EXECUTIVE EDITOR RORY CARROLL: Purpose-built roadsters like the Mazda Miata and TR6 are OK in my book, but I have an aversion to cars that have had their roofs chopped off. Back in the old, old days, carmakers sometimes hacked roofs off to save weight -- think Porsche's old Speedster -- but somewhere along the line, car buyers came to regard the prospect of being crushed to death/burned alive inside a flimsy steel shell as scary, and SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE. So cars got heavier and less rigid when they got convertibled.
Even if that's not as true as it has been, I still shrink from the drop-top versions of cars and I still think that, in general, hard-tops look better. But there's always been two exceptions to my rule: purpose-built convertibles and the big, cozy cabriolet.
Cars like this 2014 Mercedes-Benz E550 Cabriolet start to make a lot of sense when you're headed out to dinner with a small group of people on a sunny summer day. It's sharp-looking, comfortable and for a drop-top, it's rather unassuming. Buying the convertible version of a performance car can make you look like a bit of a poseur. The E550 is still plenty fast, but instead of making you look like the kind of guy who always knows the exact location of his Bluetooth ear-piece, you look like the kind of guy who owns a big old sailboat and lets your kids' college-age friends drink beer onboard, so long as they designate a driver.
EDITOR WES RAYNAL: The Mercedes-Benz E-class lineup is one of my auto-industry favorites. They fit me. I feel comfortable in them. I get in one and it's like I never left. They're beautifully built, everything is where I expect it be and they look good. I like them all: sedans, coupes, wagons, yes, even the convertible. Though like Carroll I generally don't like convertibles based on other models, I prefer purpose-built ones. This one ain't bad, though. The word I kept thinking of while driving this car was “momentum.” As in, this thing has plenty of it. As in, I'm really impressed with this powertrain. Short of an AMG rocket, the 550's engine is a gem. There's more than enough power here for 99 percent of the situations you'll find yourself in. Stomp the gas and holy mackerel off you go! The speed just builds and builds, evenly and smoothly. Love it -- especially in sport mode. Cool hot rod sounds, too. The trans is smooth and feels well matched to the engine.
Back to that notion of convertibles based on other models: The car's structure does exhibit a bit of quiver over potholes and such, though I'm sure it's been reinforced a bunch. The ride is nice, though; it's as happy cruising around town as it is being a hooligan on the freeway; and more structure means more weight, but it doesn't drive heavy.
The car has the other new styling cues the rest of the E-class lineup got, such as the new snout that's smoother and looks more unified with the rest of the car. The new Es look proportionally right to my eye.
The interior is very nice as I expected, handsome, well built and comfortable. With the top up, it's quiet in there. One could drive this all year if needed -- I would.
While $81K isn't cheap, it's hard to find this kind of power in a topless car for less than a hundred grand, though digital editor Andy Stoy reminds me to not forget the Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: Remember the Mercedes-Benz Ocean Drive concept, a big old four-door drop-top boat in Silver Arrow silver? Its styling was subtle, but its proportions were not: had it been built, it would have been the spiritual successor to the Lincoln Continental, or maybe the Eldorado Biarritz if that battleship of a Caddy had an extra set of doors. I think it debuted in 2007, and it's just as fresh and beautiful to my eyes today.
Seven years later, we still don't have an S-class sedan cabriolet (for better of for worse), but many of the Ocean Drive concept's styling cues have made it onto real-life Benzes. And this two-door E-class Cabriolet is probably the closest you can get to the concept's presence, for the time being at least.
That's a good thing if you want a Teutonic brick you can mess your hair up in. The E550 Cabriolet is a very German take on old-school American ragtop cruisers, only without the flex. Or lazy cushiness -- whether you switch the suspension to “sport” mode or keep it in “comfort,” you're not bouncing and rolling over the road.
The E550 Cabriolet is not SL-convertible fast, but there's still more torque than the rear wheels can handle if you stand on the accelerator. I couldn't find the traction control switch, but if you could somehow defeat the nannies, this car would have no trouble laying down rubber.
I don't think someone under the age of 60 can credibly drive one of these, at least outside Miami or the Los Angeles metro area. It's quick but not really sporty, fun but not really immature, luxurious but not really opulent. But with the top down and the sun out, it largely speaks for itself.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR JAKE LINGEMAN: This 2014 Mercedes E550 Cabriolet is sharp. Literally. The front lip is chrome and pointy and looks like a bent scimitar. Hitting a human at speed would be bad -- real bad.
Besides the convertible top, I like the look of the new E-class. The new headlights look good with the LEDs, as do the big intake vents right below. In back, a new taillight setup is evident, with two big exhaust pipes and a bit of chrome trim.
Like most soft-top convertibles, the profile lines are ruined on this E. The chrome strip around the black top also turns me off. I have to say it looks a little too feminine for me. And that's definitely just the soft top. I truly like the look of the new E-class sedan.
This twin-turbo V8 has some thrust, man. I couldn't decide if it had more horsepower than my Ford Mustang GT. I guessed yes; I was wrong. It was more likely because of the 443 lb-ft of torque. Smashing a foot into the gas brings on a grunt and a downshift before shoving you back into your seat, and keeping you there until you let off. I didn't find any lag from the turbo, but it was probably Merc's seven-speed transmission that kept it firmly in the powerband. I played with the paddle shifters a little bit, but this car is just as much fun in fully automatic mode. I did drive it in “sport” most of the time, which kept the throttle sensitivity high.
It wasn't as smooth over broken pavement as I would have guessed. Big bumps and potholes are felt and heard in the cabin. You can feel a little flex in the chassis when you go over big ones, too. After the first few, I was on the lookout and dodged the rest.
Steering was relatively heavy, but didn't have much feel. Over the bumps that's good, most of the time, but when setting up for a gentle bend in the expressway, I had to crank the wheel way more than I expected. It's not '63-Pontiac Starchief-numb, but it seemed like I moved the wheel a good few inches before it started turning.
Ingress was easy with the long doors, though getting out required a firm hand on the door sill. The seats were fine, nothing special, but Mercedes does offer a ton of adjustments. I didn't put the top down, but I enjoyed both the heated seats and Airscarf on a cool morning.
I guess the BMW 6-series would be this car's main competitor. It starts at $74,000 and brings 445 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque, so it'll feel a little faster. As for curb appeal, that's for you to decide.
ASSOCIATE WEST COAST EDITOR BLAKE Z. RONG: It was the perfect night to take my girlfriend out for a drive in the 2014 Mercedes-Benz E550 Cabriolet. We drove down the Pacific Coast Highway, following the warm smell of the ocean. We pulled off at a quiet overlook where the Santa Monica Mountains yawned around us, silhouetted by the faint glow of the distant San Fernando Valley. A quiet stillness in the air punctuated only by the dull hum of airplanes, their faint blinking lights against a backdrop of undiluted stars. We sat there and stared at the stars. She said she was getting cold, in that way girls of a delicate disposition do. It was getting late, so I reached down to put the convertible top up.
The top wouldn't go up.
It wouldn't budge. The vast trunklid flipped open with the wobbly grace of a dumpster lid. The motors whirred. The dashboard lights lit. The top remained nestled in its cozy security like a schoolchild who doesn't want to hike 12 miles to the bus stop. We drove home with all the windows up -- a graceless faux pas I've repeatedly likened to wearing socks with sandals -- and found it ideal to test the heated seats (warm like a hot stone massage), Airscarf (breezy and warm right around your neck), and the wind protection (quiet, insulating; you can even carry a conversation like the one we had about malfunctioning German cars). Mercedes-Benz has designed such a comfortable convertible it even has the tolerance for when it breaks.
Eventually the nice men at press fleet company took the car and, replicating the situation, were able to lift the convertible top out with two pairs of hands. (There's a procedure for this in the owner's manual, four pages long, covered with indecipherable hieroglyphics, as complicated as the operating manual for the Chernobyl reactor and likely to result in a similar disaster.) Upon doing so, they found that the top wouldn't go down. “We've never seen this before,” they said. So they whisked away to a dealership.
Later, I got it back, under mysterious circumstances -- neither the dealer nor the fleet company would tell me what the fix was. Evidently, the mere satisfaction of knowing that the top worked would appease me. I drove it to Las Vegas and back with the top down and, true to their beliefs, it did.
The E550 Cabriolet, top up or down, is heavenly. The power delivery is wonderful, smooth and immediate. There's a hint of a growl behind when you ease into the throttle; it sounds like a distant thunderstorm, or a grizzly bear approaching your Sprinter RV. Aside from a “pshh” from the twin-turbos, the 4.6-liter V8 never seems to raise its voice -- and yet, when it finally does, you're nearly at triple-digit speeds.
When the road gets narrow the big E can be a bit of a handful: the weighty steering reflects much of its bulk, and the suspension wallows over road surfaces. The occasional sharp bump can send the entire front end shaking, but this was rare. If the surface is rough, the heavy throttle can feel disjointed when you push on it and it bounces with the road surface.
There's a lot of wind buffeting at 80 miles per hour, and it's a car that nearly forces you to drive with the windows up. Don't do this. Driving a convertible -- especially a powerful convertible like this -- with the top down and the windows up is a faux pas to the equivalent of wearing socks with sandals. In an $80,000 convertible of this stature, it's especially egregious.
Because there's something about the dream of a drop-top Benz, a dream sung about in 80s hip-hop ballads. It trickles down from the mighty SLS Roadster, it's evident in the SL only from behind the wheel, it infuses into the E-Class, and it ekes what little is left from the gawky SLK. Now shorn of its confetti-square headlights and awkward flanks that resemble a second-generation Chevrolet Malibu, the E possesses the quiet dignity worthy of an ancestor to the W111s, the stacked-headlight cabriolets most recently torn apart by a tiger in “The Hangover”. And it looks especially sleek with the top down.
Which helped, really.
When I picked up the car, I vowed to spend as much time with the top down as possible. Which is a little bit like eating your own body weight's worth of chocolate -- a daring challenge reeking of hedonism, until you actually take that 300th bite.
2014 Mercedes-Benz E550 Cabriolet
Base Price: $68,225
As-Tested Price: $81,615
Drivetrain: 4.6-liter twin-turbocharged V8; RWD, seven-speed automatic
Output: 402 hp @ 5,000-5,750 rpm, 443 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,750 rpm
Curb Weight: 4,048 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 17/26/20 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 18.0 mpg
Options: P01 premium package including COMMAND system with navigation, voice control, Harman/Kardon surround sound system, SiriusXM radio, traffic, weather, AIRSCARF ventilated headrests, rearview camera ($3,270); 997 driver assistance package including DISTRONIC PLUS with PRE-SAFE brake and steering assist, active blind spot assist, active lane keeping assist, PRE-SAFE PLUS with cross-traffic assist, PRE-SAFE brake with pedestrian recognition ($2,800); 391 lighting package including adaptive highbeam assist, full-LED headlamps w/ active curve & corner illumination ($1,500); black napa leather ($1,370); 996 parking assist package including Parktronic with active parking assist, surround view camera system ($1,290); 321 sport package including sport steering wheel and pedals, multicontour front seats ($870); keyless go ($650); wood/leather steering wheel ($590); heated and active ventilated front seats ($450); rear deck spoiler ($350); special order ($250)
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