Review: 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet

Up Front

The new Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet is one of the sweetest convertibles around. It's so elegant and easy to live with that it's well worth a premium. That's a good thing because the E350 starts at $57,725, making it much pricier than competing convertibles from Audi, BMW, and Lexus.

If you can afford it, this rear-wheel-drive midsize coupe is a perfect second or third car for weekend jaunts and tooling around town. If you're thinking it's too late in the season to be driving a convertible, think again. Mercedes' new Aircap and Airscarf systems keep the cabin comfortable with the top down, even at highway speed and in cool weather (more on that later).

The Cabriolet is smaller than the E-Class sedan: nearly seven inches shorter and 5.6 in. narrower. The front seat is about as spacious as the sedan's but the rear seat only holds two passengers (vs. three for the sedan) and offers a mere 30.1 in. of legroom. That's about average for a convertible—a bit more than the Infiniti G37 and slightly less than the BMW 328i—but it's nearly six inches less than the rear legroom in the E-Class sedan, and tight for adults over, say 5 ft. 8 in. The Cabriolet's trunk, however, is surprisingly spacious, with 11 cu. ft. of space with the top up, 8.8 with the top down. Even with the top down, there's a pass-through for stowing long cargo.

Under the E350 Cabriolet's hood is a 268-hp V6 that generates an admirable 258 lb.-ft. of torque and provides more-than-adequate acceleration under most circumstances. If you're into raw speed, you'll have to pay extra for the E550 (starting price: $65,675), which is powered by a 382-hp V8 rated at an even more impressive 391 lb.-ft. of torque. Mercedes estimates that the E350 convertible accelerates from zero to 60 in 6.7 seconds, which is a half-second slower than the hardtop, but that in the E550 the time drops to just 5.1 seconds. Top speed in both models is limited to 130 miles per hour.

The only available transmission in either model is a seven-speed automatic with a manual shifting function and steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

The E350 is rated to get 17 mpg in the city, 25 on the highway, 20 combined, same as the 2010 Infiniti G37 convertible. The 2011 Audi A5 convertible (which only comes with a four-cylinder engine and is rated at 22/30/25) does much better. The BMW 328ci (18/27/21) does slightly better.

The E-Class sedan earned four- and five-star government crash-test ratings but the Cabriolet hasn't been rated. Like other Mercedes, however, this little convertible comes packed with safety gear. Stability and traction control and antilock brakes are standard. So are a driver drowsiness warning system and Mercedes' Pre-Safe system, which automatically takes steps (braking automatically, etc.) to make occupants safe if an accident seems imminent. There are as many as 11 airbags, including front, front side, and front pelvic airbags, a driver-knee bag, and head-protecting side curtain bags. Rear-seat side airbags are available for $420.

Other optional safety equipment includes (in a $2,650 package) intelligent cruise control and a parking guidance system. A night vision system is available for $1,780. If you're into sporty driving, definitely consider the $1,990 Appearance Package, which includes black shifter paddles, perforated brake discs with painted calipers, 18-in. alloy wheels, stainless steel pedals, and a sport suspension.

Mercedes doesn't break out sales for the Cabriolet. However, the new E-Class is a major success, with sales up 67.3 percent, to 44,730, in the first nine months of this year.

Behind the Wheel

I was dazzled when I took the E350 out on the highway on a beautiful, sunny autumn afternoon. The great jazzman Herbie Hancock was on the satellite radio playing The Eye of the Hurricane, and inside the car the tune seemed very appropriate. Even though the top was down and the car was doing 65 mph, the cabin was calm. When I pushed the "sport" button and punched the gas, the engine sounded like a hurricane was kicking up outside. There was an angry moan and the car shot forward.

In "E" mode the E350 Cabriolet purrs around town. In "S," it turns into a feisty tomcat. Accelerator response is quickened, and the transmission runs out longer in each gear. If you really want to get sporty, use the transmission's manual function and do the shifting yourself, by pushing the shift lever on the floor sideways, or via steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

At first glance, putting a fabric top on a car this expensive seems tacky, but this particular soft-top is a marvel. It's nearly an inch thick and well-insulated against noise and cold. It goes up and down in around 20 seconds with such ease that you never think twice about closing up the car for a quick trip into a store.

Mercedes' new Aircap system reduces turbulence in the cabin. At the push of a button, an aluminum and mesh diverter blade deploys above the windshield to keep air from channeling into the cabin. It works in conjunction with a mesh draft-stopper screen that's deployed between the two rear headrests. Airscarf blows heated air at the necks of all occupants. On cool days with the top down, the two systems, along with heated seats and a regular climate control system, keep the cabin quite comfortable.

The interior is classy, with no cheap materials or apparent short cuts. This is a coupe so there are only two doors. But the front seats scoot forward automatically when you fold the seat-backs forward, creating space to climb in back relatively easily.

The backup camera is highly desirable in this car. Visibility out the rear window is limited, even with the rear headrests retracted. The backup camera is available in either of two premium packages ($4,000 or $6,450) that also include a hard-drive-based navigation and upgraded sound system, keyless ignition, Airscarf, and other upgrades.

Buy It or Bag It?

Whether the E350 Cabriolet is worth the premium Mercedes charges for it depends on your priorities. The Cabriolet's starting price is $7,450 higher than the hardtop sedan's. The Cabriolet's average selling price is $63,065, according to the Power Information Network, way above the convertible 2011 BMW 328i ($50,293) and Audi A5 ($48,867), and 2010 Infiniti G37 ($48,199) and Lexus IS 250c ($44,594).

Among those rivals, the G37 has a beautifully engineered retractable hardtop, but the top is heavy and the extra weight compromises handling. I also briefly test-drove the front-wheel-drive A5 convertible. It's nice-looking inside and out, but doesn't handle as well as the Mercedes. The steering felt heavy to me and I experienced some torque steer (where the steering pulls to one side or the other under acceleration in front-wheel-drive cars). If I were getting an A5 convertible, I would opt for all-wheel drive, but I prefer the sporty, rear-wheel-drive BMW 328i convertible.

Still, I have very fond memories of driving the E350 Cabriolet. Money being no object, I'd love to own one. Mercedes really got this car right, but at a price.

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