It’s fair to assume the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet won’t be on a great many readers’ shopping lists. That’s not because it’s bad or unappealing – it’s neither – but because of choice’s spoils.
There’s currently a choice of four drop-tops wearing a tri-star badge: this categorically large E-Class the altogether smaller Cs and SLCs and the plus-sized SL flagship. And that’s not counting the GT and GT C Roadster from skunkworks AMG.
There hasn’t always been such choice in the quarter of a century between this brand-spanking ‘E Cab’ and its pioneering ancestor, the 300CE 24 launched back in 1992.
Numerous factors, from the global economic climate to swings in buyer tastes, has cast grey clouds over the fair-weather, open-top luxury motoring segment in periods since, and with a murkiness which Stuttgart freely now admits where there seemed “no future for the cabriolet”.
Today, the sheer choice in Benz soft-top convertibles and hard-top roadsters suggests warm and sunny days ahead, which is precisely the weather in which the E Cab range found itself basking in at the recent international launch in the thick of the European Summer.
It's something of a smorgasbord, too, given buyers in that region have a choice of four variants: entry diesel and petrol four variants in the E220d and E200 respectively, while a mid-range E300 – with its high-power turbo-petrol four – and the E400 4Matic flagship scaling up the range.
Only the E300 and E400 4Matic will be offered from September in Australia where, as is something of a German luxury car tradition, specialised models such as large drop-tops tend be sit upmarket relative to their four-door kin, skewed in (as yet unconfirmed) pricing and specification to appeal to buyers who typically tend to have spend-more/want-more tastes.
Even before setting off on the launch’s two-day Swiss-Franco-Italian road trip, from Lake Geneva to (literally) the top of the famed Alpine mountain Mont Blanc, the E Cab clearly serves a specific role in the Benz pantheon and, thus, backs itself cosily into a niche.
It doesn’t play the sportiness card as strongly as the smaller/lighter/more-affordable C and SLC stablemates, nor does it clamour to ‘captain of industry’ ostentation like the flagship open-top SL-Class.
Instead, it’s undeniably E-Class in form and functionality, its exterior design clinging desperately to the recently launched E Coupe, its cabin biscuit-cutting the wow factor that debuted on the E Sedan, an amalgamation of High Street style tempered with austerity that’s tailor-fitted for a primary role as a classy and spacious boulevard cruiser first, everything else second.
After around 300 kilometres of road testing, from the crush of Old Town Geneva to flowing French Alpine curves, roof up and down in sun and rain, it's easy to come away with the notion that it’s nailed its quite specific brief confidently if failing to convince as the last word in any of the four pillars – beauty, comfort, dynamics, assistance – its maker claims is the car’s core DNA.
Beauty. Eye. Beholder.
Designers have bucked contemporary fashion for heavy lines and angles by lending a soft touch to body curves, and the multi-layered, full-electric folding roof – which raises or stows in around 20 seconds at speeds of up to 50km/h – apes the silhouette of the E Coupe reasonably faithfully.
That said, roof stowed nice and flush against the window line, with some neat looking if plasticky feeling trim work framing the cabin space from the body work, it’s quite handsome and stylish.
Well, at least that’s the case before the goofy looking AirCap spoiler atop the windshield surround and the powered mesh-like wind breaker behind the second row are deployed, instantly reducing in cabin air turbulence and ruining the car’s stylists’ handiwork in one fell stab of a console button.
Why no hard-top? Benz's designers say it's for visual reasons. A fabric roof distinguishes a soft-top from sedans and coupes in the same model range, whereas a hard folding roof is only applied to sportscar-based lines. All very logical, then.
The E Cab has grown in size, if inconspicuously so in appearance despite significant increases in length (up 123mm), track width (up 74mm) and wheelbase (up 113mm). And it's really this last measure that translates to a bonus 102mm of rear legroom that provides genuine four-adult roominess, finally befitting an E-Class badge.
In most measures, it’s more spacious, such as front-row head- (up 15mm), shoulder- (up 50mm) and elbow- (up 38mm) room, while the plus-two rear seating benefits from more incremental shoulder- (14mm) and elbow- (up 20mm) room with its noticeable higher-set and more inboard seating arrangement.
Boot space, though, remains a usable if modest 385 litres roof up and 310L with the roof stowed, where the actual load space is awkwardly shaped and struggles with large objects.
Spaciousness and comfort aren't without some compromise for what’s categorically a large car. Three adults loaded up across Day One’s 150-kay jaunt shook the space gremlins out, though up front there’s not much to gripe about.
The rear seat backs, though, are very upright and the rear seat bases are quite short, and despite reasonable knee room, the seat design and low roof really welds you in place. The high set rear seating, which is great for visibility, left my hair brushing the headlining.
Despite the rear dual-zone air con and the ability to drop the frame- and pillarless side glass completely, about 50 kays was about my limit before discomfort really set into my 175cm frame.
The supple, sun-reflective leather, judicious double stitching throughout, the signature curved (woodgrain) dash fascia, the metal detailing, the conspicuous mood lighting, and now familiar widescreen digital driver and infotainment display are all oh-so E-Class in its most upmarket guise.
Even down to the devilish details, such as those beautiful ‘machine-like’ air vents, it’s unsurprisingly indistinguishable from the E Coupe, at least in the generously optioned, Euro-spec versions we sampled on launch.
A special shout out goes to the panoramic display – somehow it remains clear and legible even in strong, direct sunlight, and the rear-view camera resolution is, frankly, quite amazing. And there's geeky tech aplenty, including remote parking via smartphone app, LTE-capable wireless smartphone connectivity with inductive charging, and Car-to-X Communication where, thus equipped, new E-Classes send and receive hazard warning data to one another.
Some of the body/roof/cabin trim colour combinations on the Euro test fleet were quite bold: our 300’s Ivory and Blue on Champagne metalwork isn’t ideal for shrinking violet buyers, I presume. All up, globally at least, there are four roof and five leather colours to choose from.
Roof up, the cabin is nearly quiet enough to match that of the E Coupe, though bombing along at 130km/h on the French motorways there is some noticeable wind noise around the wing mirrors.
Roof down, air moves around the cabin if not to the point of discomfort but, jeez, that AirCap wind deflector whips up some noise despite doing an impressive job keeping turbulence out of hair or hat’s way.
In fact, I’d swear there’s a little more noise and bustle than I remember from the less-luxury focused AMG GT Roadster I drove earlier this year.
That said, the top-down experience is both natural and generally very pleasant, even with bleating sunshine or, as we experience, light rain. Our car has heated and cooled front seats and – a first for E Cab – heated rear seats, though the lack of rear pew cooling might seem an oversight in a hot Aussie summer.
Another neat if terribly named feature is Magic Vision Control which, you might never guess, is a novel new windshield wiper washer dispenser design – yes, really – which emits cleaning fluid directly ahead of the blade, heater or cooled even, thus preventing fluid coming into the cabin at high road speeds. It works, too.
Not shy in lunging for the speed limit is the E400 4Matic’s 3.0-litre turbocharged petrol V6, its 245kW and 480Nm (from just 1600rpm) said to deliver 5.5-second 0-100km/h acceleration – 0.2sec shy of the same-spec E Coupe – en route to a 250km/h top speed.
With its quoted consumption range of between 6.6L and 11.4L per hundred dependent on driver haste and conditions, it’s unsurprisingly the thirstiest of the fleet if possibly the only powertrain in range that nails the E Cab’s luxo-sports vibe right between the multi-beam LED headlights.
Tied to Benz’s proprietary nine-speed automatic – the only transmission available across the range – the V6 powertrain is quiet, polite and flexible around town, gutsy and seamlessly polished on the march, and offers co-operative and satisfying Comfort and Sport calibrations (of four available) with a nice switch in character between.
It’s no firebrand, though. There’s no peakiness, and the exhaust note, while amply rich, never yells nor growls. It does, however, convince that a proper, large-sized German premium experience, especially one with even a vaguely sporting theme such as this, deserves a minimum of six cylinders and these sorts of outputs tempered with this polished level of effortlessness.
The E400 4Matic doesn’t bait the driver into diving headlong in its accelerative and dynamic cornering abilities, but do so and it does reward. It’s more an assertive undertow than lightswitch excitement as the top-spec variant transitions from cruiser to grand tourer to corner carver. But, rather than being some sort of foul, the degree of flexibility at the twitch of the right foot really suits the persona this car, and the 400 badge, embodies.
I ask Merc's Aussie representative if there are still customers for this ‘quiet-achiever’ 400 formula with the growing popularity of Mercedes-AMG’s more raucous ‘43’ V6 offerings and, apparently, there are still plenty of “traditionalists” keen to sign up for that ‘400’ magic that offers somewhat subversive performance without wearing conspicuous performance pretensions.
That said, our test cars all ran optional AMG-style 20-inch wheels with low-profile 245/35 front and 275/30 rear Pirelli P Zero rubber, which do wonders for road holding and dynamic precision along the narrow Alpine backroads though do impact on outright ride quality.
At low speed, the lack of sidewall transmits a lot of vibration up through the suspension and into the cabin, and it’s only on a swifter move where the adaptive air suspension weighs in and settles the ride.
The Comfort tune is very compliant with a hint of float, while Sport flexes the dynamic muscles for a more middling ride/handling balance rather than anything certifiably stiff. It can bang and crash through potholes but, again, the wheel/tyre combo, rather than the suspension itself, seems to be the culprit.
A quick test of its semi-autonomous driving abilities returned mixed results.
The positive take presents a number of neat features indicative of forward-thinking tech: it activates semi-auto drive mode when cruise control is activated; the adaptive cruise system modulates road speed to match the posted speed limit; it self-steers lane to lane with no more than a touch of the indicator; and it’ll do it all at speeds of up to – gulp – 210km/h. I even give it a cautionary ‘pass’ rating for my recently introduced ‘meat pie’ test…
What’s that? I’ll spare you the long-winded logic but, personally at least, the only time I’d need today’s level of semi-autonomous driving in my life is during the roughly five-minute, emphatically two-handed task of eating a hot Four And Twenty With Sauce on the move. Like most of today’s self-steering tech, the Benz wants you to nudge the wheel every 20 or so second as indication the driver is still awake/alive and you can trick this particular system ‘mid pie’ with a small nudge of your elbow.
The semi-auto smarts’ pass is a cautionary one because, on evidence in test, it’s not foolproof. At one point, the E400 wanted to drive itself down a motorway off-ramp (crucially in a different course to the activated sat-nav route).
At another, the E300 decided, with user prompts, to want to self-steer and accelerate into the breakdown lane. In both cases, a driver caught pie-handed might’ve had disastrous consequences. An example, then, that the old high-stakes blame game plus a margin for error – of either technological, the user, or both – is precisely why ‘full autonomy’ will, I wager, remain the pipedream for some time to come…
Speaking of which, the rear-driven E300’s chassis seems a little crisper and more lightweight on its rubber feet, if only by shades compared with the all-paw-driven 400. If there tangible difference on grip and drive between two- and four-wheel-drive it's barely noticeable at the type of speed moderation that should keep an Aussie journo well out of a Swiss, French or Italian gaol.
The high-power 2.0-turbo four is a sign of the times, though not necessarily more desirable times for anything other than fuel consumption improvement (a range of 5.7L to 9.2L/100kms).
With outputs of 180kW and 370Nm, the four gets a decent move on and, like the 400, it’ll run out to 250km/h (eventually). It simply sweats harder for its keep and lacks the vibe befitting a large-sized, premium-laden German cruiser with an ‘E’ badge on its rump. Call it 6.6sec, a likewise 0.2sec slower than an E300 Coupe with which it shares its oily bits.
That said, for shoppers who don’t care, or simply can’t, or won’t, commit to whatever premium Benz Oz will apply to ownership of the flagship version, the E300 will do just nicely.
Actual pricing? Mercedes-Benz Australia remained tight-lipped during the international launch. But crystal balling, and given that in the past rag-tops have commanded less than a 10 per cent premium above closely related coupe variants, expect the E300 soft-top to lob at around the $120k mark, while the E400 4Matic may well arrive north of $150k.
And if the E Coupe range is any guide, there'll likely be 'Edition 1' enhancements available at launch as a modest cost option.
Impressive if predictable, well-executed if far from foible free, the new E-Class Cabriolet is a generally impressive package that fills its tight niche in the Benz line-up confidently.
Good initial impressions then and, for its E Cab breed, a decent step forward. But we’ll reserve a more emphatic appraisal once local pricing and specifications are released and we get the chance to hit Australian roads with a localised product.