Benz's new E-Class Cabrio is crushingly competent and easy to live with, it just lacks feeling.
2011 Mercedez E-Class Cabriolet
At 100kph, you know the E-Class Cabriolet's roof is off mainly because the Mallorcan island sun is streaming in, tingling the ears and warming the neck. It's not much louder than it is with the seven-layer fabric roof up, there's barely a trace of wind buffeting and the cabin's temperature is stridently adhering to whatever you've dialled up on the climate control system - and it's doing it from head to toe.
Whatever else it is (or, more specifically, isn't), Benz's new E-Class Cabrio is crushingly competent and easy to live with. Its new AirCap, an aero tweak that basically slides the top of the windscreen panel forward to push the airflow up and over all four seats, adds an enormous amount to the calm dignity the Cabrio gets around with. An idea-in-progress at Benz for more than 20 years, it not only removes almost all buffeting from all four seats at 100kph, but it drops the car's aerodynamic drag as well, helping to lower its fuel consumption. It has a drag coefficient of just 0.33 - with the roof down.
Even when it's frigid outside, you can heat up your seat and crank up the AirScarf, which blows hot air directly onto your neck. And, when it senses the rear seat belts are locked in, it pops the little 'tween-headrest wind blocker up a bit higher to maintain the calm. An astonishingly well engineered car, you can almost picture its development boffins fiddling here and massaging there, adding and taking away until their charge ticked every single measurable quantitative value.
It rides beautifully, it's quiet, it's economical with one engine, it's fast with another engine and it just imparts a feeling that it's never going to fail you or give you a rude shock, even as the roof engages yet again in its complex, 20-second dance, even at up to 40kph. But you wouldn't want one. You'd never ache for one or drool over one. And, if you do buy one, you'll miss the solidity once it's been and gone, rather than anything it did or didn't do.
Drive this car for 10 minutes and you'll already know everything important about it, because, for all its crushing competence, Benz seems to have decided against giving the Cabrio any soul, verve or spirit. Instead, it feels like an ultra-solid E-Class sedan without a roof, though it's possibly more boring. Nothing more and nothing less and, for most people who want to buy this sort of car, that'll be enough. But if you're not a 50-year-old woman trying to impress the other divorcees at tennis, or a 50-something man buying his wife a toy to compensate her for all your nights spent in the office, you might want more than this.
You might want, for example, your new big-dollar, four-seat convertible to hit you with something emotional, something warming. With the E-Class, you won't get that with six of its seven engines. The only one that'll even give you a sniff of passion is the ageing 5.5L V8. The 382hp engine will throw the 1,840kg convertible to 100kph in 5.3 seconds and it will keep going until the speed limiter intervenes at 250kph. Not bad for a car that's almost 160kg heavier than the lightest of the Cabrios, the 181hp E200 petrol four-cylinder.
But it's more than that. It's the noise, a warming, burbling, carefully tuned wave that starts from below the 2,800rpm, 530Nm torque peak and continues up beyond 6,000rpm. It's even nice at part throttle, smooth everywhere and the seven-speed auto helps ensure it's never ruffled. But for all that performance, you'll only hammer it once or twice. And then you'll stop bothering. You won't keep pushing it for the simple reason that nothing else in the car seems to want you to go quickly. It's not that it can't, because it's perfectly capable of sticking when you throw it at a corner. It's just that it can't be bothered and, inevitably, that means neither can you.
That feeling is even more pronounced when you move to the lesser motors. The direct-injection 3.5L V6 is strong, with 288hp and 365Nm, but it's neither smooth nor sonorous, and there's a zinging vibration that finds its way up from the engine bay into the bottom of the steering wheel. Not only that, but the guru direct-injection system, with its latest stratified process that adds power and saves fuel, won't leave Europe because of fears over fuel quality. Non-European direct-injection Benz engines will be children of a lesser clog.
That zinging is common to the rest of the engine range, too, but it's particularly noticeable on the four-cylinders and the diesels. But that zinging actually isn't as bad as it sounds. In the big picture, it might be a poor feeling, but at least it's something, which is more than you can say for the rest of the car. The E-Class Cabriolet will be available from March 27 in UAE showrooms.