With its taut driving feel, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E550 Cabriolet shows that the company can be serious about sports performance, an area traditionally dominated by BMW.
Mercedes-Benz updated the E-class for the 2010 model year, offering coupe and sedan versions. The Cabriolet is a new version for 2011, offering open-top driving in a midsize sport luxury vehicle. Unlike competitors, Mercedes-Benz sticks with a soft top for the E550 Cabriolet, rather than the retractable hard tops coming into vogue.
Similar to some of the retractable hard top cars we've seen, such as the Infiniti G37, the E550 Cabriolet suffers from a trunk space deficit to accommodate the top. But Mercedes-Benz employs a few tricks to make its convertible very livable.
A headliner inside the canvas helps deaden exterior noise and keeps the cabin's look consistent. Mercedes-Benz's Air Scarf technology uses fans in the headrests to blow warm air on front passengers' necks, making top-down driving in colder weather comfortable. The car also attempts to lessen turbulence in the cabin with a special deflector that rises up from the top of the windshield frame.
An optional Harman Kardon audio system made listening to music in the car an enjoyable experience, with the top up. But this system does not adapt well to top-down driving. To hear the system while driving at 50 mph on a highway, we had to put up the side windows. Other automakers use digital signal processing and other tricks to adapt audio for convertibles.
When we could hear it, this audio system, using 12 speakers and 450 watts of power, produced finely detailed sound. Well-balanced bass was strong but not overwhelming, and highs were delicate without being too bright. We listened to a variety of music, from acoustic with clear vocals to complexly layered electronic tracks with subtle sounds. Overall, the audio had a very contained quality, sometimes seeming too tightly presented where we would have preferred a more expansive sound.
Mercedes-Benz has yet to include Bluetooth streaming audio as a source, but we were satisfied with the onboard 6GB of music storage, HD and satellite radio, and iPod integration, our only complaint being that the iPod cable is inconveniently placed in the glove compartment, not an easy reach if you want to unplug the device at every stop. There is also a PC Card slot, a strange choice these days.
The interface for music selection takes a little getting used to, as the menu labels can be misleading. But we were happy with the responsiveness of the system. One miscue is that the onboard music library only shows folders, without indexing music by ID3 tags, as the iPod library does.
Although the E550 Cabriolet does not have Bluetooth streaming audio, there is a Bluetooth phone system. We found no trouble pairing an iPhone with the system, and having it download our contacts to the car. These contacts were then available onscreen and through the voice command system, which let us dial by saying a contact's name. This system lacks any text message functions.
The majority of the car's hard-drive space is reserved for the navigation system's maps, which appear in 2D and 3D. These maps use a refined look with muted colors. The system renders landmark buildings in urban areas, and presents traffic flow in yellow and red, along with icons for specific traffic incidents.
The navigation system dynamically changes the route to detour around particularly bad traffic, and issues a verbal warning for merely slow traffic traveling anywhere from 25 to 45 mph on the freeway. Fortunately, the verbal traffic warnings can be turned off, because on the approach to the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco area, it piped up about every 10 minutes to warn us of multiple slowdowns.
The E550 Cabriolet gets a particularly good POI database that proved easily searchable. Not only did it offer locations of many retail establishments, it also listed wineries, something we found useful in California. Zagat ratings for restaurants are included.