Mercedes-Benz is getting good at making cars that I can’t complain about, like the S560 Cabriolet—which, like the S-Class Coupe and sedan, may well be the world’s best all-around luxury car, irrespective of price. But you don’t have to spend six figures to buy a brilliant Benz. Following a flight to California to drive a Ferrari 488 Challenge race car at Laguna Seca (more on that to come), I hopped straight into another Benz convertible, the E400 Cabriolet. Having come from the insanely posh S560—which went for about $153,000 out-the-door— I was worried about a comedown climbing into the lesser E-Class ragtop. But no worries, mate: Coupe or convertible, the E400 is simply a junior-executive version of the S-Class. And it’s nearly as persuasive, but at a smaller scale and dramatically lower price.
The E400’s two-door predecessors, including the defunct CLK-Class, were actually built on the smaller C-Class architecture. At times, those cars came off as the Toyota Camry Solaras of the Mercedes lineup, lacking the design flair and richness you’d prefer in a two-door Benz. That’s changed in a big way with the all-new E-Class coupe and cabriolet, which I first saw in the sexy flesh in a German airport maybe six months ago. If you’ll excuse the auto review cliche, this is a car you need to see in person to appreciate.
As usual, the coupe is the real knockout, as the convertible’s fabric roof, however snug and beautifully fitted, can’t match the elegant sweep of the hardtop roof. That includes the mathematically-perfect, bow-shaped border of chrome for the pillarless coupe‘s front and rear windows, which goes missing in the convertible. But the convertible wraps the top-down greenhouse in a contrasting, brightwork aluminum band for a yacht-like effect.
Still, from its single-bar grille fronted with that reassuring Mercedes star to its corseted waist and (mildly chubby) wraparound flanks, the E-Class Cabrio finally makes the proper impression. It’s not in-your-face rich like the S-Class Cabrio, and for more-modest buyers, that’s probably a good thing. Yet the E400 definitely suggests an owner who drives more than one car, and could easily treat himself (or herself) to a weekend plaything without unduly sweating the lease price.
And for those who don’t lose sleep over potential melanoma, the E400 pressed its own advantage when I powered the top down and voice-commanded the navigation system (with additional head-up display directions) toward Monterey. With 329 horsepower and 359 pound-feet of torque from its 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V-6, the Benz kicked up just enough breeze; a nine-speed automatic transmission sends power to either rear wheels or all four, as in my 4Matic model. Mercedes cites a 5.5-second surge from 0-60 miles per hour, and that actually seems conservative.
Compared with the previous generation, the E-Class Coupe and Cabriolet have grown a welcome five inches in length and 2.9 in width. Most of that stretch is given over to the back seat, making this new E-Class the rare convertible with genuine space for four adults, rather than a virtual two-plus-two like the Audi A5, Mustang, and Camaro. Front seats power forward automatically when you flip the seatback latch, allowing a reasonably easy fold-and-tuck into the back seat. There’s just enough headroom and legroom for, say, a typical six-foot-two-er with the top up.
My E-Class Cabrio couldn’t quite match the S-Class’s interior drama, including that larger model’s Chippendale-level wood steering wheel, or ambient-light shows worthy of Donna Summer. Still, the cabin is impeccable; a big-money cascade of wood, metal, and top-stitched leather. My E400 flaunted Mercedes-classic silver paint with a maroon soft top, with contrasting black Nappa leather and a beautiful, low-gloss “Black Ash” wood treatment. Together, that Iridium Silver paint, ebony leather and wood added about $2,300 to the price. 19-inch, five-spoke AMG Sport alloy wheels were also well worth a $500 upcharge.
The air vents are inspired by turbine engines, and the metal-ribbed apertures are notably striking. The Benz also benefited from an upgraded version of the Comand infotainment system that moves key menus to the right-hand screen, rather than confusing dual menus that occupy the upper and lower bands of the display. Buyers can optionally add the S-Class’s onboard perfuming system, but I didn’t miss it; Mercedes-Benz’s available fragrances, in glass jars that plug into a glovebox receptacle, are, frankly, awful. Their headachy odors recall Axe body spray, Victoria’s Secret perfumes, and other unsophisticated scents that feel (smell?) all wrong for these top-drawer luxury cars.
With the top down, the Mercedes faced its first serious handling quiz on the two-lane CA-17 between San Jose and Santa Cruz, one of America’s “Blood Alleys” that became notorious for accidents and fatalities on the narrow, precipitous mountain route. (I still enjoy driving it, though it’s often clogged with traffic). Despite its isolated steering, the Mercedes willingly tamed CA-17’s twisties, and brought just enough oomph to shoot past slowpokes on descents and dive back into the fast lane. Thankfully, the convertible top doesn’t impose much of a weight penalty; the droptop weighs in at 4,189 pounds, versus 4,054 for the hardtop coupe. Call the E400 just sporty enough to have fun—and make great time.
If you’d like some more, Mercedes’s AMG performance division is always happy to oblige—at a price. I haven’t driven the recently-announced Mercedes-AMG E53 Coupe and Cabriolet, but those versions bring a bi-turbo, 3.0-liter inline-six with a stomping 429 horses (100 more than the E400) and 384 pound-feet of torque, along with body, interior and handling upgrades; a nine-speed AMG Speedshift transmission; and a 48-volt electrical system whose hybrid assist can add momentary squirts of 21 hp and 184 pound-feet.
Of course, fun in this E400 also revolves around fresh air (as opposed to the artificially-scented kind), which the E400 can heat up if you’ve forgotten to bundle up. Mercedes-Benz’s Airscarf integrates a vent, a heating element, and a pair of fans into each front-seat headrest, to keep occupants’ necks warm when the top is down; the Aircap system was also aboard my test car, with its dual motorized windblockers—one rising from the windshield header, the other behind the rear seat.
Airscarf felt more wimpy than woolen when I first tested it on the 2004 SLK-Class convertible, but circa 2018, the thing really works as advertised; as I drove down the Monterey Peninsula toward the Pacific Coast, the outside temperature plunged into the high 50s, and the Airscarf toasted my neck so powerfully that I had to dial it back from its highest setting. (Pub fact: Mercedes was actually forced to temporarily disable Airscarf on some older convertibles in Germany when it lost a long-running patent dispute.)
Did I say I had no complaints? Okay, I lied. The Mercedes can still get damn expensive for a midsize luxury car, starting from $69,795—or $67,295 in rear-wheel-drive form—and stretching to $85,735 for my well-optioned test car. (A rear-drive E400 Coupe starts from $59,895, so you’re looking at a $7,400 upcharge for the convertible). Fuel economy is on the thirsty side, with a city/highway rating of 20/25 miles per gallon (20/26 mpg with rear-wheel-drive) that itself seemed optimistic. Running a bit late to the airport, I was admittedly running-and-gunning fairly quickly on my post-Ferrari drive to San Francisco; still, an observed 20 mpg on the freeway in a midsize V-6 droptop is nothing to brag about.
Finally, available trunk space is relatively scrawny with the top down, due to the motorized divider that must be in place to clear room for the folded roof. If you’re intending on driving with the top down, the Mercedes can’t even fit a pair of medium-sized rollerbags. But the Benz does incorporate folding rear seats, split 50/50, to fit longer items aboard, as long as they can squeeze below the roof divider.
All told, what’s great about the E400 is that it delivers a good 80 percent of the S560’s style, status, luxury and pleasurable performance, but at literally half the price. Again, the rear-drive E400 Cabrio starts at just over $67,000, where the S560 Cabrio is priced from a hedge-fundy $134,000. Trust me, most people who spot this pretty E400 will still think, “Oh, a rich dude in a convertible Mercedes,” not, “Ha—look at the schmuck in the half-priced Benz.”