Twin-turbo 4.7-liter V8
402 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque
7-speed automatic transmission
The AIRCAP automatic draft stop system, which debuts in the E-Class Cabriolet, uses a wind deflector and a draft-stop mounted behind the rear seats to dramatically decrease windflow in the cabin when the windows are up to ensure an undisturbed driving experience. Mercedes' heated AIRSCARF neck-level heating system also makes an appearance in the E-Class Cabriolet.
With the E550 Cabriolet you can dive into corners and be cradled like a hammock; the steering is responsive without being touchy, and the suspension provides a nice combination of comfort and seat-of-the-pants feel.
Mercedes chose a fabric roof rather than a retractable hardtop for the Cabriolet, and its three-layer construction damps exterior noise effectively. It takes about 20 seconds for the top to retract and disappear into its cubby behind the rear seats.
For several years my daily driver has been the F train, and it’s been good to me. Indeed, it’s where I met my wife, Sarah, a twist of fate that led us, in a roundabout way, to the San Francisco airport, where we stood outside the terminal one Sunday last September, waiting for the car we’d be driving on our honeymoon.
I’d managed to keep the car a secret, so this was the big reveal. It appeared from nowhere, as if a wand had been waved: a steel-gray Mercedes-Benz E550 Cabriolet, practically glowing among the dusty airport vans and rental-car shuttles. We stood by our suitcases, gaping like two rubes at a state fair.
From the moment I took the wheel, I knew I was out of my depth. How do you assess a thing so far removed from your everyday experience? Our last rental was a Kia Rio, for Pete’s sake. Besides, I’d be test-driving this vehicle on the Pacific Coast Highway, in pharmaceutical-grade sunshine, on my honeymoon. These are not real-world driving conditions.
Still, I felt some obligation to remain objective about the car. So I came up with a methodology: every time something wasn’t perfectly awesome, I wrote it down. What follows is a diary of petty grievances, any of which could be filed under “Problems, First World.”
DAY 1 We acquaint ourselves with the E-Class cabriolet. Introduced for the 2011 model year, it replaced the CLK convertible in the Mercedes lineup. It’s a four-seater that wears its sportiness in a reserved way, like a light sweater thrown over the shoulders of a country-club wife, with a high waistline that helps to maintain an impression of solid respectability. The front windshield, by contrast, is set at a sharp, racy angle, and the driving position is correspondingly low — the window sill came up to my shoulder, meaning I wouldn’t be able to prop my elbow on the door frame. Isn’t that half the point of a convertible?
Mercedes chose a fabric roof rather than a retractable hardtop, and its three-layer construction damps exterior noise effectively. The interior is black leather with walnut trim and, equipped with a premium package, promises all manner of Bluetooth-era technical coddling. I spend the drive from the airport playing with the 14-way power-adjustable front seat while Sarah figures out the sound system.
And already, a complaint! It appears the Sirius XM subscription has expired, so there will be no “70s on 7” satellite radio this week; fortunately my iTunes library basically replicates their playlist. We find the iPod/MP3 connection, and the system recognizes our iPhones immediately. Crisis averted.
Other complaints: The fruit in the Mark Hopkins hotel’s complimentary honeymoon gift basket was Cézanne-quality to gaze upon — we spent 10 minutes trying to photograph it — but a little hard on the teeth.
DAY 2 We make our first try at putting the top down at the Golden Gate Bridge scenic lookout, and something’s not right. Though I can hear the whirring of a motorized contraption behind the rear seat, the top won’t budge. After consulting the owner’s manual and popping the trunk to examine the underpinnings of the retractable-roof mechanism, I’m flummoxed. Sarah stands by patiently, pondering the prospect of several decades of this kind of thing.
Finally she figures it out: there’s a latch in the trunk that must be locked into place. She pulls it into position, and suddenly the roof unhinges from the front pillars and smoothly retracts. It takes about 20 seconds for the top to disappear into its cubby behind the rear seats, and several more minutes for Sarah to stop gloating.
The next morning we realize there’s no way to lower the roof with all of our luggage in the trunk. We spend the rest of the trip with my wife’s large purple suitcase in the back seat. I can’t speak to the comfort level for rear passengers — legroom would appear to be compromised if the driver and front-seat passenger choose to stretch their limbs — but the suitcase never complained.
DAY 3 Here are a couple of tips for your next driving tour of San Francisco. First, unless you’re really willing to upset your fellow tourists, twisty Lombard Street, a k a “the crookedest street in the world,” is not the place to test the limits of your car’s handling. Second, it’s tough to roar Bullitt-style over the city’s hills while also trying to follow Google Maps.
And I have a genuine criticism. When the 7-speed automatic transmission is set to its default Economy mode, the E550 takes a moment to acknowledge a firm foot on the gas. I noticed this first on the drive from the airport to the hotel, and the last two days confirmed it. Each time I try to lead-foot, the 382-horsepower engine seems to pause to ask “Are you sure?” After a half-second it acquiesces with a deep, guttural growl from the 5.5 liter V-8, and a corresponding burst of speed.
In Sport mode that burst is instantaneous, and the difference is that much more obvious now that we’re officially on Highway 1, heading south toward Monterey. The solution is to keep it in Sport mode. You’re on your honeymoon, fool.
It’s only fair to note that I was driving the 2011 E550; the 2012 model features, along with a new transmission, a twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V-8 that makes 402 horsepower. Still, my lame-duck 2011 Cabriolet is plenty quick, especially when it comes to passing power. After rocketing past four cars on a straight stretch of highway somewhere south of Half Moon Bay, I can confidently estimate that the E550 goes from 45 to 80 in about 3 seconds.
Complaints: We get all the way to Pacifica before realizing there’s no In-N-Out Burger there, and make a 10-minute detour back to Daly City for lunch.
DAY 4 The 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach is as visually stunning as promised. What the photos don’t tell you is that a good portion of it smells like a Mrs. Paul’s processing plant. It’s the one failing of the Cabriolet’s AirCap system, a spoiler that rises above the windshield at the push of a button, with a corresponding air dam behind the rear seats. AirCap does an excellent job of reducing wind turbulence in the cabin, but alas it’s not a force field. Next time we’ll bring air freshener.
This leg of the trip poses a serious problem: the deep, winding curves north of Big Sur are the ideal performance challenge for the E550, but those same curves offer breathtaking vistas of the jagged cliffs and rocky shore of the Pacific. The thin metal guardrails separating us from the edge of those cliffs, bent crudely back into shape in many places, are a constant reminder that you cannot enjoy both the road and the view at the same time.
I’d say the E550 is dialed in just right for someone like me, a novice who wants to play helldriver now and then but be forgiven for some occasional overexuberance. You can dive into corners and be cradled like a hammock; the wheels hang tight, not sliding a bit as you accelerate perhaps a little too quickly from the apex of a turn. The steering is responsive without being touchy, and the suspension provides a nice combination of comfort and seat-of-the-pants feel.
Complaints: The Caveman Room at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo is kitschy, roadside-America fun until you try to sleep there, at which point the faux-Stone Age walls become claustrophobic and a little creepy.
DAY 5 The problem with my Nit-Picker’s Guide to the E-Class is that it can’t account for a day like today, when everything is just about perfect. So let’s substitute a few quibbles about the mostly excellent 2012 model, which I drove more recently in New York.
The smaller, more powerful engine of the 2012 sedan seemed overeager in Sport mode, as if the direct-injection V-8 were in a hurry to prove its extra 20 horses were worth the trouble. It’s hard to say whether this was a characteristic of the new powertrain or of the more leisurely mind-set evoked by the longer, wider sedan. Whatever the cause, with the 2012 sedan I actually preferred driving in Economy mode. The car still lagged a bit in the lower gears, but as it approached highway speeds the E-Class seemed to find its ideal rhythm.
The same could be said of the 2011 Cabriolet, actually. Maybe it’s because we’ve reached a flatter, straighter portion of Highway 1, negating the temptation for me to play with the paddle shifters in manual-transmission mode, but the E550 seems best suited for this kind of casual daylong cruise.
We approach Los Angeles in late afternoon with Katy Perry blasting from the speakers — a husband quickly learns to make compromises — and somehow this becomes the thing I’ll remember most, driving into Malibu with the top down and the wind blowing and my wife singing along to “Teenage Dream.” I’m iffy on the song at first, but Sarah’s winning me over with an impromptu dance routine, acting out the lyrics and throwing her arms up into the wind, and at that moment I am head-over-heels in love, not just with the girl, but with the car, the music, the ocean, the sunshine, California, everything.
Complaints: It is embarrassing to have a half dozen valets at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel tripping over themselves to help us unload the E-Class. How much do you tip a guy for carrying a pair of sandals?
DAY 6 It’s the last full day of our trip, and I’m already nostalgic. Despite the prospect of a long drive back to San Francisco, we spend the early afternoon curling through Topanga Canyon and along Mulholland Drive, squeezing a last few hours of playtime out of the E-Class. After refueling in Studio City, we get to experience an authentic L.A. traffic jam just before sunset.
I haven’t mentioned mileage because, to be honest, I didn’t keep track of it. For the record, the E.P.A. rates the latest E550 Cabriolet at a mediocre 16 miles per gallon in the city, 25 for the highway, which is actually an improvement over the 2011 model, whose larger engine’s thirst was rated at 15/22. But I’m guessing that, with a list price approaching $75,000 with options, fuel economy isn’t a top concern of the E550 customer.
Complaints: Kitchen worker at Jack in the Box on Interstate 5 south of Bakersfield is seen leaving the bathroom without washing his hands.
DAY 7 After saying a wistful goodbye to the E550 at the airport valet stand, we fly back to New York to resume our regular, pedestrian lives. The harsh reality doesn’t truly set in until we’ve landed at La Guardia, where in the taxi line a dispirited Crown Vic waits, like a yellow pumpkin, to carry us home.
It’s amazing how fast one can become a snob about these things.