During the 1990s there was an explosion in the number of convertible versions of saloon and coupe models brought to market by just about every car manufacturer. Their arrival coincided with a general increase in the number of models and variants on offer, with people wanting something a little bit different and also following the lead of the Peugeot 206CC and first generation Mercedes-Benz SLK, the fact that most of these cars had a folding metal roof, thereby eliminated any previous objections about security and water-proofing. Sales of most open-topped models were quite strong for a model generation or two, but as we moved into the 2010s and the inexorable rise of the Crossover and SUV caused manufacturers to focus their efforts on this body style, so more and more cars reached the end of their production life and the replacement range came without a convertible. These days, those who want open-topped motoring have a very limited choice indeed. Mercedes-Benz is one brand that still has a number of convertible models on offer, some of them out-and-out sports cars like the SLK and SL, but there are also open topped versions of the C, E and S Class saloons. There has been an open-topped Mercedes with its origin in a saloon/coupe model for some time, with such elegant designs as the W111 Cabrio of the 1906s and the W124 E Class Cabriolet coming to mind. A smaller stablemate, from the C Class, was new with the W205 generation of the model, with this version joining the range at the 2016 Geneva Show. Seen in isolation the C and E, and even the S Cabriolets are not that easy to tell apart unless you know your products from the Three Pointed Star very well indeed, and indeed when I first spotted some Mercedes Cabriolets at the Hertz LAX facility at the end of my trip in March/April 2018, I guessed that they might be E Class models, as Hertz had had the previous generation of this model on fleet. Closer inspection revealed that they were in fact the slightly smaller C Class model. Also liking open-topped motoring, I planned to try to secure one on my next trip in September, but every day I went to Hertz both in LA and Phoenix, I failed to spot a single one on site. I assumed that they had all gone from the fleet, but eventually I found out that in fact that they had all been recalled for something or other to be fixed. Returning again in November/December, they were back in evidence, and In finally managed to get hold of one on the last day of my trip. Unlike most of them, which were black this one was the more photographically-helpful white in colour and I looked forward to a day not just to enjoy a convertible again, but also interested to see what I thought of this version of a car which I had now driven in saloon and estate forms and with engines ranging from the C220d diesel (in Italy just a few weeks earlier) to the fiery C63 AMG (at Los Angeles earlier in the year).
If you are going to drive a convertible, it is an opportunity missed not to lower the roof at every available time, provided the weather is on-side. And in California, you can be pretty sure that it will be. So, even though this test took place in December, once I had adjusted the seat and mirrors, I wanted to lower the roof, and down it stayed all day apart from when I wanted to do photos. The fabric roof is electrically operated, so easy to lower. You need the ignition on, and your foot on the foot brake and then simply press the switch at which point the theatre that you always get with an electrically assisted folding roof that disappears completely into a recess out of sight will begin, concluding around 20 seconds later. You can even operate it when the car is motion, though I did not have any need to test this out. There is no doubt that the car looks a lot better with the roof lowered, and pleasingly in this mode, the car proved perfectly acceptable even at freeway speed, as long as the side windows were up, though expecting to hear the radio was perhaps an ask too far.
A key is needed to start the engine of the C300 Cabriolet. Don’t be fooled by the badging, this is not a 3 litre car but a 2litre one, and there are only 4 cylinders. I drove an early example of the C300 saloon and castigated its rough and coarse sounding engine, but since then, as part of the 2018 model year mid-cycle update, Mercedes have replaced the unit with a new one, but this only applies to 2019 model year cars in the US and this one was a 2018 model year car, so it had the older engine. That said it proved considerably better than the one I experienced back in 2016. It still does not sound at all interesting, but at least it is smooth and the noise levels are low at a steady speed. The unit develops 241 bhp, which is a decent amount for a car of this size and weight and this means that there is plenty of acceleration available, no matter what speed you are starting from. Standard now is a 9 speed automatic transmission and it is well matched to the engine, making almost imperceptible gearchanges and generally responding well to any calls for extra speed. I covered 138 miles in the day I had this car and it needed 5.7 US-sized gallons to fill the car up again. That computes to 24.21 mpg US or 28.92 mpg Imperial, a respectable result, though it is fair to say that the car was not driven that hard.
You don’t cut the roof off a car without changing some of the driving characteristics and that proved to be the case here. The steering felt much as I recalled from previous C Class Mercedes models. which means a little over-assisted and slightly vaguer especially around the straight-ahead position than I would like, but better than you get in many cars these days. But the handling is where things started to go a little awry. There was some evidence of scuttle shake and the car was not all that tidy around some of the twisty canyon roads, with evident understeer, though there did seem to be plenty of grip and there is not much in the way of body roll. The ride was the real weak point, feeling very crashy at times. The car came on the standard 245/45 R18 tyres which had a run-flat capability and this latter fact is probably what made the ride so punishing. On smoother roads, all was generally OK, but there are not that many of those in the Greater LA area! Apparently, the optional Airmatic suspension transforms the car, so this may well be an options box that is worth ticking when speccing up a C Class Cabrio. There were no concerns with the brakes, which did their job as you would expect. Driving roof down, visibility was excellent, though I did note that the door mirrors are on the small side. Put the roof up, though and there is a big blind spot over your shoulder which would mean taking care at oblique junctions and the rear window is also on the small side. The rear-view camera would certainly help when reversing into tight parking spaces. The car was generally easy to manoeuvre, one advantage of being the slightly smaller C rather than E Class sized, perhaps.
The dashboard of the Cabrio model is the same as that of the other bodystyles, with the exception of the need for a switch to open and close the roof. But as with most cars of this type, there are plenty of different finishes that can be specified. This one came with some rather agreeable matt dark wood as an alternative to the gloss piano black (plastic) or carbon fibre effect that I have experienced in other C Class Mercedes cars. Couple that with generous amounts of leather, sparing use of silver metal effect inlays and the oatmeal-coloured lower dash trim as well as this colour featuring on the seats and door casings and the overall effect is good, with quality materials, a cohesive design and exemplary standards of fit and finish. I still don’t think that it is quite as nice a quality as you will find in an Audi or perhaps even a Volvo, but it certainly most other rivals. There is a leather wrapped wheel which is pleasant to hold. The instrument cluster comprises two large dials in individual recessed cowls for speedometer and rev counter with two smaller dot-based gauges for fuel level and water temperature set in the lower portion of the larger dials. There are an awful lot of graduations which make them look fussy and actually quite hard to read at a glance. There is a digital display area between the dials for trip computer type info and the various items that can be displayed here are selected by buttons on the steering wheel boss. Here you will also find audio repeater controls. In accordance with current Mercedes thinking, the gearlever is on the right of the column, so that means two stalks on the left, with the upper one operating indicators and wipers (by twisting the end of the stalk) and a lower one being used for cruise control. Lights operate from a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. The electronic parking brake is also on the dash. The centre of the dash is dominated by the infotainment screen which has that stuck-on iPad look, a trend which this car was among the first to set. The 7″ colour screen is touch sensitive but there is also a turn wheel in the centre console which makes operation somewhat easier. The screen is used for audio functions, which include XM satellite radio and car settings. Those who are used to the Mercedes way of doing things will be at home with this system, but I found that things like audio settings were rather more cumbersome than in say BMW’s iDrive system. As well as the traditional inputs, the system does accept gestures and hand movements, which does take a little getting used to. The graphics are crisp and the system proved quite responsive. As is often the way, menu options list everything but when you select things like navigation if they are not there, as was the case with the test car, you just get a message telling you so. Below the screen there are three circular air vents that look a bit cheap, them there is an analogue clock and beneath that there is a line of metal-effect – but obviously plastic when you touch them – buttons for the dual zone climate control and that is more or less it. The overall effect is certainly rather less cluttered than you see in some cars these days. without too much having been relegated to the touch screen.
Seat upholstery is leather, or rather Mercedes’ man-made MB-Tex leather, but the result is pretty convincing. That in the test car was a light colour but it seemed to have survived the challenges of rental car duty quite well and still looked clean and fresh. You do sit a little lower in the Cabrio model than the corresponding saloon and estate. There is 10-way electric seat adjustment for driver and passenger, with most of the controls on the door, with just the 4-way lumbar support on the seat itself. There is a three memory setting once you have found the desired position. The steering column has electric adjustment, too, going in/out as well as up/down. The seats are quite firm, but they proved comfortable, with good lateral support and the driving position was spot on for me. The car featured seat heaters and a cooling function.
Things are not quite so rosy for those sitting in the back. This is definitely a four seater, as not only is there a sizeable central tunnel which means there is no space for legs for a middle occupant, but the centre of the seat area is firm and has embedded cup holders in it. There are bucket style seats to either side. Getting in is facilitated by the front seats motoring forward, but it will still prove quite difficult if the roof is up. Roof down, it is rather easier, of course as there is no height limitation. Legroom is not particularly generous, even with the front seats set well forward and there is also a lack of headroom which will be apparent when the roof is up. Clearly this is not an issue when it is down. Not only that, but the seat backrest felt rather more upright than in some cars, so I am not sure how comfortable these seats would prove to be over a long journey. There are small cubbies in the door panels and pockets on the back of the front seats for bits and pieces.
Like many convertibles with a roof that folds down into a recess out of view, the boot space largely disappears if the roof is down. There is a divider which must be in position, latched in place, if you want to lower the roof and when this is the case the remaining area is very shallow and not easy to access. It was not deep enough to accommodate my suitcase, which had to go in the passenger cabin, as I wanted to drive with the roof down. Put the roof up and move the divider out of the way and there is reasonable space available, and the suitcase would have easily been swallowed. There is a bit of space under the boot floor for odds and ends, Inside the cabin, places for odds and ends are a but limited but there is a decent sized glovebox, a cubby under the central armrest and there are pockets on the doors. There is also a net on the passenger side of the centre console.
The W205 generation C Class is available in four body styles: saloon, estate, coupe and convertible, but only three of these are offered on the US market, where the estate is not on offer. European buyers get a much wider choice of engines, as well, but the diesel and less powerful petrols are also not offered to the Americans. So that means a much simpler model range. All three of the C-Class sedan, coupe and convertible are available in five trim levels: base C300, C300 4Matic (all-wheel drive), AMG C43, AMG C63 and AMG C63 S. The sedan also gets a plug-in hybrid variant called the C350e. With the exception of the high-horsepower engines and sport-tuned components in the AMG models, most C-Classes get the same standard equipment and are available with a plethora of packaged and stand-alone options. The C300 sedan (and C300 4Matic) comes standard with a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine (241 bhp and 273 lb/ft of torque), a nine-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch wheels, automatic wipers, a rearview camera, a sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, 10-way power front seats (with four-way lumbar adjustment), driver-seat memory settings, simulated leather upholstery (the rather good MB-Tex) and 40/20/40-split folding rear seatbacks. Standard tech includes the COMAND infotainment system (with a 7-inch central display screen and a console-mounted dial controller), Bluetooth and an audio system with a CD player, dual USB ports, an SD card reader and HD radio. For the most part, the C300 coupe gets the same equipment plus 18-inch wheels. The C300 convertible gets a power-folding fabric top, Mercedes’ Airscarf system — which delivers warmed air to the neck and shoulders of front passengers — and a removable wind blocker. On top of the 18-inch wheels, the C350e (sedan only) gets a turbo 2.0 litre four-cylinder engine paired with an electric motor (275 bhp combined), a seven-speed automatic transmission, an air-spring suspension with multiple tuning modes, and LED headlights. Primary options packages for all C300s are essentially the same. The Premium package adds an electronic trunk closer, blind-spot monitoring, keyless entry and push-button start, and satellite radio. In the coupe and convertible, the Premium package also includes an upgraded Burmester sound system. Several other options packages are available for the C300 and C350e as well as stand-alone options. Options packages include the Multimedia package (an upgraded 8.4-inch screen with navigation, voice controls, touchpad infotainment controller); Advanced Lighting package (adaptive high-beam headlights, cornering headlamps, LED headlights, ambient interior lighting); Smartphone Integration package (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility); Parking Assist package (front and rear parking sensors, top-down parking camera system); the AMG Line package (upgraded brakes, sport suspension, a rear spoiler, unique bodywork); and the Driver Assistance package (forward collision mitigation, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, rear cross-traffic alert). Stand-alone options for the C300/350e include a panoramic sunroof, a head-up display, heated and ventilated seats, leather upholstery, a cabin air purification and fragrance system, a heated steering wheel, and a number of interior and exterior trim pieces. For the most part, AMG C43 models get the Premium package equipment along with a turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 (362 bhp, 384 lb/ft), all-wheel drive, a nine-speed automatic transmission, a sport tuned suspension, adaptive suspension dampers, heated front seats and unique interior trim. The AMG C63 and C63 S are widely similar with the exception of the turbocharged 4.0 litre V8 (469 bhp, 479 lb/ft with the C63; 503 bhp, 516 lb/ft with the C63 S) and a multiclutch, high-performance seven-speed automatic transmission. Options for the AMG models include carbon-ceramic brakes, exhaust and upgraded wheels and tyres sport seats, carbon-fibre interior and exterior trim, and a special AMG head-up display.
If you are in the market for a mid-sized four-seater convertible, you are not exactly spoiled for choice. There are just three options, all from German brands: Audi A5, BMW 4 Series and this one, the C Class Mercedes. All are offered with a wide range of engines with quite a spread of power outputs and indeed available equipment ranges from covering the essentials to really rather plush. Choosing between the three will probably come down to personal taste, and there are many owners of one of these three brands who would struggle to countenance the other two. That is probably not an undue problem here, as all three cars are very polished products. In general, a Mercedes would probably not be my first choice, but the experience of this one suggests that I would need an extended back-to-back comparison test to decide between it and the rival Audi and BMW models. As a rental car customer, things are rather easier: Hertz only have the Mercedes on fleet at present, and on the evidence of my test, provided you and your luggage will fit, you will enjoy driving it, especially if the weather allows you to enjoy some open-topped motoring. I certainly enjoyed my time with the car.