– Mont Blanc, France
“Punta Helbronner” is a marvel of modern construction perched on a craggy peak in the Italian Alps more than 11,000 feet above sea level. Accessible only after taking two silent rotating gondolas from the quaint Alpine village of Courmayeur, the two-year-old metal-and-glass structure houses a bistro, a rare crystal exhibition, and a circular observation deck roughly 45 feet in diameter providing visitors with up-close views of Mont Blanc on one side, and, on a clear day, the Matterhorn on the other. And the day I visited, it also provided one primo parking spot for a 2018 Mercedes-Benz E-Class convertible.
While Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is available on the all-new W213-generation E-Class cabriolet, it would take more than that to get such a car up to Punta Helbronner, which looks like the Millennium Falcon after getting impaled on an Alp. Hence, Mercedes-Benz hoisted the car up there via helicopter. Yes, it’s unnatural to see a car in a place like that and yes, it’s pretty cool, and yes, it’s a stupid PR stunt, and yes, it’s a PR stunt that worked ‘cuz I’m telling you about it. And it was one helluva photo op.
The cabrio is available in the U.S. only as an E400 at this point, powered by Mercedes’ biturbocharged 3.0-liter V6 with 329 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque.
Did Mercedes-Benz have to go through all this effort to get the kind of ink splash it wants for the launch of its newest cabriolet? Well, probably. The new E-Class cab is one of six droptops in the current Mercedes-Benz lineup – no car company offers more ways to flip one’s lid – two of which, the C- and S-Class Cabriolets, look almost identical and hold exactly as many humans inside. So it made sense that we got a design walkaround of the new E Cabon a remote mountaintop with absolutely zero chance that one of Mercedes’ other convertibles might come park alongside it and make it look, well, not much different.
The most significant visual difference between the E-Class Cabrio and its C- and S-Class counterparts is the subtraction of a crease beneath the car’s shoulder line that smooths out the body side in accordance to Mercedes design chief Gorden Wagener’s newish “Sensual Purity” design mantra. As with the 2018 E-Class Coupe with which the cabriolet shares pretty much everything below the windowsills, that deletion and the fitment of a broad, flat front fascia go some way to affording the car a strong visual presence, one that can be made even stronger if one orders the car in a daring color combination made possible by the availability of dark brown, dark blue, or dark red fabric roof choices in additional to traditional black. The E-Class’ quad LED running lamp treatment and the sparkly “stardust” taillamps first seen on the coupe, the latter putting on the same little light show when drivers approach the car, also help in their own small way to give the E Cab a fighting chance against middle-child syndrome. Still, these differences may only be noticed by Mercedes-o-philes; more important is that the E-Class Cabriolet be instantly recognizable as a Benz. And it very much is.
The E-Class Cabriolet facilitated a touring experience of the Swiss Alps that I can only describe as idyllic.
But I knew most of that long before the trek to Europe’s nosebleed section, both from the coverage of the car’s debut at this year’s Geneva Motor Show as well as a preview ride in lightly camouflaged prototypes in Arizona during the winter. What I came to Europe to find out, then, was how it drives, and what, if any, compromises one might have to make to enjoy it. And I wasn’t going to learn any of that from an observation deck in the sky, so down I went.
If my experiences with the C- and S-Class convertibles provided any insight, the W213 E-Class Cabriolet would drive pretty much exactly like its hardtop sibling. And guess what, it does. As with the coupe, the cabrio is available in the U.S. only as an E400 at this point, powered by Mercedes’ biturbocharged 3.0-liter V6 with 329 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque, with a nine-speed automatic transmission managing the ratios. You won’t be dropping the top just to hear the ho-hum exhaust note, that’s for sure, but its generally quiet, relaxed demeanor is well matched to the cabriolet’s raison d’etre as a high-class boulevardier. For those seeking more grunt, rumor has it that an AMG-badged version is set to arrive reasonably soon for both the coupe and convertible E-Classes, bringing more than 400 hp, a more buttoned down suspension, and sundry styling and cabin enhancements.
As it stands now, the E400 Cabrio – at least when equipped with its optional Airmatic air suspension and 4Matic all-wheel-drive system – is a softie. Even in its most aggressive settings, which I selected most of the time to keep the engine feeling more alert, the E400’s ride quality and steering are luxuriously damped, obediently responding to the driver’s inputs without any harshness or suddenness to upset the other occupants. Cowl shake and structural shudders are notably absent, thanks to a few structural reinforcements I outlined in my preview ride. The brake pedal had a bit more travel than I’ve come to expect with German cars, but as with the powertrain, this is rather in character for a car that is meant more for sightseeing than corner-carving.
The available all-wheel drive, plus Airscarf, Aircap, and all those heatable interior bits, will help this car extend convertible season well into the winter.
To that end, the E-Class Cabriolet facilitated a touring experience of the Swiss Alps that I can only describe as idyllic. The temperatures on my drive at times reached well into the 90s, at which point I had cool air blasting through the jet-like air registers and the front seat coolers at their max setting. Engage the optional Aircap wind deflectors – one thin, full-width screen rising a couple of inches up from the windshield header and another, taller screen rising from behind the rear headrests – and the E-Class Cabrio keeps a respectable amount of the conditioned air in the cabin in addition to minimizing hair tousle, provided you keep the side windows raised. With Aircap raised and the windows down, the cabin remains reasonably calm and conversation-friendly, though the climate control is rather less effective. All that said, between the body’s high beltline and the steep windshield angle, the cabin remains relatively tranquil at highway speeds even with all windows and screens tucked away, when the car really looks its best. Additionally, when I parked my car in the sun to grab a cappuccino and sample some local cheese – because Switzerland – heat-reflecting leather upholstery saved my thighs from imminent second-degree burns.
I’d have even more climate-mitigation devices at my disposal if the temperature had dropped too far once my drive ventured into higher elevations – which it didn’t – including standard seat heaters (for the rear seats, too), heated front armrests and steering wheel included in the new Warmth and Comfort Package, and of course, Airscarf, which douses one’s nape and shoulders with warm air through a neck-level vent below the front-seat headrests. It’s pretty amazing, really, how effectively these systems work together to allow drivers to keep the top down in more varying weather conditions. Engineers even reconsidered the way the E-Class’ innovative Magic Vision Control windshield wipers work with the top down; they spray cleaning fluid through the blades themselves primarily on the down-stroke so as to keep any washer fluid from giving passengers an unwanted shower, especially should they be seated in back.
Speaking of the rear seats, they are indeed habitable by real adults, with sufficient seatback lean and cushion contouring that the friends you put back there won’t be enemies when they get out. Indeed, even without having any other Benz cabriolets around for comparison, we’ll go out on a limb and say that the E-Class actually has the most accommodating rear seats of the three. And like the C-Class, the E-Class droptop offers modicum of versatility with its respectably sized trunk and wide pass-through for long, shallow items. Raise the top, and the trunk grows even more and the cabin is sealed to quietness levels nearly indistinguishable from the coupe. If I had any bones to pick, they would involve the reflections seen in the super-wide gauge cluster/infotainment screen when the top is down, especially if the interior is light or if the driver or passenger are wearing white shirts.
The E400 Cabriolet won’t hit the U.S. market until late in 2017. My sources say that prices should start around $65,000 for the rear-drive version, and about $70,000 for the 4Matic model. While it will miss the warm summertime during which “convertible weather” is most widely enjoyed, the E400 Cabriolet’s available all-wheel drive, plus Airscarf, Aircap, and all those heatable interior bits, will help this car extend convertible season well into (and possibly all the way through) the winter.
Gallery: 2018 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet: First Drive
2018 MERCEDES-BENZ E400 4MATIC CABRIOLET