Cruising down the freeway in the 2014 Mercedes-Benz E550 Cabriolet, I took the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of luxury. The car afforded me plenty of time to ponder, as its adaptive cruise control handled the pedal work and its steering-assist system helped maintain its position in the lane.
Looking at the design and materials surrounding me in the cabin, I noted the significant use of real metal for the vents, buttons, and even some of the speaker grilles. A bright little analog clock sat in the center of the stack, a cue that spoke of tradition. Further evoking tradition was this car's cloth top, a stand against the retractable hard tops that have taken over the industry in recent years.
However, there was technology in this Mercedes-Benz, too. The brilliance of Mercedes-Benz comes in its ability to meld old and new. If you set an LCD TV down next to a Tiffany lamp on an English Oak sideboard, it's going to look haphazard. In the E550 Cabriolet, Mercedes-Benz much more thoughtfully integrated the 7-inch LCD into the dashboard, setting it into a nice frame so that its placement appears natural. Likewise, soft-touch plastics cover the top of the dashboard and doors, a nice-feeling material that doesn't detract from the luxury feel of the car.
Further contributing to the car's elegance was the manner in which the air suspension soaked up the road, and how the the Harman Kardon audio system produced such detailed and balanced music.
But then it dawned on me that at the core of the E550 Cabriolet's luxury were the very systems letting me consider the question. With cruise control on, I didn't have to constantly monitor the speed of the cars in front of me. Mercedes-Benz's Distronic Plus system used its radar to watch what was going on ahead and adjust my speed accordingly.
This system works so well, that when I let it handle the braking while approaching traffic stopped at a light, it settled for a distance from the car ahead which was just about what I would have left. I did have to poke the accelerator to get it going when traffic started moving again. With traffic moving at speed, it tends to leave a couple of car lengths between you and the car ahead, which other drivers will likely grab. No problem though, as Distronic Plus handles sudden changes in traffic very well.
Steering Assist, while not completely taking over steering the vehicle, handled minor lane adjustments. At speeds over about 20 mph, I had to keep a hand on the wheel, but I could feel it moving under my grasp as the E550 Cabriolet tracked the car ahead and used cameras to monitor the lane lines. When I became caught in a bit of traffic crawling along at 5 mph, I was able to take my hands off the wheel completely and experience the closest thing to autonomous driving currently in production.
And this was luxury, letting someone or something else handle the drearier details of everyday life, leaving me to enjoy the good parts.
Mercedes-Benz earned its luxury reputation on big cars such as the E-Class. The E550 Cabriolet, with its power-opening top, adds a little California, or Riviera, fun to the mix.
And while the E550 Cabriolet may share its driveline and many components with the E550 sedan, it actually comes in at half a foot shorter, both in wheelbase and overall length. In its dimensions, the E550 Cabriolet is more akin to the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The smaller size does not lead to a sportier look. The current E-Class was launched in 2009, and its sheet metal shows a conservative design. There has been a style refresh during the intervening years; the grille now only has one louver instead of two and the headlight casings encompass the daytime running lights, rather than having them sit apart. The front of the E550 Cabriolet reflects current Mercedes-Benz styling, which evokes a more aggressive feeling.
As is common with soft tops, that of the E550 Cabriolet lacks any sort of style when it is up. The power operation makes it effortless to open up, and Mercedes-Benz thoughtfully includes a rear windguard so rear-seat passengers won't get overly ruffled. Unfortunately, that top has to go somewhere, so it results in a huge loss of trunk space. Rear cargo volume is a mere 8.8 cubic feet with the top down, and you will want to invest in very flat luggage. Forget about grocery runs for pumpkins, watermelons, or rib roasts.
Tastefully set into the dashboard of the E550 Cabriolet was the 7-inch LCD I mentioned previously, and because of the $3,250 Premium package included on this car, it showed navigation and connected features along with stereo and phone controls. With the jog dial on the console, I could select menus appearing in bands at the top and bottom of the various screens shown on the LCD.
Mercedes-Benz has had this system in play for many years now, but it could due with some usability work. It is not instantly intuitive and even with a lot of experience I still have to dig around the menus to find what I want.
However, I could also control just about any function with the voice command system. It let me enter addresses as a single string, place phone calls by contact name, and select music from a USB drive or iOS device by specific album, artist, or track.
Stored on an onboard hard drive, the E550 Cabriolet's maps show excellent detail, including topographic features for terrain and rendered buildings in metropolitan areas. The route guidance employs rich graphics and clear voice prompts. The system also took into account traffic jams, dynamically changing the route when it found particularly slow traffic ahead. I was amused how it read traffic alerts out loud, and happy I could turn that feature off.
Among the destination entry options was a shortcut to Mercedes-Benz apps, which included Google search and Yelp. I would have liked to see these online destination options better integrated with navigation instead of tucked away in the apps bucket, but the shortcut is convenient. What made these apps basically useless was the lengthy amount of time the car took to load the apps. I suspect Mercedes-Benz did not negotiate an always-on data connection with its provider -- using them is kind of like if you had to reboot your smartphone every time you wanted to launch an app.
Similarly, online music apps were not in the audio sources menu, but tucked away in the app area of Mercedes-Benz's interface. It was clear to me that the available apps were implemented as an addition to the car, instead of Mercedes-Benz taking a more holistic approach to the interface design.