Mercedes E550 cabriolet – A first class, four place ragtop

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It might be the epitome of sophisticated open air transportation for those of discerning tastes. It’s the E-Class of top-down driving excitement. Indeed, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class yet enters another segment. The most popular of all Mercedes nameplates sold in the United States now comes in cabriolet format in addition to the popular sedan and coupe.

We discovered that the newest Mercedes is a load of fun with the top down and an easily livable daily driver with the top up.

What makes the E-Class the darling of people who long for the convertible experience (but don’t want the nuisance of such things as wind in the newly coiffured hair or the uncomfortable cold air of a late autumn night blowing through the cabin; people who have grown fussier in their age and status in life) is it’s engineering.

It seems the Mercedes has the answers to questions never asked in the good old days when open air driving simply meant tossing the roof back. The luxury car maker has devised a system of wind blockers that calm the cabin even under highway speeds. To achieve the full effect put the windows up, and then deploy the Aircap spoiler embedded in the windshield header. The deflector rises 2.4 inches while at the same time a screen-style wind blocker between the headrests in the rear seats reduces back draft turbulence.

We discovered that even with the windows down — the only true way to enjoy a convertible experience — the blockers help reduce the booming calamity of sound and the tumult of air in the cabin enough for normal conversation.

For those cool evenings there are the usual seat heaters. And Mercedes has added a neck warming feature it calls Airscarf. It blows warm air from under the headrest onto your neck and shoulders. Heck, let it snow!

Mercedes’ decision to go with a soft top gives the cabriolet a pleasing “real” convertible appearance — no need for the bubble butt look of the steel-top models that have become the norm — and thanks to modern engineering the top provides a quiet and cozy interior.

Mercedes used three layers of material that’s just shy of an inch thick. And the top lowers and rises in about 20 seconds. With the top down, there is none of the convertible cowl shake found in drop tops of the past.

The cabriolet comes with two engine choices, a 3.5-liter V-6 producing 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque and a 5.5-liter V-8 generating 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque. Both engine options come with a seven-speed driver-adaptive transmission with manual shift mode.

In addition to the big horsepower difference, there’s a rather steep $8,000 price difference. The E350 starts at $57,725 including destination and the E550 begins at $65,675. We say “begins” because of the myriad of tempting options. Our E550 test car for instance came with nearly $12,000 in options and went out the door for $77,555.

We enjoyed many of the extras including the navigation system, premium audio system featuring 550 watts and 12 speakers, a satellite radio, and adaptive cruise control. It would be hard to figure which options to uncheck to get the price back closer to 70 grand.

If blazing performance is not high on your list of “must haves” the V-6 engine works well in this vehicle. It gives the convertible a nice sense of urgency measured at 6.8 seconds from 0 to 60. It’s smooth and effortless in merging onto rushing freeways with shifts from the seven-speed nearly imperceptible.

We drove the E350 and found it a very well balanced machine. That being said, we were more than happy to get our hands on a V-8 for testing. Hey, if they hand you the keys to power you accept it without a grin so as not to give away the joy of expectation.

The E550 is a neck-snapper capable of clearing 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and finishing a quarter mile in 13.6 seconds at 105 mph. So in addition to getting a great convertible experience, you get a performance monster as well. The quick response of the V-8 is exhilarating and it will bring a smile to your face as you ask for more and it delivers.

The ragtop seemed as tight and composed as a hardtop coupe. We know because it passed our “railroad crossing from hell” test as well as or better than any convertible we’ve driven. The suspension is stiff enough for easy of handling on our twist and turn back country test track and up in our usual mountain crossings. The ride is compliant enough for comfort with a trace of being too soft. Weighty, on-center steering keeps control easily at hand.

As you should expect from a sophisticated vehicle, finding the perfect driving position is easy with the multi-adjustable front seats, which include a row of adjustment controls on the right side of the seat for the side bolsters, lumbar and thigh support. Those together with the power tilt and telescoping steering wheel will get you situated comfortably behind the wheel. The main controls, as usual in Mercedes vehicles, are conveniently placed on the door.

We found the rear seats nearly uninhabitable by adults, but with a bit of front seat give and take we made the adjustments needed to create enough rear seat leg room adequate for short trips.

The cabriolet has numerous high-tech features, but the main controls are intuitive and easy to use. We found it surprisingly simple to operate the radio through the hand controller. Redundant pre-set buttons are also included on the stack.

Climate controls are also accessed on the center stack (navigation screen not needed) with large rocker switches to select temperature, mode and fan speed. Likewise, buttons for the heated seats, including the Airscarf neck warmers, are located in a row at the bottom of the stack.

Mercedes did a nice job designing storage up front including a decent-sized glovebox, a storage bin in front of the shifter, door pockets and two large cupholders.

Trunk space with the top up is adequate at 11.5 cubic feet. It is possible to transport a set of golf clubs or a couple of roll-aboard bags. Some storage space is devoured by the top when it is retracted.

Top up or top down — it’s a real E-Class.

Base price: $65,675; as driven, $77,555
Engine: 5.5-liter V-8
Horsepower: 382 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 391 foot-pounds @ 2,800 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 108.7 inches
Length: 185 inches
Curb weight: 4,048 pounds
Turning circle: 35.9 feet
Luggage capacity (top up): 11.5 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.4 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 22 mpg highway, 15 mpg city
0-60: 5.1 seconds (MotorWeek)
Also consider: Audi A5 convertible, BMW 6-Series convertible, Infiniti G37 convertible

The Good
• Muscular performance
• Quiet cabin
• Top-down driving aides

The Bad
• Rear seat space

The Ugly
• Options can quickly run price up