If you’re in the market for a luxury convertible these days, your choices are numerous. Lexus, Infiniti, BMW and Volvo all offer open top cars with loads of comfort and style. The convertibles from those brands all have one modern feature in common: a folding hardtop. The trend of late is to do away with the fabric roof and offer a metal one that folds up when it’s time for open-air motoring.
Mercedes-Benz is bucking that trend. Its new E-Class Cabriolet is thoroughly modern throughout, but sticks with the traditional fabric roof. While hardtops that stow into the trunk make for a very quiet and secure car when the top is up, they’re not without their downsides.
For starters, trunk space is always compromised. All those sections of roof that magically stow away have to end up somewhere, and that somewhere is in the trunk. So while a car like the Lexus IS convertible may have a decent amount of cargo space when the top is up, the situation changes drastically when it’s down.
There’s also increased mechanical complexity. The folding tops in the cars mentioned disassemble into sections for the transformation, so there are lots of hinges, cables and linkages all working in harmony to get the job done. That harmony could eventually be disrupted if one component gets out of alignment.
With the soft top in the E-Class Cabrio, everything works automatically at the push of a switch, but the top itself folds up just as convertible tops have done for decades. The operation can be done in about 20 seconds, and at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. The ability to operate the top in slow traffic is a real convenience.
One of the arguments for a hardtop convertible is that the car is as quiet as a coupe when closed. The E-Class features a four-layer insulated design that, while not completely silent, is worlds quieter than traditional soft tops.
For comfort with the top down, Mercedes devised a system called Aircap that reduces turbulence. You just push a button on the console, and an airfoil deploys from the top of the windshield frame while the rear headrests and the mesh screen between them rise. There’s also an option called Airscarf that blows warm air onto the front occupants’ necks via little vents beneath the headrests. Use the Airscarf with the heated seats, and top-down driving is possible in all but the coldest weather.
Beyond all the features specific to the Cabriolet, the E350 and E550 share the mechanical components with their sedan and coupe E-Class counterparts. Engine-wise, that means either a V6 producing 268 horsepower or a V8 producing 382. For most drivers, the E350 would be more than adequate. Both engines are mated to an advanced 7-speed automatic transmission.
Electronic aids are also in abundance, both as standard equipment and optionally. Centered in the dashboard is a standard LCD display screen that shows basics like radio information and the status of the Bluetooth phone system. Options include satellite navigation with traffic monitoring (with cute little car-shaped icons in red and yellow denoting traffic flow) and HD radio.
For a review, and to use in the annual Braille Rallye*, I had a bright red E550 at my disposal, loaded with every imaginable option. The car was an absolute delight, whether tooling around on surface streets or cruising the freeways. The seats were remarkably comfortable, and the Dynamic Handling suspension let the rather chunky convertible feel much lighter and nimbler than physics would dictate.
Lowering the top is effortless and even a little fun. The controls are located inside a small flip-open compartment on the console, a la something out of a James Bond movie. One switch operates the convertible mechanism, another opens or closes all four side windows at once, and a third button controls that Aircap anti-turbulence system.
Luxurious open-air motoring isn’t cheap. An E350 Cabrio starts at $57,725. Step up to the additional horsepower and standard equipment of the E550, and the tab jumps to $65,675. The bottom line total for my fully loaded Mars Red test car was $76,705
Sure, the hardtop convertibles that compete against the E-Class Cabriolet have advantages, but the entry from Mercedes-Benz is no slouch, even with its old-school fabric top. Besides, unlike those others, when the top on this one is up it still looks like a convertible.
*For the past dozen or so years, I’ve spent a Saturday competing in the annual Braille Rallye, organized by some local sports car clubs and the Braille Institute of Los Angeles. Drivers are paired up with visually-impaired or blind teenagers who read the route instructions via Braille or large print. These are kids who would otherwise be of driving age, but will obviously never have the privilege of operating a car.
I’ve encouraged many friends and colleagues to participate over the years, and everyone has come away absolutely loving the event. If you can give up a Saturday next summer to participate, please send me a note and I’ll make sure you’re invited.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz@pacbell.net.