Drive Time

BY STEVE SILER

High and Mighty
Fresh yet familiar, the all-new 2018 E-Class Cabriolet is Mercedes-Benz’ most evolved droptop ever.

 

Cantilevered off a craggy peak more than 11,000 feet above sea level in the Italian Alps is “Punta Helbronner,” a dramatic, metal-and-glass complex accessible only via rotating glass gondolas that rise from the village of Courmayeur some 8,000 feet below, or by taking a seriously long hike. It’s an amazing structure in an even more amazing location, replete with a 45-foot circular rooftop deck providing 360-degree vistas of the surrounding Alpine peaks from nearby Mont Blanc to the distant Matterhorn. And briefly this summer, Punta Helbronner’s roof also provided a prime parking spot for one gleaming, burgundy 2018 Mercedes-Benz E-Class cabriolet.

The presence of an automobile—a convertible, no less—atop what looks like the Millennium Falcon impaled on an Alp seemed rather surreal, especially to gap-jawed tourists who, unlike the assembled automotive media, hadn’t been informed that a two-ton-plus Mercedes ragtop had been airlifted over the Alpine glaciers onto Punta Helbronner’s roof. It certainly made for one helluva photo op—Mercedes has always had flair for the dramatic—and, not for nothin’, its four leather seats—all heated!—sure beat Punta Helbronner’s cold flat benches. Front-seaters could even get a hot-stone-effect massage. Not a bad way to take in the views.

Did our 15-minute design walk-around highlighting the E-Class cabriolet’s unique bits really require such an over-the-top setting? (Pardon the pun.) Perhaps not, if only the E-Class cabriolet didn’t arrive looking so much like the existing C-Class and S-Class cabriolets. Certain distinctions can be found, the most significant of which is its smooth, clean upper body sides that, in accordance with Mercedes’ evolving “Sensual Purity” design mantra, do without the shoulder-line creases that give C-Class and S-Class models their distinct “coke-bottle” contours. A broad, flat front fascia and quad-element daytime running lamps give the E-Class a particularly strong visage, while out back, its taillamps feature a sparkly “stardust” effect and put on a brief sequential light show to “greet” the driver as he or she approaches. While the E-Class cabriolet is the freshest, most advanced Benz convertible ever, it will nonetheless need all the ink it can get, lest it slip into the lineup unnoticed.

And that would be a shame, as the new E-Class cabrio is massively improved in every way. A dozen or so paint choices as well as a sleek fabric roof that’s available in dark brown, dark blue, or dark red, or black make any number of looks available, from classic tone-on-tone to high-contrast and avant-garde. The roof’s thick multi-layer padding and complex rib structure help keep the cabin secure when parked and serene at speed, yet thankfully, the insulation doesn’t entirely mute the romantic pitter-patter of raindrops when it starts to sprinkle. The top itself raises or lowers in near silence in less than 20 seconds at speeds up to 31 mph. And even with the top stowed, the trunk retains a majority of its space, with new 50/50 split folding rear seatbacks adding another measure of utility.

Speaking of the rear seats, the ones in the E-Class are indeed habitable by real adults, sufficiently angled and contoured to ensure that the friends you put back there won’t be enemies once they get out. Optional motorized “Aircap” wind deflectors above the windshield and behind the rear headrests keep cabin conditions calm at speed, minimizing hair tousle and increasing the effectiveness of the climate controls with the windows raised, thus allowing top-down motoring even on cooler or hotter days. Rather less unnecessary here in Florida than the Alps is a new “Warmth and Comfort Package” with its heated front armrests and heated steering wheel, but no E-Class cabrio should be ordered without the optional neck-level “Airscarf” vents that gently blow warm air on one’s nape and upper shoulders like an invisible lover in the back seat.

As with the E-Class coupe, which is also all-new for 2018, the cabrio will initially come only as an E400, powered by a competent, if not soul-stirring, 329-horsepower turbocharged V-6 mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. Quiet and well suited to the cabriolet’s raison d’etre as a high-class boulevardier, the E400’s powertrain wakes up a bit in its Sport and Sport+ settings, which also alter the car’s ride from super-soft to, well, soft, while adding measurable weight to the always-precise steering. All-wheel drive is also newly available. Driving enthusiasts may want to wait for the inevitable AMG version, which is expected to appear within a year with an enhanced V-6 boasting more than 400 horsepower, along with a more buttoned-down suspension, big wheels, and a bevy of AMG styling and cabin enhancements.

What few bones we could pick on the new E-Class cabriolet involve some reflections in the super-wide glass dashboard displays, especially should passengers be wearing light clothes and have the top down. The brake pedal could also feel crisper and more, well, German.

The new E400 cabriolet arrives at US dealerships near the end of the year carrying a base MSRP at or to the outgoing model’s approximately $62K starting price. While its arrival misses “convertible season” across most of the country, that’s hardly a problem for us, since every season is “convertible season” in South Florida. And while we can’t see the Matterhorn from the back seat while cruising up I-95, the new E-Class cabriolet will always be more enjoyable when it’s being driven than sitting in a parking spot, even the parking spot on top of Punta Helbronner.

2018
Mercedes-Benz E400 Cabriolet

Base Price: $62K (est.)

Body Style: 2-door, 4-passenger convertible

Power:
329-hp turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6

Transmission: 9-speed automatic with paddle shifters

Drive wheels:
Rear or all Fuel Economy, MPG (city/highway): 22/30 (est.)

 

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