There are plenty of people who like the idea of a convertible. Maybe they had one back in their younger, carefree days and remember sun-dappled cruises on back roads, tunes blasting from the stereo.
Fast-forward a decade or two. Now, these same folks are older, savvier and, very likely, fussier and more demanding. They like the romantic notion of top-down cruising, yet don't want cold air chilling them, don't want road and wind noise disturbing them, and don't want the car to wriggle like Shakira when they encounter potholes or railroad tracks. For these conflicted luxury car consumers, there is the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet — the perfect convertible for the "I want to have my strudel and eat it, too" crowd.
Depending on your mood, you can motor top-down in this Benz with the wind lapping your face and swirling your hair...or not. Those crafty Mercedes engineers have devised a system of wind blockers for the E350 cabriolet that can keep the cabin nearly as calm as it would be with the roof raised. And if it's a bit nippy outside but you can't resist the moonlit sky above, just crank up the seat heaters and the Airscarf neck warmers. The latter blow warm air onto your neck and shoulders, and after the first use will have you wondering how you ever got along without them.
In addition to this tranquil fresh-air motoring experience, you also happen to get a car that practically defines the term "grand touring." The 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet excels at covering ground very comfortably and at a rapid pace, if you so choose. Still, in the posh luxury convertible segment, there are a few other cars to consider. Both the BMW 3 Series convertible and Infiniti G37 convertible offer the additional security of a retractable hardtop design as well as a more involving drive for the enthusiast. The Volvo C70 is an outside shot; it's certainly comfortable but doesn't offer the level of sophistication or athleticism of the E350. Lastly the Audi A5/S5 cabriolet is another worthy soft-top choice. But as nice as these rivals may be, they lack the ultimate polish of this Mercedes convertible. It gives you the feeling that you're being completely pampered and protected from the cruel outside world even while you're enjoying it from your fresh-air vantage point.
As with its sedan and coupe counterparts, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet is ably propelled by a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 (the E550 features a 382-hp V8). Matched to a seven-speed automatic transmission, the V6 pushes this 2-ton Benz to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.0 seconds. Whether you're taking off from a stop or stepping into it for a swift merge onto the freeway, the E350 moves out in a smooth, effortless manner with nearly imperceptible gearshifts.
The transmission also offers a choice of Comfort and Sport modes. Upon start-up, it automatically defaults to the more relaxed, more fuel-efficient Comfort mode, which provides gentler step-off and earlier, more relaxed gearchanges. Switch it to Sport, however, and the gearbox is more alert, holding onto lower gears more aggressively and stepping down more readily to keep the power on tap.
Equipped with the misnamed "Appearance package" (it's more a Sport package), our car had shift paddles on the steering wheel to facilitate manual-style gearchanges. But as we noted with the E350 coupe, it's a mixed bag. Flick the paddle (or gearshift lever) for a downshift and it happens pronto, but flick for an upshift and there's an annoying delay. Sadly, this is common with conventional automatics with any sort of manual control.
As we expected from a Mercedes, the E350's stopping performance was solid, with the 60-0 test taking just 110 feet. The pedal is reassuringly firm yet progressive in action. In terms of handling, the E350 cab is confident and composed. Crisp turn-in response and a planted demeanor when rounding corners inspired both joy and confidence in our drivers, though a few wished the steering effort would weight up more as speed increased. All told, this car felt lighter and more athletic than something weighing 4,000 pounds has any right to be.
Despite the firmer suspension calibrations that come with the Appearance package, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 provides a comfortable ride. Even when we hit pothole-riddled pavement and freeway expansion joints, the bumps and ruts were dismissed with a muffled thump and without jostling. The lack of cowl shake (even while traversing the tracks of a rail crossing) was especially impressive. A convertible obviously doesn't have the structural integrity of a closed car, but you could've fooled us (and did) with the E350 cabriolet.
Cruising up the coastline with the wind coming off the ocean gave us a chance to try this car's elaborate wind-blocker devices. With the windows and rear wind blocker all up, the cabin was fairly calm, with just a little wind tousling our hair. Deploying the Aircap spoiler on the windshield header took care of that, leaving an eerily serene environment with the great outdoors overhead. Of course, if you want to get a little crazy, just lower all the windows and retract the front/rear wind blockers and you can dry your hair nearly instantly after taking a dip in the ocean.
With the available multiadjustable front seats (which include power side bolsters and thigh support) and power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, getting an ideal and comfy seating position was a breeze. The individual rear seats (two passengers only) were also well shaped and didn't have too upright a backrest angle (a common issue with convertibles as the backrest has to be pushed forward to create stowage space for the retracted top). Provided rear passengers are about 5 feet 9 or less (and not broad-shouldered), they should be reasonably comfortable back there.
Despite the large number of high-tech features at your service, most of the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350's controls are well placed and intuitive to operate. The climate control, for example, has large rocker switches to select temperature, mode and fan speed. Plus, there's an "Off" button, unlike many BMWs and Audis. The buttons for the heated/cooled seats, Airscarf neck warmers and rear wind blocker are logically located in a row above the climate control panel.
The audio system can be operated through its faceplate or through the COMAND multifunction control knob/display screen. The navigation system is easy to figure out without your needing to consult the manual, and features traffic reporting as well. The adaptive cruise control has no separate on/off button (you simply flick the stalk to set it), and you can increase or decrease your set speed in 5-mph increments by pushing the stalk past a detent.
Inside the cabin there is a fair amount of storage space thanks to the large glovebox and center console bins. Though the rear seat doesn't fold down (typical for a convertible, though Audi offers this feature in its A5/S5 drop top), there is a pass-through feature to allow long, skinny items to be transported within. At 12 cubic feet (with the top up), the E350 cabrio's trunk capacity is respectable and enough to easily transport a golf bag and large carry-on suitcase. Putting the top down, however, requires a movable partition to be pulled down, cutting trunk capacity and preventing bulky items from fitting.
Installing a rear-facing child seat in back requires a bit of maneuvering from Mom or Dad, and as there is no center seat, it must be placed in one of the outboard positions. Once in place, it limits the front passenger's legroom considerably, as that seat must be moved up to accommodate the rear-facing placement. Of course, turning the kiddie seat around (front-facing) allows that front seat to be slid back considerably, allowing those long of limb to easily ride in front of Junior.
Design/Fit and Finish
The newest midsize Mercedes convertible is 180 degrees apart from its softly contoured, organically styled CLK-Class precursor. Angular headlights, flared fenders and chiseled flanks mark the new car, and opinion on the new design language was mostly favorable. "It's more masculine, more substantial-looking," one of our editors said, while another liked most elements of the design except for the oddly sculpted rear quarter panels that "look like they were borrowed from a first-generation Subaru Forester."
The cabin of our test car was hard to fault with its cohesive and uncluttered design, elegant wood and chrome accents, and superb build quality.
Who should consider this vehicle
Discerning folks who want a convertible that provides comfortable and serene al fresco motoring would be well served by the clever 2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Cabriolet. And there is enough performance and handling here to more than satisfy most drivers. That said, more serious driving enthusiasts should also test-drive the aforementioned Audi, BMW and Infiniti competitors.
† Edmunds.com received the highest numerical score in the proprietary J.D. Power 2014 Third-Party Automotive Website Evaluation Study℠. Results based on responses from 3,381 responses, measuring 14 companies and measures third-party automotive website usefulness among new and used vehicle shoppers. Proprietary study results are based on experiences and perceptions of owners surveyed from January 2014. Your experiences may vary. Visit jdpower.com.