Monday October 16, 2017
By Richard Bosselman
STATISTICAL analysis has confirmed what your senses probably already said: That within the German elite brands, Mercedes is the star performer.
Big auto news on arrival in Australia to drive the E-Class cabriolet was that its maker has officially become the benchmark among the high-brow brands for delivering sales satisfaction to new car buyers across the ditch.
An assessment that puts Benz well ahead of Audi and BMW comes from a JD Power Australia Sales Satisfaction Index study for luxury marques.
The findings have left Benz feeling pretty chuffed and sentiment was that what stands true in Australia should also hold firm in New Zealand, too.
The study is a significant indicator of how well customers are being treated at the leading marques’ prestige dealerships in Australia at the time of purchase – and whether they are likely to become (or remain) advocates of the brand as a result of the experience – at a time when they are all managing a significant increase in showroom traffic, first-time and increasingly younger buyers and, up until this year, unprecedented sales volume.
JD Power’s ‘power circle’ ratings show that Mercedes performed well across all six factors used to determine the level of customer satisfaction.
Driving the soft top version of the E-Class, a key car toward contributing to this success, seems the right kind of salute to this champagne moment.
Like the coupe that precedes – and shares so much with – it, the cabriolet is a car designed to put feel-good above everything else; it’s certainly not the most practical E-Class, nor perhaps even the best value version, but it clearly is one of those editions that will snare an extra-special social standing.
Whether you're a drop-top fan or not, there's no denying that this styling execution is very successful. It’s as much a stare magnet as the coupe, perhaps even moreso with the roof stowed. When the lid is up the roofline isn’t quite as seamless in its sweep as the hardtop’s but, it’s far from manky.
Obviously good looks are a good ‘sell’, yet for all that Benz here is not getting too carried away in thinking that this will translate to big sales; executive cars are not big sellers to start with and two-door versions are especially select choices.
Unsurprisingly, then, the lineup is even more whittled down than that for the hardtop two-door. Whereas there are three of those - in E200, E300 and E400 guise - the open car restricts to a pair: Rear-drive, four-cylinder E300 and all-wheel-drive E400 4Matic six-cylinder which, at $133,500 and $159,500 respectively, these carry premiums of $10,600 and $7600 over the equivalent coupes.
Determining which direction to go will come down wholly to styling preference. Specification levels are similar, the E300 soft-top coming standard with leather sports seats including front seat-heaters, Comand Online premium widescreen infotainment system, LED headlights, air suspension, semi-autonomous driver assistance and safety technologies, Airscarf neck warmers and Aircap draught excluder.
External features include a sports exhaust, AMG bodykit and 20-inch AMG alloy wheels. The E400 adds in a 13-speaker Burmester premium surround sound system, head-up display and standard metallic paint.
Under the E300’s bonnet is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine developing 180kW of power and 370Nm of torque, driving the rear wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission.
Claimed 0-100kmh acceleration for the entry car is 6.6 seconds on the way to an electronically limited 250kmh top speed, with an official European combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 7.4 litres per 100km.
The E400’s 3.0-litre turbo-petrol V6 producing 245kW and 480Nm, also paired with a nine-speed automatic. This engine has a cited best overall economy of 8.7 litres per 100km. A 0-100kmh time of 5.5 seconds is cited.
Another important performance figure is how long it takes the five-layer fabric roof to open and close. The answer? Just 20 seconds, possible while the car is in motion at up to 50kmh, with just a twitch of the single button controller. It’s a swish functionality; smooth quiet and, for us, quick enough to mean we escaped getting wet when a squall suddenly swept in while we were driving back to Melbourne after lunch at a vineyard near Ballarat.
Driving the car in its open state along country roads to a winery for a laidback meal (but no drinking, of course) then back to the big might seem like a typical ‘day in the life’ owner exercise; certainly the persona of a comfortable, able cruiser with some agility is one that seems to fit this car pretty well, too. Even though the all-wheel-drive V6 has quite a lot more shove than the four-cylinder, it’s not exactly a fire-breathing rocketship. Doubtless AMG will sort that some time in the future.
Still, even though it is quite laidback in absolute performance, and inevitably also loses some of the coupe's sharpness through the curves, it’s not soggy or sluggish either. It feels pretty much as you’d want it to, really; in either format it steers accurately enough and the ride and body control are fine, yet while it feels able and agile in the corners the greater reason for why it feels special is more to do with how it imparts an ambience of being well-engineered: There’s a solidity to its demeanour. But you’re not going to feel compelled to set a record A to B time on a favourite road. For one, there’s it’s size. It feels big on the road.
Still, it is a swish experience. The nine-speed automatic transmission that's as slick as they come, shifting beautifully and offering a generous spread of ratios. Both engines operate smoothly, too, and though the six’s extra muscle is extra, the entry four has enough oomph to give a pleasing push.
On the right day, on the right road, at the right speed open top cars always feel special. But Benz wants to make sure that those wind in the hair moments don’t mess those expensive do’s.
Thus, it gets extras to keep wind buffeting to a minimum through provision of an Aircap deflector that raises above the screen while a partition simultaneously comes up behind the rear seats. It’s all nicely techy, but two issues: First, these assists do little for the lines when they extend and second … well, second, rather than reducing the wind rustle they actually seem to increase it from above 80kmh. It’s more of an oasis of calm, for the front seat occupants at least, with just the side glass up; even tall types will be out of the slipstream; everything just pushes over the top of the screen to create a little bubble of calm – a factor that was really appreciated when we blasted through a swarm of bees that appeared with no warning.
There are Airscarf neck warmers, too, to keep you toasty on cooler days with the roof down. Another drop-top specific piece of tech means wipers that only wash on the down stroke so as not to get you wet when you're cleaning the screen. The leather on the seats apparently has some sort of a sun-reflecting treatment to help keep them cool, too. Well, it’s Benz … they think of everything, right?
So, all these are neat touches. But the coupe will still keep you warm and dry with greater refinement, right?
Well, here’s the thing: Roof in place, the cabrio is no less well buttoned up than the hardtop: It is remarkable how well suppressed the wind, engine and road noise is. For sure, Benz here has chosen the better of two roofs available – this one has five layers, the other ‘just’ three – but even so, it is quite impressive in its acoustic qualities. Also, they’ve even managed to engineer in something most soft tops don’t get: An interior light.
There are other kinds of clever, as well. The E-Class adopts a high level of driver aides, enough to give it a degree of autonomy, and their bingle-inhibiting qualities might be extra useful you're in a car that allows greater opportunity to enjoy the view. And enjoying being the centre of attention.
What else? Well, I suppose there’s the attraction of this ‘me’ car being large enough to be big enough for three other narcissists as well. While the back seat is a bit tight for headroom when its closed up (due to the roofline shape being lower), and entry and egress for back seat riders is a bit awkward, it supports claim that this is the first proper four-seat convertible E-Class in two decades. Interior space is improved over the much smaller previous model that was based on the C-Class, owing to a 123mm increase in overall length, 74mm greater width and 30mm more height.
The 385-litre boot is 40L smaller than the coupe’s but can be expanded by folding the Cabriolet-unique 50:50 split rear seats that also have a load-through feature for longer objects. Cargo capacity drops to 310 litres with the seats up and the roof down.
The E-Class cabriolet might outwardly seem to sit singularly in the market if you’re of a mind to consider a C-Class cabriolet is more of a competitor for the open-roof Audi A5 and BMW 4-Series. For those self-indulgent types seeking a premium car with an extra hefty dollop of glam, then it’s a pretty decent choice.