By: Grant Davis
The first impression the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet left me with after dropping the softtop in under 20 seconds and exiting the parking garage was not the thrust of the 3.5-liter V6 with 268 horsepower and an adequate 258 lb-feet of torque. It was the feeling that I was driving the most secure and safest convertible I’ve ever driven. Seriously, the $63,000 E350 felt like I was sitting in an armoured bathtub, albeit one with air-conditioned seats and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound pumping through 8 speakers. The high door line meant that the only thing sticking above the cockpit was my head and neck. And I’m 6-feet, 2-inches tall. The result is a convertible that feels safer and more grounded than many hardtops I’ve driven.
This sense of protection seems to fall in line my experiences with Mercedes-Benz. The S Class is for executives and limo duty. The C Class is the entry-level fun-about, while the E Class sells itself on safety features – it’s the Benz the wife or hyper-protective father drives. Knowing that, it’s surprising to me that Mercedes even bothered with a two-door convertible E Class. However, it doesn’t surprise me that this cabriolet drivesand feels like the safest convertible on the road today.
About that ride: despite its heft at 3,883 pounds, the stiff chassis and 17-inch tires deliver what I’ve come to expect from Mercedes softtops, snappy handling that feels like I’m riding on rollercoaster rails. Yes, it’s thrilling, but the ride never comes close to the line of losing control. The biggest reason is the V-6 engine. It’s overmatched by the girth of the vehicle. No doubt this is partly due to the bane of nearly all convertibles, the added weight – 250 pounds of it — that comes from the extra steel reinforcement and the roof’s motor and extra hardware. There’s a lot of mass to move here — sub-20 mpg for a mix of town and highway driving confirms it – but in a convertible, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Besides the capable engine, the E350 is pacakaged with a hypochondriac’s wet dream of safety gadgets. A steel-reinforced cabin does indeed put an armoured tub, so-to-speak, around the passengers. Front and side airbags plus airbags for the window, pelvis, and the driver’s knees lead me to believe that before you could be ejected from the car due to a front or side impact the air bags alone would probably keep you in one place. Not that I did or am going to test that theory, mind you. I’d have to drive without wearing a seat belt, which, you know, is against the law.
The E350 convertible is also the first convertible I’ve seen that jacks up the rear headrests after you drop the top. Automatic pop-up rollover bars have been around for decades, but this was the first one that seemed to say, “Screw waiting for an accident, we’re going to protect you now.” This is a thoughtful feature that adds to the E350’s security-pod vibe. The headrests also do double duty blowing hot or cold air across the neck of the passengers. That said, the two-door does have beefier pop-up roll bars that will spring into action behind the headrests. But even better, the E Class comes with what it calls its ATTENTION ASSIST Driver Drowsiness Monitor, a series of monitors that scans the face to determine whether you’re falling asleep at the wheel, either from exhaustion or from listening to your girlfriend talk about the similarities between the romantic life of Katy Perry and her best friend from work.
Cruising with the Top Down on My E350
With apparently more security features than Fort Knox and a low slung cockpit coddled in leather, I found myself doing something I rarely do in a convertible, drive with the top and the windows down. I usually keep them up to hold back the wind, but not with this baby. Something called Aircap, mounted on top of the windshield, pops up and deflects even more air off the passengers. Or perhaps it was the fact that all the safety equipment around me neutered my need for speed. I’m not sure how it messed with my mind, but I actually didn’t mind seeing a line of red cars in front of the you-are-here arrow on the navigation screen. The red cars indicated stop-and-go traffic, but to me they just meant a chance to slow down and hang out on the Interstate. Or get off the highway and tool around in street traffic. Crazy.
But then it would rain, and I’d have to put the top up. That’s when I was shocked to hear… hardly anything. When up, the 3-layer soft top completely blocked out any outside noise, and I forgot I was driving a convertible. That’s a reassuring discovery for those in cold-weather climes who will go more than six months between convertible seasons. You won’t feel shortchanged during those months by a poorly insulated top that can’t hold in the heat or block out screaming wind noise. Looking at the heritage behind this cabriolet, though, the whole package makes perfect sense. The E350 comes from the same lineage of the indestructible 1969 280SE cabriolet from “The Hangover,” not its gullwing supercar coupe.
At first glance, the aggressive front end of this year’s E Class had me thinking that Mercedes-Benz finally put the segment on steroids for once. But after a week of rolling, not screaming, around town, I realized that, nah, “E” still means safety and truth be told, that’s almost harder for a car manufacturer to pull off in a convertible than raw power numbers. Until now.