Looming bluffs, the salty brine of ocean air, a winding road and the luscious sound of a buttery V8. A convertible may be the first thought for use in this auto paradise, but sunburns are bad news. So a better choice might be a classic hardtop like the 2010 Mercedes-Benz E550 Coupe — a regal piece of luxury engineering notable as much for what it lacks (B-pillars) as what it possesses. Power down the windows, slide back the sunshade of the tinted panoramic sunroof and experience motoring as it was meant to be enjoyed.
If all of this seems a tad romantic, that's because the E-Class coupe is just the sort of automobile you'd fall in love with and keep for 25 years. It certainly feels like it's built to last that long, with the same sort of impenetrable thunk when opening the door handle as the tanklike S-Class sedan or tank-literal G-Class SUV.
Cruising over choppy pavement reveals a peerless ride usually associated with a vehicle that weighs 6,000 pounds, yet it takes corners like the lighter thoroughbred luxury coupe it is. As its name would indicate, the E550 coupe is a new two-door version of Mercedes' venerable E-Class. It's meant to replace the now discontinued CLK-Class — in presence, in prestige, in luxury — yet it costs about $2,000 less than the CLK550.
Based on a mechanical soup of the E-Class sedan and some C-Class bits, the E-Class coupe features the engines and sheer presence of the former, while sharing the more nimble road manners of the latter. The Audi S5 and BMW M3 are right in the price neighborhood, but each represents an escalating degree of sport tuning that along with the E550 provides coupe buyers with distinct flavors of driving — Lux, Sport and Macho. The BMW 6 Series and Jaguar XK may compete in size, luxury and prestige, but cost about $20,000 more.
So you won't find an apples-to-apples rival for the 2010 Mercedes E550 Coupe, but when the sun is shining through the glass roof and the wind is whisking through the open windows, you'll be perfectly content that rivals were absent.
As is typical for Mercedes-Benz, the E550's 5.5-liter V8 is one of refinement and civility. The noises it produces are a distant, dampened burble, yet it masks a generous wallop of effortless punch. With 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque sent to the rear wheels via a leisurely shifting seven-speed auto, the 0-60 sprint takes only 5.3 seconds, which is pretty much equal to a manual-equipped Audi S5. Going the other way on the track produced less impressive results, with a longish (for this class) 130 feet required to stop from 60 mph.
On those gently winding coastal roads, the E550 is in its element. The steering is on the light side, but it's linear and subtly responsive in a way that requires a delicate touch to appreciate. Should that gentle winding become seriously bendy, you'll notice more body roll than is present in its sharper competitors, but at least the E's motions are fluid and predictable at a reasonable speed.
The E550 can go quickly when pushed, but it ultimately encourages a more leisurely pace, as if saying "Why so fast, buddy? Why not roll down the windows and enjoy the world?" Should you be perpetually in a hurry, the S5 is probably the better way to go. Should you perpetually need to get there with the rear end in a smoky drift, go with the M3.
The front seats? Divine. They provide 12 different adjustments for the driver and 10 for the passenger, while adding adjustable bolsters and two different areas of lumbar support. They're firm, supportive and conducive to sudden impulse drives to Florida. The twin bucket backseats? Like Cleveland, they're relatively easy to get to, but you don't really want to go there in the first place.
Rear legroom is tighter than in the S5, and headroom requires occupants to be 5-foot-7 or shorter to ride. There's also no center armrest, but at least the lack of a B-pillar (the center roof pillar normally just aft of the driver's shoulder) and self-returning front seats make getting back there relatively simple.
The cabin is suitably quiet, providing a pleasant cocoon to enjoy the (optional) Harman Kardon stereo. Scoring more points for the E550's lack of a B-pillar, wind buffeting and noise is greatly reduced when the windows are lowered. Cruising at between 50 and 60 mph yields a pleasing waft of air through the cabin that no other coupe in this price range can match.
A relatively tall green house and (sorry to mention it again) no B-pillars create an airy cabin that's easy to see out of. Big mirrors, adaptive bi-xenon headlights and an optional back-up camera make the world behind and beside you that much more transparent.
The cabin controls are virtually identical to those in the E-Class sedan, with the lone exception being a traditional gear shifter in place of an electronic column stalk. The climate controls consist of large toggles and corresponding LCD displays directly above them that make adjustments quick and easy at a glance.
The stereo and other controls are a bit more complicated, and our test car came with the optional COMAND electronics interface. It works pretty well at corralling the car's various functions, and the latest generation's combination of physical dash buttons, steering wheel controls and multifunction knob make the system vastly better than earlier incarnations. The iPod interface, in particular, works quite well.
As far as luxury coupes go, the E550 offers a commendable amount of storage space. The glovebox and center console compartment are quite large, and the cupholders are roomy enough for medium-size beverages. The trunk is even more impressive, providing enough room for a large suitcase and a golf bag widthwise. If you need more room, the 60/40-split rear seats easily flip forward with the pull of two handles mounted in the trunk.
A coupe is usually not the first automotive choice for parents, but whaddaya know, having no B-pillars helps them, too. Lower the back window and finagling a child seat is all of a sudden pretty easy rather than a body-bending activity better suited for Nastia Liukin.
Design/Fit and Finish
Mercedes-Benz has recently transitioned from a more Italian, organic interior design to one more indicative of the blocky, carved-from-stone designs of its past. To our eyes, it works. Materials are first-rate and subtle details like the automated arm that hands you your seatbelt or the chrome plate that lines the inner door edge go that extra distance to make your vehicle purchase seem a bit more special.
On the outside, the E550 manages to be sexy and sophisticated in a more angular, aggressive manner than the softer, more feminine CLK. The four oval lights within the corner airdams are a bit odd (they look like front-mounted exhausts) and the rear quarter window breaks up the hardtop look a little, but in general this is a very handsome car.
Who should consider this vehicle
The E550 is a classic example of a luxury coupe, one for those more interested in a refined ride and a subdued driving character than all-out performance and handling. Should you be the reverse of that, we suggest looking at the Audi S5 or BMW M3. We'd also recommend taking the V6-powered E350 coupe for a spin, as it's plenty powerful and offers all the luxuries of the V8 model.