cosseted by warm seats and warm air blowing gently on their necks.

We guess the backseat passengers will have to do with a good old-fashioned lap robe – but at least they will be able to listen to the Harman-Kardon stereo, converse easily with the front-seat passengers and arrive at their destination without looking windblown.

The fact that we can talk about traveling four-up with adults in the backseat speaks volumes (wordplay intended) about the interior room of the new Mercedes two-door E-Class body style in either convertible or coupe version.

So 50 F temps and rain aren’t quite winter weather, and you can’t realistically expect to drive with the top down in all seasons. But for the real extremes of climate, Mercedes has developed probably the tightest-fitting soft top in the business, making it soundproof and protected from the cold.

The new AirCap is really neat. Across the top of the windshield is a black band, approximately 3 inches wide. Push a button hidden under a little lid on the console and the black band rises approximately 2 inches, pulling a mesh screen with it. At the same time, a similar mesh screen rises between the backseat headrests. The devices act as wind deflectors, channeling the air up and over the heads of the car’s occupants.

The system works reasonably well with the windows down but is almost magic with the windows up, reducing both noise and wind to an unobtrusive level. It even works in a light rain, as long as the car is moving at a reasonable clip and isn’t passing 18-wheelers on wet pavement.

Combine this with the seat heaters – becoming commonplace on many high-end cars – and the AirScarf heater in each front headrest, introduced on the SLs a year or two ago, and you can be downright cozy while enjoying the scenery overhead.

We were definitely enjoying the scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains during our two days driving the parkways between Knoxville, Tenn., a farm near Cherokee that was our base of operations and Asheville, N.C.

The location was obviously chosen to encourage us to put the tops down as much as possible. We were pleased to learn the soft top was engineered so it could be raised and lowered at any speed up to 25 mph, which the journalists enjoyed doing frequently, as much for the appropriate level of visibility and weather protection at all times as for the effect it had on other drivers and pedestrians.

The downside to this top-lowering system, though less of a problem than the hardtop convertibles of some manufacturers, is that luggage space is somewhat limited when the top is down. When we drove from the airport, two roll-aboard suitcases could fit in the trunk as easily as in an overhead compartment, but standard suitcases and thick camera bags had to be carried in the backseat.

The curves of the parkways, perfectly designed for enjoyable driving at a comfortable 45-50 mph, showcased the precise steering Mercedes has engineered into the new E-Class models. One of the Mercedes engineers on the trip commented that the product planners concluded that when people talk about good handling, they generally mean good steering feel. The developers concentrated on the steering systems, improving the physical linkages and bushings between the steering wheel and the road and the electronic algorithms that determine how much assistance to provide depending on the speed and the maneuver executed.

As a consequence, steering was precise and confident at all times, transmitting a reasonable level of road feel without any jerkiness. Mercedes has engineered in just the right amount of assistance, varying with speed, to make long drives relatively effortless without a feeling of numbness in the steering response.

Fortunately, they didn’t ignore the true meaning of handling: how the suspension controls the compensation for bumps and the amount of lean while cornering. Handling, in those terms, was excellent.

The new E-Class will be available in two models.

The base E350 has a V-6 engine producing 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, more than adequate for comfortable cruising in the 3,785-pound car (200 pounds heavier than the coupe).

The sportier E550 has a 382-horsepower V-8 engine that produces 391 pound-feet of torque. The V-6 is rated at 17 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, while the V-8 is rated at 15 mpg city and 23 mpg highway. Base price for the E350 will be $56,850, with the E550 priced at $64,800, exclusive of destination charges and options.

The two versions share the same attractive lines, with only LED parking lights in the front, aero-style rocker panels on the sides and square tailpipes distinguishing the E550 from the standard E350. Either way, the engineers report that the 0.26 coefficient of drag is the best in this model category.

Though we certainly enjoyed the sound and feel of the V-8’s horsepower on the few opportunities to pass a slower vehicle on the parkway, we could be quite happy with the V-6 version.

All the standard and optional safety equipment Mercedes introduced on the E-Class sedan a year ago is available on both versions of the convertible.

Attention Assist software that continuously monitors steering corrections is standard on all E-Class models. If it senses the driver is dozing off – people tend to hold the steering wheel still, then make abrupt corrections when drowsy – it lights a coffee cup icon on the gauge cluster, beeps a warning and suggests it’s time to take a break.

Other high-tech options: a lane-departure camera that shakes the steering wheel if the car crosses lines without signaling, night vision on the navigation screen that detects pedestrians by their shapes and radar that maintains a constant distance from cars ahead when using cruise control and readjusts, then applies the brakes if closing quickly on a slower object ahead.

And there’s more E-Class down the road. We were shuttled around the resort in a new 4Matic (four-wheel drive) E-Class station wagon scheduled for introduction in June. A BlueTEC diesel engine will be an available option on E-Class models in the fall.

Judging from the number of E-Classes of various vintages driving around Los Altos, this is a popular model range for Mercedes owners, and the addition of the new Cabriolet is bound to be a hit. Our short time with the new model suggests that local owners are going to be quite happy with this car, where they can be top-down almost year-round.

 

Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.

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