There have been convertible versions of Mercedes saloons for almost as long as there have been Mercedes saloons. And that means a long time, so even allowing for some fairly lengthy model lifespans, there are plenty of different designs to choose from over the decades. Without exception, I think, they have all managed a successful combination of elegant open-topped styling without losing any of the cherished Mercedes values of solid engineering. Older models, such as those produced in the 1950s and 1960s – admittedly in far smaller numbers than today – have now become collectors pieces, and the prices realised when they come up for sale reflect that. And who can be surprised, as these cars conjure up the perfect image of a long cruise, roof down, in somewhere scenic with the sun beating down, such as along the Cote d’Azur. The latest example of the genre, the W212 badged E Class, but like its Coupe sibling, actually based on the chassis of the W204 C Class saloon, was first shown at the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2010, going on sale in Europe a matter of weeks later, and hitting US dealers in May that year. Although the underpinnings are C Class, it has the same visual style as the rest of the E Class family which had been made available a year earlier, with the slightly controversial front headlight design and raised haunches over the rear wheel arches. The transition from Coupe to Convertible, though, did at least mean that the awkward side window profile of the Coupe was lost. Whilst perhaps not quite as classically elegant say as the W124 Cabrio of the 1990s, there was little doubt that this is still a classy looking car and one that many would love to own. I had seen a fair number of these cars parked up at Hertz facilities in both Phoenix and Los Angeles, and so figured that I should at least be able to get behind the wheel in one of those nice sunny places, to enjoy some top down cruising. My plan to source one on my last trip, in September, did not work, as it became clear that there are at least as many people as Hertz have cars, who have the same idea as me, and the Convertibles were all sold out. I did enjoy the consolation prize of an E350 Saloon for a weekend, instead, though, and have reported separately on that experience. Learning from my previous disappointment, I chose to combine a day with a sunny forecast with a part of the working week when cars like this tend to languish in the rental lot, to try again. Not only was I successful in getting an E350 Convertible to drive, but the rental agent gave me a lower upgrade price than I was expecting, and I scored a car in bright red, as opposed to the array of silver and grey ones that are more usually seen. In bright sunlight, red works well, and the photographer always appreciates it! Question now is whether the driver appreciated the car as well.
As it was a sunny day, even though the early morning temperatures will still on the moderate side, the first task was to lower the roof. This proved very easy. You must make sure that the divider in the boot is correctly in situ. If it is not, not only will the roof not operate, but you get a warning message telling you. Once it is, with the ignition on, simply pull up in the D shaped release handle that you find under what looks like the cover for a mobile phone on the centre console, and first the side windows drop, then the roof cover opens about its rear edge, and then the roof parts company from the header rail, goes up and folds itself to slot into the compartment behind the rear seats, above that divider in the boot, and then the cover closes, and the message on the dash telling you the system is in operation goes out. All told, it takes about 25 seconds. Closing the roof is the same in reverse. Along with the switch for the roof is a button which will allow you to raise, or lower all 4 side windows at once.
With the roof down, I set off, and indeed only raised it again for photographic purposes. Driving with the roof down, but the side windows up proved absolutely fine on the freeway, with no buffeting, and the climate control sending some warmer air through the vents in case I was feeling a bit chilly. You might need to increase the volume on the audio system a little, but otherwise, all was fine. There is a rear air blocker, which can be raised electrically, which goes up behind the rear seats, and may be something that occupants in the back would ask for. The driver certainly does not need it.
The regular E Class saloon is a roomy car, which is one reason why it is so popular with taxi drivers the world over. The shorter C Class underpinnings of the Convertible mean that it is not quite so spacious, though. Front seat occupants will barely notice the difference, as there is plenty of space here. Indeed the only thing of note is that the seat belt is clearly something of a stretch over the shoulder, but Mercedes have a solution to that with an electric assist to power it forward, operated by a button on the middle of the dash. I did not need it, as just stretching behind me was easier and quicker. Those who get to sit in the back will spot the reduction in space. Getting in is no more difficult than any other car of this type, calling for a little athleticism, especially with the roof up. Once there, it is clear that this a four seater. Two individual seats are separated by a divider unit which has a sliding cover for central cup holders. No chance of squeezing a third occupant in, even for short journeys, so the fact that the central transmission hump is notable is not an issue. There is not an abundance of leg room, certainly if the front seats are set well back, so although this would appear to be a large car, prospective owners would be well advised to check if it does meet their needs if they expect regularly to carry adults in the back. Assuming that everyone does fit, though the seat seemed comfortable from my brief test sit.
There is another consideration, which is the size of the boot. As with all metal-roofed convertibles, there is quite a penalty paid for stowing the roof. With the divider in situ, there is a relatively shallow area left for luggage, and only a moderately sized slot through which to access it. Roof up, then you can slide the divider back and out of the way and there is a fair amount of space, though whether it would be enough for 4 people on that long trip to the Med is highly questionable. There’s not much oddments space in the cabin, either with some particularly pokey pockets on the doors, but at the least the glove box is a reasonable size and there is a cubby under the central armrest.
At first glance, the dash layout of the Convertible looks identical to the Saloon that I sampled a few weeks ago, but there is one significant difference. In this car, there is a conventional gearlever on the centre console, rather than the column mounted lever with its unintuitive operation that you get in Saloon models (and other Mercedes in the range). There are paddle shifters on the column as well. Otherwise, it is indeed the same, and none the worse for that. Sadly, that means that one rather annoying feature is carried over, namely the limitation to one large column stalk, on the left of the wheel for indicators and wipers, but mounted down lower, so there is room for a spindlier stalk for the cruise control which is where you expect the indicators to be. I adjusted more quickly this time, but do wish that Mercedes would do as they have done in the C Class and reverse the position of the two stalks. The instrument pack, sharing its look with the C250 that I drove a few weeks ago as well suffers from having a vast number of uncalibrated markings around the entire circumference of the dials, which make it harder to read precisely at a glance, rather than easier. They are all presented under a single hooded cowl, central of them being the largest, the speedometer, and this is flanked by a large analogue clock on the left and a rev counter on the right. Each of these is flanked by smaller dials for fuel level and water temperature. The whole panel is set in a grey backed panel. The centre of the dash is topped by the display screen for the Infotainment system, and this looked very similar to the one I encountered in the recently superceded W221 S Class. As well as the audio unit functions, it provides all sorts of other things from satellite navigation and vehicle settings to a local weather forecast. Also included is the updated m-brace telematics system, offering smartphone integration and Web-based apps that include remote controls, driver monitoring and emergency services. All this is operated by the large COMAND push and twist rotary “mouse” button mounted on the centre console, and proved largely intuitive to operate. It did seem to be that you had to have the radio switched on for the screen to illuminate, though. Some of the radio functions operate for a series of buttons and knobs that are in a separate unit below the display screen. Mounted lower on the centre of the dash are the climate controls, with a small display screen and a series of buttons against similar to those in an S Class. There is a rotary dial to the left of the wheel for the lights and there are repeater buttons on the right of the wheel for some of the audio unit functions and on the left to cycle through all the various trip computer displays which are presented in the instrument display. All in all, it is an object lesson in understated elegance and clarity as well as ease of use.
Creating a favourable static impression is all very well, but a car like this needs to be good to drive. And it is. The very smooth 3.5 litre V6 engine, which puts out 302 bhp and 273 lb/ft of torque does sound good. After the disappointment of the awful sound of the Mercedes SLK250 I had driven the previous day, here was the reminder why although turbo fours may hit all the empirical targets, a six just sounds nicer, and in open topped car, where you can the engine all the more, this is that bit more important. In this car, as with the saloon, the V6 is coupled to a 7speed automatic gearbox. This is a combination that works well, whatever your mood. Drive gently, and you will make more than adequate and rather serene progress, knowing that there is a lot more available to you, just a flick of your right foot away. Desire more urgency, and press on the accelerator, and that extra oomph is there. The gearbox is very smooth and figures out which ratio it needs to select, and the engine will do the rest. As with the E class Saloon, one of the display screens on the trip computer showed a trio of bar graphs, which show an assessment of your smoothness and hence economy. Although my rating for “coasting” remained low, the other figures were generally good. Even so, I was surprised that I achieved noticeable better economy in this car than the Saloon, and in absolute terms a most impressive figure indeed. The Saloon had delivered 26 mpg US (which is 31.6 mpg Imperial), but in this car I managed 29.85 mpg US, which equates to a very commendable 35.65 mpg Imperial. Granted much of the test mileage of 376 miles was done at a steady speed on the freeway, but that was 75 mph and the roof was down and the climate control on, so for a 302 bhp convertible, I think this very good indeed.
Not quite so very good, sadly is one other difference between Saloon and Convertible. Although there were absolutely no squeaks and rattles, you could tell that there was less structural rigidity in this car, with some body flex in evidence, especially on less well surfaced roads (of which Southern California has rather too many!). The ride could not be described as good, either, with the Sport suspension making ti feel quite rough at times. The E350 Saloon I tested was the Luxury trim whereas this one was a Sport, and the different suspension settings may have something to do with this. Although it was a Sport, the steering and handling which will leave you believing that you have got a luxury convertible not a sports car, and that is probably right for a boulevardier such as this. There is nothing wrong with either, with pleasantly weighted steering that has some feel, but this is not as sharp to drive as an Audi S5, let alone an RS5 Cabrio – the Mercedes’ most obvious rivals, would feel. The brakes work exactly as you would expect. A Mercedes feature is the foot operated parking brake which is released by pulling a lever. Visibility with the roof down is, of course, good, as you can easily glance over your shoulder to alleviate the blind spots that are in the mirrors. Roof up, there is quite a lot of roof in the rear three quarter view, but the fitted optional backup camera does help when reversing.
US customers get the choice of just 2 E Class Convertibles, an E350 and an E550. Even the former is not a cheap car, listing at a whisker under $60,000, which makes the premium of $6600 for the more potent E550 seem not so bad in comparison, though from what I could discern, the equipment levels are the same, so you are paying the extra money for an extra 100 bhp. You don’t get the choice of Sport or Luxury as you do with the Saloon and Estate models, either. These cars are only sold in one standard trim. There are a number of optional Packages, though, including a Sport one, which adds 18″ AMG twin 5-spoke wheels, multi-contour front seats, brushed aluminium pedals, perforated front brake discs with painted calipers and a sport steering wheel. The Premium Package, which was fitted to the test car, includes the rear back-up camera, the AirScarf system, hard-drive-based navigation, 10GB Music Register, Harman/Kardon LOGIC7® surround-sound system with Dolby Digital 5.1, SiriusXM Radio with 6-month All Access trial, SiriusXM Traffic and Weather and enhanced Voice Control for audio, telephone and navigation. Other packages include a Lane Tracking Package, a Parking Assist Package and a Visibility Package and there is also the m-brace Ownership package. All too easily, you could bump up that $60,000 by another $10 – 15,000.
Be in no doubt that I enjoyed my time with the E350 Convertible. Apart from the rough ride, it has no other real weakness, and much to enjoy. As a luxurious alternative to the more sporting Mustang and Camaro in Hertz’ rental fleet, it certainly feels special and allows you both to enjoy both the fresh air and a nice car at the same time. Will this one be a future classic, like the 1960s models and even the W124 of the 1990s? Only time will tell, but I would not preclude it achieving the same level of desirability as it ages, just like its antecedents.