The 2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class is fresh from major revisions last year, and the lineup has now been filled out with the new 2011 E550 Cabrio.
The new Mercedes-Benz E550 Cabrio features an innovative soft top that's nearly one-inch thick with three layers of acoustic sound dampening, leaves good trunk space, and provides wind protection with the top down. The soft top disappears in 17 silent seconds, as Mercedes says. Mercedes claims the E550 is the most affordable V8 four-seat convertible on the market.
The Mercedes-Benz E350 and E550 sedans, coupes, convertibles and wagons are a technological tour de force, yet none of the new technology is intrusive.
The essence of the Mercedes E-Class cars hasn't changed. They retain the feeling of robustness and engineering excellence that has defined them for decades.
The E-Class sits in the middle of the Mercedes car line, between the compact C-Class and the big S-Class. It's the company's best-selling car worldwide, and as such it defines the brand's essence. Every E-Class model delivers an excellent balance of passenger space, luxury, style and impressive performance in a practical, manageably sized package.
The E-Class line includes a two-door Coupe joining the familiar sedan, with wagons and convertibles, too. The E-Class looks more angular and technical than it used to, but it is quite pleasing to the eye. The chassis is strengthened to improve crash protection, reduce vibration and sharpen handling, without adding weight. Yet if the new-generation E-Class cars have a theme, it might be their high-tech control and management systems. That's not surprising for a car that introduced a host of now-familiar features, from antilock brakes to airbags, to mass production.
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class represents the most electronics-intensive model line Mercedes has offered to date, and most of the new computer-managed systems focus on safety. A new Attention Assist system that comes standard monitors up to 70 driving parameters to determine whether the driver is getting drowsy behind the wheel and uses both visual and auditory warnings to tell the driver to pull over for rest. The Distronic Plus cruise control option features both blind-spot warning and lane-departure warning technology, while automatic self-adjusting headlights automatically dim the brights. And those systems are just the start.
Beyond the technological wizardry, the E-Class remains what it has always been, only maybe a little bit nicer. Every model is smooth, quiet and appointed in elegant, understated fashion, with comfortable space for four or five passengers and a substantial load of luggage.
The new two-door Coupe might be the sexiest E-Class car ever.
The standard gasoline V6 in the Mercedes E350 models is more than powerful enough for most drivers. The 382-horsepower V8 in the Mercedes E550 models delivers the turbine-like, overpowered feel that characterizes Germany's best autobahn blasters. The turbocharged engine in the Mercedes E350 BlueTEC sedan is the smoothest, quietest diesel available in the United States. It delivers amazing bursts of acceleration for passing, with mileage that surpasses most other cars in this class by about 30 percent. Those seeking help through the worst of a northern winter can choose the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system for the E-Class sedans and wagon.
The E-Class created a category of mid-sized luxury cars that has become one of the most competitive (and enjoyable) in today's automobile market. The 2011 E-Class models simply re-establish Mercedes credentials near the top of the class.
The latest-generation Mercedes-Benz E-Class models are generally more angular than their predecessors, with sharper creases. Automotive styling is a subjective process, to be sure, but this latest E-Class has been lauded from many corners for its character and pleasing design.
Besides the familiar sedan and wagon, the line-up includes an E-Class Coupe and Cabriolet (or convertible), which replace cars that had been known as the CLK since the mid-1990s. All E-Class models share the same underpinnings, and nearly identical exterior dimensions.
Styling for all E-Class variants is quite similar, too, at least from the windshield forward. Every design cue, panel, lamp and piece of glass was changed for 2010. And although they tend to look bigger than their predecessors, more like Mercedes' premium S-Class, they really aren't. The new E-Class variants share a larger grille, and a new trapezoidal headlamp array with multiple elements and square corners instead of the traditional E-Class oval lamps.
From the windshield back, the new E-Class models differ, of course. The two-door Coupe's roof flows more evenly than the sedans, with a less prominent notch where the rear glass tapers downward. Yet all variants share a set of four lines rising from front to rear in or on the body. Rear lamps are similar on Coupe and sedan, as are the rectangular exhaust tips built into the bumpers, rather than hung below them.
Mercedes designers took great pains managing airflow through, under and around the E-Class, producing a sedan with a drag coefficient of only 0.25, despite its big, brawny appearance. That makes the E-Class the most aerodynamically efficient four-door car in the world, according to Mercedes. The company claims that the Coupe's Cd of just 0.24 is the best overall figure for any series-production car anywhere. Other things equal, a lower coefficient of drag means less interior noise and better fuel mileage.
The E-Class wagon is offered in Sport trim. That means a bolder three-bar grille, more aggressively flared rocker panels and perforated front brake discs with painted calipers, visible through five-spoke 17-inch wheels. The wagon's roof creates a dramatic teardrop shape in profile, with LED taillights that wrap around the rear corners of the car.
The E-Class Cabriolet comes closest in appearance to the Coupe. The lower half of the body of the E550 Cabriolet is designed by AMG, Mercedes' partner in high performance, and its sleek edginess reflects that attitude. The power convertible soft top is one inch thick, and performs like a hard top, so well insulated that it actually dampens sound more effectively than the steel roof on the coupe, according to Mercedes. It lowers and rises in 17 seconds.
The lines of the soft top are not as sleek as the lower half of the car. The rear glass is not expansive, so it could fit in the trunk without taking up too much space. This means more area of fabric around the window, making it look thickish back there, losing some of the beauty of the Coupe. And for all its edges in the sheetmetal toward the front of the car, it has fairly round hips, especially noticeable in the Cabriolet.
Though redesigned for 2010, the E-Class cabin retains enough Mercedes-style interior appointments to make it comfortably familiar to previous E-Class owners.
Seat-shaped seat controls high on the door panels and seat heating/cooling controls at the very bottom of the center stack make it easy to adjust important things quickly. Textures and color schemes are familiar Mercedes, too. With the darker interior colors and standard burl walnut trim, the E-Class can create a slightly somber tone inside. Yet in all cases the cabin exudes a classy, understated elegance.
The dashboard in all E-Class variants is identical. The forward door panels and center console are similar as well, though they're trimmed a bit differently depending on the model and equipment ordered.
Mercedes' familiar three-gauge instrument cluster has been supplanted by a package of five analog gauges, including two pairs that overlap each other. All are exceptionally crisp and easy to read at a glance. Nonetheless, the E-Class dash is dominated by something Mercedes calls its COMAND system, which sits front and center at the top of the center stack.
COMAND is a seven-inch color display screen with standard in-dash, six-disc CD/DVD changer and a Bluetooth interface that allows phones to be operated through the car's audio system, even if they remain in a purse or pocket. Using a point-and-click controller on the center console, this central display can be controlled by either the driver or front passenger to adjust audio and other functions. Most features, including climate controls, can be adjusted with their own separate switches lower in the center stack. The COMAND display also shows the optional navigation screen, the back-up camera image, and the night vision infrared display. It comes with its own 212-page manual.
The E-Class sedan front seats are quite comfortable and supportive, but the sportier seats found in the Coupe and Cabriolet might be on the firm side for long stints at the wheel. There's plenty of adjustment in the seats and steering wheel to accommodate nearly any sized driver. The Sport steering wheel is lovely, wrapped in stitched leather, with buttons to control audio and phone and driver information. The center spokes showed off a graceful and delicate design, with indents for your thumbs, a perfect fit. Much thought went into this steering wheel.
Mercedes' familiar stalk-mounted cruise-control switch remains, and it still looks too much like, and is too easily mistaken for, the turn-signal lever. The new gear selector is a lot like a turn signal, too, on the right side of the steering column. E-Class cars ordered in Sport trim have nicely shaped paddles behind the steering-wheel spokes for manual gear selection.
All E-Class variants come standard with new active safety features. The big-ticket item is Attention Assist, which constantly monitors up to 70 driving parameters to determine whether the driver is getting drowsy behind the wheel. If it decides a driver is at risk of dozing, Attention Assist uses both visual and auditory warnings to tell the driver to pull over, get some rest, or get a cup of coffee.
The Distronic Plus cruise control option is offered with both blind-spot warning and lane-departure warning systems built in. An intelligent self-adjusting headlamp system uses cameras to detect both oncoming cars and the traffic ahead, and raises and lowers the headlamp beams accordingly. The idea is to put the most light on the road most of the time, without disturbing other drivers. The new Intelligent Nightview option throws infrared light in front of the car and then uses high-resolution video cameras to spot the higher temperatures coming from otherwise invisible pedestrians and animals.
The middle seat in back of the E-Class sedan is reasonably comfortable for a small-to-medium-sized adult on a short trip. The outboard rear seats in the four-seat E-Class Coupe and Cabriolet are actually a bit more inviting than those in the sedan, even though they're more difficult to climb into in the absence of rear doors. The Coupe and Cabriolet's rear seats offer marginal legroom, and they're more sportier than those in the sedan.
Neither interior nor cargo space in the new-generation E-Class have changed significantly; they are about the same as the previous model's, and the car can be ordered with split folding rear seats for additional cargo flexibility.
Trunk capacity at 15.9 cubic feet remains at the top of the class, matching the Audi A6, and surpassing the BMW 5 Series (14.0), Acura TL (13.1 cubic feet), and Lexus GS (12.7). The E-Class Coupe has as much trunk volume as the sedan.
The E350 wagon expands cargo capacity even further, and its standard all-wheel drive and self-leveling rear air suspension allow a substantial towing capacity of some 2,500 pounds. The wagon features a power-fold mechanism that lowers the split rear seatbacks with buttons near the tailgate, as well as an automatic tailgate that can memorize a desired opening height. The wagons come standard with a folding third seat in the cargo area.
The E-Class Cabriolet has good trunk space for a convertible. Even with the top down, there's room for two bags of golf clubs. That's almost the whole point of the soft top. Trunk space and less weight is the reason for the soft top, rather than hard top like all the others are doing. A soft top also allows more room for the rear seats. If it can do what a hard top can do, it's a winner.
The soft top for the E550 Cabriolet introduces a big blind spot made by the roofline where it drops down to the rear quarter panels. Visibility out the backlight in the rearview mirror is also tight, because of the small rear glass and the screen to block the wind into the cabin when the top is down; it doesn't lower all the way. The structure of the top is so sturdy, and its motor so strong, that the top can be raised with the car traveling 25 mph, for when the rain comes fast and you can't pull over.
The Cabriolet's AIRCAP is especially inventive. It has 20 patents and 211 parts, and has been tested in the wind tunnel at 150 mph with the wind full of bugs. We got our E550 Cabriolet out on a high-speed two-lane, open and remote like a Nevada road, and opened her up on a hot day. The AIRCAP, along with the rear screen, works to screen out buffeting. Its mesh allows some air to pass, thus reducing cabin pressure and with it wind noise.
A host of electronic systems present themselves once you're underway. The blind-sport warning system lights up a triangle in the side mirrors whenever a vehicle enters the blind spot. The lane-departure warning system vibrates the steering wheel when you cross or creep toward the lane marker before activating the turn signal. The optional night-vision screen image is large, crisp and clear, and so bright and detailed at night that it can distract the driver from the task at hand.
Still, most of these new systems are less intrusive than those in many E-Class competitors. Most functions and features can be adjusted with the point-and-click dial on the center console, or with more conventional, separate switches on the dash: whichever the driver finds easier or less distracting during the process of driving. And, all the new electronic gizmos aside, the new generation models are more comfortable, more solid, quieter, and more agile than any previous E-Class.
We particularly like the diesel-powered E350 BlueTEC sedan. Mercedes' V6 turbodiesel is the smoothest, quietest diesel engine available, so virtually all the smoky, clattering drawbacks of more traditional diesel power are gone (though the oily diesel smell during fill-ups remains). Performance is virtually identical the gasoline-powered E350, with even stronger short bursts of acceleration, and the diesel engine comes with a substantial fuel mileage increase compared to nearly every other car in this class. That's good for the pocketbook, the environment and the world's geo-political balance. The BlueTEC 3.0-liter V6 turbo-diesel engine is rated 210 horsepower, 400 pound-feet of torque.
As for the E-Class gasoline engines, both the more economical 268-horsepower V6 and the more powerful 382-horsepower V8 are smooth, quiet, and responsive. Better still, Mercedes' seven-speed automatic transmission is improved compared to previous iterations. It more frequently chooses the perfect gear for the prevailing driving circumstances, and both up or down shifts come quickly. Or the driver can choose the desired gear with the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, and the transmission will stay in that gear right up to the engine's redline without upshifting automatically.
Acceleration performance is impressive, regardless of the model, and none of the E-Class variants is a lightweight. Packed with all the technology, all the luxury touches and all those airbags, an E350 sedan weighs in at 3,825 pounds and the E550 at 4,034 pounds. The 4MATIC all-wheel-drive option adds more weight. Given these figures, the spry acceleration seems even more remarkable.
E350 models are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. E550 models use a 5.5-liter V8 generating 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque. The E350 V6 will sprint from 0 to 60 mph in about 6.5 seconds; the E550 V8 does the same in just 5.1 seconds, with top speed electronically limited to 130 mph.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 17/24 miles per gallon for the E350 sedan. The E350 coupe rates 17/26 mpg, E350 cabriolet gets 17/25 mpg, E350 4MATIC sedan rates 17/24 mpg, E350 4MATIC wagon gets 16/23 mpg. The E350 BlueTEC is rated 22/33 mpg. The E550 sedan, 4MATIC sedan and coupe are rated 15/23 mpg, the E550 cabriolet is rated 15/22 mpg. The E63 AMG is rated 13/20 mpg.
There's a nice balance of comfortable ride and good handling response, even in the standard models, which put a bit more emphasis on the ride. All E-Class variants have a variable damping system that changes the rebound rate of the shock absorbers according to conditions. This allows a softer, quieter ride on smoother roads, but retains full shock damping through dips, or for spirited driving on twisting two-lanes.
The E-Class brakes are world-class, with the latest electronic controls and built-in automatic braking with the Distronic radar-controlled cruise option. These brakes are consistently powerful at the wheels, progressive and reassuring at the pedal, and they always come back, no matter how hot they may get in a spirited drive.
The E-Class Cabriolet is loaded with features intended to extend open motoring throughout the year. One is AIRSCARF, which uses neck-level heating vents under the headrests. Another is a new device called AIRCAP: an aerodynamic deflector mounted at the top of the windshield.
AIRCAP contains 211 separate parts with 70 patents, and it can be raised roughly 2.5 inches at the driver's discretion to redirect airflow over the top of the E-Class Cabriolet's open cabin. The point? AIRCAP virtually eliminates buffeting (not to mention wind noise) for front-seat passengers when the convertible top is lowered. It reduces buffeting for rear-seat passengers to levels comparable to that experienced by front-seat passengers in other four-place convertibles, according to Mercedes. And it does so without the drawbacks associated with more familiar, screen-type wind blockers raised behind the front seats: reduced visibility, and elimination of rear-seat passenger space. There's at least a slight payback with AIRCAP, to be sure. When the airfoil is raised, the E-Class Cabriolet's roof-open drag coefficient rises from 0.33 to 0.38, and that could have a measurable effect on fuel economy. Nonetheless, AIRCAP works as billed, and allows the quietest, buffeting-free open motoring we've experienced.
We found the E550 accelerates like a rocket with the silky V8 and improved 7-speed transmission (we got 18 mpg average), and handles more precisely than any E-class we've known. The suspension in the E500 Cabriolet we drove might be too firm for some, though; over patchy freeway roads you can feel the jolts, as if the car is trying to defeat the bumps rather than absorb them.
Few automobiles deliver as satisfying a mix of passenger space, luxury, style and performance in a vault-solid, practical package as the 2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class. From convertible to wagon, there's an E-Class variant for nearly every taste, an available high-mileage diesel engine or an ultra-performance, 518-hp V8, and optional 4MATIC all-wheel drive for drivers who can use it. Add to that Mercedes-Benz claims the new-generation E-Class is the safest car of its type ever built, based on all the standard safety equipment that's built in.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw reported from Madrid, Spain, with J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit, Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles, Sam Moses in Portland.
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