It's good, but the V8 version is better...
Mercedes-Benz E 350 Cabriolet Review
It's good, but the V8 version is better
You'd think, with interest rates continuing to climb faster than the mercury at Marble Bar, buyers would be put off premium products. The truth is, top-end cars are selling like hotcakes on a Sunday morning at Maccas. Take the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet, for example. So far this year, more than 590 of the things have left dealerships and are now sitting in driveways.
The reason? Well, it's a Mercedes-Benz, and it's a convertible. And right now, before the C-Class Cabriolet hits our shores, it's the cheapest Merc drop-top you can buy. The range starts from $105,950 with the E 250 CDI, but this week, we've put the middle-spec E 350 Cabriolet through the wringer to see what's what.
The E-Class Cabriolet has made a point of difference by bucking the trend of large, folding metal hard-tops. The reason? You can still be moving while you stow the roof - which saves you sitting on the side of the road, waiting for the conversion - but more importantly, you have the benefit of usable luggage area under the folded canvas. A folding metal roof would take up almost all usable boot space. Cars so equipped can only ever fit a briefcase or a small bag of groceries under the stacked roof, so the E-Class is much more practical.
The engine is the same 3.5-litre V6 we've seen for a few years now. Making a healthy 200kW and 350Nm, it's enough to power the car from 0-100km/h in 6.9 seconds. Not overly quick, say compared to a BMW 335i Convertible, and it does need a bit of a prod to wind up. It's at its best above 4000rpm, but on the move, the V6 is sufficiently powerful to make overtaking on a country road a quick and easy manouevre. It's also smooth. Very smooth.
As is the transmission, which is the same seven-speed used in the E-Class Sedan, and E-Class Coupe. It's a seriously creamy unit, going head-to-head with the best ZF can offer. Like the E 500 Cabriolet we tested a few weeks ago, the 'sport' button should be near the gear-lever - not where it is on the centre stack - but once you locate it and press it, response is quicker, changes snappier and downshifts happen earlier. There are wheel-mounted paddles, too, but to be honest, you won't be using the sport mode too often - the E 350 Cabriolet is a cruiser at best, not a tarmac warrior.
This is why the ride - despite the 18-inch wheels - is softer than the E 500, and strikes an excellent balance between comfort and handling, probably due to the Dynamic Handling pack which uses electronic damping control. Road noise from the low-profile tyres is subdued, but thankfully steering feel isn't.
There's a good weight and consistency to the steering, and although it's not as involving as the BMW 3 Series Convertible, it's still gratifying and communicative. Turn in is quick enough, and it'll keep the driver in anyone happy enough with its confident handling. At 1.7 tonnes, and with a platform based off the C-Class, it has its limits, but as far as convertibles go, it's extremely rigid, with no scuttle shake to speak of. (In fact the E Cabrio is the replacement for the now nonexistent CLK.)
Inside, you'll find a near identical cabin to the E 500 Cabriolet, and indeed, the E-Class Coupe. Quality and fitment is right up there, with tactile plastics across the dashtop, quality leather and a beautifully clear screen which displays sat-nav, audio and vehicle info. A secondary information and selection screen can be found in the centre of the speedometer, where trip, navigation, audio and some preferences (like vehicle assistance systems) are displayed.
While it sounds busy, actually the instrumentation is clear and legible, with needle which floats across the increments, freeing up visible space in the centre. There's even an analogue clock for the (pardon the pun) old-timers. The centre stack is far too busy; most of the buttons are made redundant through either the voice command system, or through the console mounted rotary controller, which Mercedes-Benz calls COMAND. Harmon/Kardon supplies the stereo which is extremely clear, roof up or down. A bit more bass would be good, though.
Space is good, especially considering it's a drop-top, with back seats which adults can use, albeit for very short trips. Yes, it's a little squeezy back there, but tweens will love it. If the roof's down, of course. The front seats have heaps of adjustment via the side-mounted switches and are very comfortable. It's difficult not to love the seat position toggles mounted high up on the door where you can see them, rather than fumbling around trying to feel which buttons do what, like other cars.
Exterior fit and finish is excellent - as you'd expect from a $140,000 car - and the lighting bolt cutline at the rear edge of the bonnet is a neat design trick. The E-Class shape has translated well from sedan to coupe to convertible, losing nothing in its visual appeal. It still looks balanced, unlike some bum-heavy folding hardtops. The only time it looks out of sorts is when you activate Aircap.
Aircap is a deflecting blade which rises from the top of the windscreen, keeping the cabin unperturbed from the normally blustery conditions with the roof down at speed. Not only does it keep the cabin quiet, but it also prevents cool or hot air (depending on your climate control setting) being whisked out and replaced by ambient air from the opposing end of the mercury scale.
Far from a gimmick, Aircap is extremely practical, however does look a little odd while driving, as it spoils the clean profile of the car. But combined with Airscarf - a gentle stream of heated air from vents in the headrest - you can be toasty warm even on the coldest days, with the roof down. It would be nice for Airscarf to blow cooled air for hot days, though, as we have quite a few of those here in Australia.
Therein lies the quandary. Is it worth the extra $10,0o0 to have the Cabriolet over the Coupe, if you're hardly going to use it with the top down? Let's break it down a bit.
In the E 500 you're getting similar performance (0-100km/h in 5.3 seconds for the Cabriolet versus 5.2 seconds for the Coupe) plus you're also getting much deeper, crisper sound - having that V8 under the bonnet certainly makes for some of the difference in dough. The V8 Coupe also handles better than the V6. With the E 350, performance loses out by quite a margin (6.9 seconds for the Cabriolet plays 6.3 seconds for the Coupe) - you can definitely feel it. The price difference in both the E 500 and E 350 between hard-top and soft-top is identical ($10K), and there's little aural benefit with the V6 - it sounds almost identical. Then there's the fact you're going to be baked by UV for most of the year; stock up on your sunscreen. And for the remaining few months, it's going to be raining. Little wonder when you drive around, most convertibles have their roof on.
The E-Class Coupe also looks better all the time, and is more rigid and therefore more composed when pressing on over twisty roads. Fact is, if you must have a convertible and you must also have a real driver's car, then it may pay to look BMW's way. The 335i Convertible is much more focussed, more engaging, and is around $10,000 cheaper - so for the same price as the E 350 Coupe, you can have a drop-top. Not to mention, of course, it's a whole lot quicker - 0-100km/h is knocked off in 5.8 seconds - that's a 1.1 second difference over the E 350 Cabriolet.
The Beemer is less practical, though, as its folding hard-top chews up almost all usable boot space, and it doesn't have as many features as standard, which is where the E-Class Cabriolet claws back some points. Lexus's IS 250C is another option; it is around $40,000 cheaper, but it's a fair bit slower, too. The Volvo C70 T5 misses the mark, however, with its clunky sat-nav, and soft handling.
Really, the Mercedes-Benz E 350 Cabriolet is for a cruiser who wants a convertible, and wants a Mercedes-Benz. There's nothing really wrong with it, however there's nothing overly special about it, either. It's safe, practical, comes loaded with toys and with Aircap and (optional) Airscarf, it has some genuinely good features.
If you've got the money and you're dead set on a convertible, you're better off with that bellowing German V8 under the bonnet. You get a much better drive experience, which is what having a convertible is all about, isn't it?
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*Pricing is a guide as recommended to us by the manufacturer and does not include dealer delivery, on-road or statutory charges.