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Four-seat executive drop-top gets a new engine and design update, but to what effect?

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The current W213-generation Mercedes E-Class was, by its maker’s own claims, the most technologically advanced car it had ever built when it came along in 2016. This week, we check in on how it’s ageing, how adaptable its platform is and how wisely that five-year-old trailblazer has been kept up to date both under the bonnet and inside the cabin.

These things matter, especially in Stuttgart, because the E-Class is the best-selling car that Mercedes has ever made and it remains one of its most globally important.

Exterior colour choices are few. There are really only a few shades of red, blue or green – assuming you want a car in an actual colour, rather than monotone. Who’d buy a grey convertible?

Mercedes led with cutting-edge driver assistance technology and top-level luxury ambience when this car first appeared five years ago. It was one of the first models on the road with a ‘piloted driving’, semi-autonomous lane keeping assist system, and Mercedes imbued it with traditional interior richness and refinement on a tack along which few rivals would dare to follow it. Last year, the E-Class had a major mid-life facelift, the contents of which we’ll detail shortly.

And now that facelift has had enough time to work its way through to the slightly more obscure corners of the model range, it has brought renewed interest to one of Europe’s few remaining attainable four-seat boulevardier-style luxury cruiser convertibles: the E-Class Cabriolet.

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The E-Class line-up at a glance

Mercedes has reduced the range of trim levels for its latest E-Class Coupé and Cabriolet, but a slightly broadened line-up of engines now includes a six-cylinder petrol 450 model.

All six-cylinder models have four-wheel drive as a matter of course and all but the Mercedes-AMG 53 get Night Edition equipment and styling augmentations as standard.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Mercedes Benz E Class Cabriolet 2021 road test review hero side

Mercedes-Benz is a car maker that moves very much with 21st-century times and tastes, and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class has moved with it. Sleeker, flatter LED headlights and more jewel-like tail-lights arrived with its recent update, as did a new radiator grille, new bumper styling and a double-domed bonnet – all intended to inject the car with extra visual dynamism.

The headline additions to the car’s mechanicals came in the form of new plug-in hybrids, seven derivatives of which are now part of the E-Class model range if you count saloons and estates, petrol-electric and diesel- electric powertrains, and rear- and four-wheel-drive options separately.

Single-louvred, A-shaped grille is different from the one on E-Class saloons and estates, and the chrome spotted texture is new for the facelift. A flying three-pointed star for the bonnet is no longer offered on any UK E-Class.

None of those plug-in powertrains is offered in the E-Class Coupé or Cabriolet, but one of the facelift’s genuinely new engines is: a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol motor with 48V mild-hybrid assistance that Mercedes has codenamed M254 and that powered our entry-level petrol E300 test car.

The M254 petrol engine features every major powertrain technology that has been pioneered on any of Mercedes’ other recent four- or six-cylinder combustion engines all in the same package, says its maker. Among them is a ‘segment’ turbocharger (a variation on the twin-scroll theme); a smaller secondary electrically driven turbocharger; conical cylinder bores; ‘nanoslide’ cylinder coatings; and the close coupling of exhaust after-treatment systems for more efficient running. In the E300, the engine develops 255bhp, and a stout 273lb ft of torque from just 1650rpm, with an extra 111lb ft of transient torque-fill electrical assistance from the hybrid system available on demand.

The current Mercedes E-Class Coupé and Cabriolet derivatives come to us after Mercedes took the decision to divide its old CLK model line into two new camps a decade ago now. Having been based on a Mercedes-Benz C-Class platform in its first model generation, however, the added-desirability E-Class twins transferred to the same platform as the rest of the E-Class family for these second-generation versions (although they didn’t transfer to the main E-Class production line in Sindelfingen, Germany, at the same time, staying instead on a special line at Mercedes’ Bremen factory). This, therefore, is one of few modern cabriolet models built not under licence out of house but right alongside its showroom siblings.

The UK-market E-Class Cabriolet range now offers both four- and six-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, as well as a mild-hybrid 429bhp, AMG-badged 53 performance range-topper. Four-wheel drive comes as standard on all six-pot models and as an option on the four-pot diesel E220d, but the car is rear-driven-only in lower-end E300 petrol form.

All mechanical flavours get a nine-speed automatic gearbox and multi- link axles for suspension front and rear. Steel coil springs and frequency-selective passive dampers serve on all but the air-sprung AMG 53.

INTERIOR

13 Mercedes Benz E Class Cabriolet 2021 road test review cabin

While many of its rivals have been filing quietly out of the exit door of the cabriolet market over the past decade, Mercedes has persevered with them, selling not one but two medium-sized models, at least until the recent end of production of the last Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Being the bigger of the two, the E-Class Cabriolet ought to have practicality and size on its side and, within reason, so it proves.

The packaging compromises necessary to squeeze a motorised folding cloth roof on top of a Mercedes E-Class and to fold it away neatly behind the cabin mean this car isn’t as roomy as an Mercedes-Benz E-Class saloon. It still makes room for adults in its back seats, though.

Perceived material quality levels are generally high, although this ‘grey open-pore ash wood’ veneer isn’t made to look or feel particularly genuine.

If you’re new to convertibles, you might be surprised by the steep seatbacks in row two, and by the tapered cabin sides, which throw the two rear-seat travellers inboard a little. But even allowing for all that, and ignoring the tricky squeeze needed to get into and out of the back, smaller adults can travel comfortably enough over shorter distances here. You feel particularly enclosed and have scant view of the world outside in the back with the hood up, and you’re often a little blustered and bothered at speed by the passing air with it down, but there’s at least half-decent room for you – and where supposed four-seat cabriolets are concerned, that’s rare.

Up front, the E-Class twin-screen layout, jet-engine-style air vents and covered rotary-style infotainment device are all welcome reminders of an age in cabin design that Mercedes seems all too keen to move beyond at the moment. But the fact is that there really isn’t much wrong with the way the car’s dashboard and driving environment look or feel; the ease with which you can interact with its various systems and technologies; or the upmarket allure that the whole car conjures. The driver’s seat is presented at a convenient height. In a car of greater dynamic ambitions and purposes, you might prefer a lower perch, but in a luxury cruiser of very little sporting pretence, the usefully contoured and comfortable chairs do very nicely. They offer electric heaters but no cooling or massage function, even as an option, which might have been useful in an indulgently relaxing open-top car.

As for cargo practicality, the boot is usefully long and wide and could carry a couple of good-sized suitcases and a soft bag or two. As in all convertibles of this type, though, its volume is eaten into significantly when the roof is folded back – at which point 250mm is all the loading height it can muster.

Infotainment and sat-nav

The infotainment and instrumentation system in the E-Class, with its two 12.3in screens, has done the rounds in Mercedes’ current models, and there’s a new set-up in the latest Mercedes S-Class and the EQS, of course. But if you like easy usability, crisp and colourful graphics, and plenty of physical shortcut keys to help you navigate your way around, this set-up shouldn’t feel old-hat; and if you like a rotary input device rather than a touchpad, you might prefer the Cabriolet to the Coupé. (The only way Mercedes can package the hood controls of the convertible is by fitting the old-style rotary device on the transmission tunnel.)

The system offers networked navigation, wireless device charging, mirroring for both Apple and Android smartphones and full voice control for no extra cost. Our test car also had Mercedes’ Burmester surround audio system, fitted as part of the Night Edition pack, which produced music with plenty of power and definition.

Mercedes added augmented reality navigation to the system as part of the latest facelift, although it’s displayed on the central navigation screen rather than on a head-up display so it can be a bit distracting.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The rainy autumnal day when we performance tested the E300 encapsulated the reality of UK convertible ownership very well, but the car dealt with the challenges it brought with good grace.

Against a 6.6sec 0-62mph claim, the rear-driven 1780kg convertible clocked a very respectable 7.0sec to 60mph with some patches of standing water under its wheels. It found grip and traction in a way that suggested four-wheel drive would indeed have been overkill.

There’s little reward in hustling it through a series of tight bends, as is the way with a big four-seat open-top car, but it excels as a refined, well-sorted and relaxed cruiser.

The car felt suitably elastic and quite fluid with the engagement of drive as it moved off the line, never seeming hurried or brusque, never grabbing at gears or revs, but avoiding any sense of slowness, too. There is plenty of torque to move it onwards from lowish revs when you tip into the accelerator pedal for roll-on acceleration, the mild- hybrid electric motor chiming in with a useful dose of near-instant transient force before the piston engine wakes up.

That engine’s chief assets are its mechanical refinement and drivability. Despite Mercedes’ best efforts to spice up its audible character digitally, it’s not the most enticing motor to listen to. It tolerates being worked above 5000rpm but doesn’t quite relish the prospect. It’s quiet, smooth and civil even when hauling moderately hard, though, and it moves the Mercedes-Benz E-Class’s bulk along with just enough assertive authority to allow you to forget that it is one of the range’s lower-order engines.

While the nine-speed gearbox can feel a little slow to respond to a kickdown instruction and doesn’t seem much more interested to shift gears on the wheel-mounted paddles, either, it does a decent job of shuffling ratios smoothly and it times shifts well when you want to leave the car in ‘D’ and put on some speed. Single- carriageway overtaking is best done with good planning and downshifts in advance, but relaxed, sociable, good-time cruising is executed much more consummately – and, as we’ll get on to, gratifyingly frugally, too.

RIDE & HANDLING

26 Mercedes Benz E Class Cabriolet 2021 road test review cornering front

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet’s chassis, like its powertrain, has a likeably simple, single-speed kind of character about it. It’s a car for those who like to enjoy a more laid-back rate of progress.

Although it can be whisked along apace, it’ll begin running short of vertical body control on rising and falling B-roads taken around the national speed limit; gently lolling on its outside wheels, and punting softly into benign understeer, if you hustle it through a series of tight corners; and clonking over craggy, pitted back roads, which begin to reverberate a little through the underbody as you put pressure on the car’s supporting structure that it isn’t entirely comfortable absorbing.

Facelifted E-Class has new steering wheel designs. This one’s rim is a little wide for us and these capacitive controls are a touch too easy to brush unintentionally.

Which is fine – because a car that clearly communicates its dynamic priorities, and how it ought best be driven, is a car you can easily understand. Adopt the relaxed style of driving that this car chooses for you and you’ll be rewarded with an easy, gentle, enriching mode of transport.

Light, filtered controls demand very little of the driver and moderately paced steering is mirrored by placid chassis response, yet the car doesn’t heave and sway over complex surfaces like a ship in a storm. There’s just enough underlying Teutonic seriousness and discipline about this car’s body control to keep it reined in at fast motorway speeds and settled and level enough on A-roads.

On a smoothly surfaced series of sweeping bends, you might unearth a little bit of rear-driven handling character if you really probe, but you’ll have to push through plenty of body movement to find it and Mercedes’ electronic stability control system masks it pretty well unless you disengage it. Much better to wind back your hurry, wind back the roof and drink in your surroundings at a more sedate, mature pace.

Ride comfort and isolation

Our E300 Cabriolet test car’s ride was generally soft and supple at low speeds and absorbent over long-wave inputs. It seemed to struggle with the sharper-edged ones as much because of its wheel and tyre specification as for any other reason. The car is available in the UK in AMG Line trim only; with a 19in alloy wheel as standard; and with 20in rims fitted as part of Mercedes’ Night Edition option pack, which our test car had. Whichever wheel you plump for, run-flat tyres come as standard.

Although it adds other items of equipment that might pique your interest, our advice is to avoid the Night Edition option if you want a drop-top with really strong cruising credentials. On those 20in alloys (which reduce the rear sidewall to just 30-profile), ‘bump-thump’ ride isolation isn’t quite good enough to suit the car’s wider refined character. What’s more, when carrying any more unsprung mass than they strictly need to, those disturbed axles undoubtedly do strain the car’s body structure and cause it to shake over rougher roads just a bit more than they might.

Scuttle shake itself is never a noticeable problem, but you can hear the seats and fittings being disturbed by the odd tremor from the road surface occasionally and you can feel the chassis twist underneath you a little when you’re turning around tighter radii, when it seems to take a split second for the rear axle to follow where the front is leading. However, such dynamic foibles remain pretty typical of bigger cabrios.

Wind and road noise isolation are very creditable. When it’s up, the cloth hood keeps fluttering to a minimum. When it’s down, the Aircap draft-blocking system (an airbrake that rises above the header rail and a second one that extends upwards behind the rear seats) whistles a bit but, in tandem with the side windows, keeps buffeting low even at motorway speeds.

Assisted driving notes

Mercedes remains one of the leading powers for semi-autonomous driving technology. The scope of that tech on the E-Class was expanded during its facelift, with the functionality of its active cruise control, lane keeping assist, speed limit assist and emergency braking systems extended – although you need the optional Driving Assistance Package to get the best of what Merc offers.

The autonomous emergency braking system isn’t easily triggered and, as with most of the car’s other active safety technology, its sensitivity can be adjusted.

The lane keeping assist system now works through a capacitive steering wheel. On a typical UK motorway, you’ll only need to keep a dead hand on the wheel to keep the car within its lane and the system operational.

Meanwhile, the blindspot assist system is clever enough to spot objects approaching from behind even after you’ve parked and will warn you before you open the driver’s door.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Mercedes Benz E Class Cabriolet 2021 road test review hero front

The E-Class Cabriolet has a dwindling number of direct rivals and a clear positioning against those it does have. Stuttgart has priced the latest version to go up against BMW’s 4 Series Convertible and Audi’s A5 Cabriolet, both of which the Merc’s model nomenclature cleverly makes it seem to notionally outmatch and neither of which can quite equal its size or four-seater space.

Climb the model hierarchy ladder further still and really usable four-seater cabrio options don’t get much easier to find. Sports cars like the Porsche 911 and Lexus LC drop-tops do offer ‘occasional’ back seats, but they’re nothing like as spacious as the E-Class’s. The BMW 8 Series Convertible does a little better, but it’s much pricier than the Mercedes. For those who do want usable back seats in their open-top tourer, then, the E-Class is in a pretty sweet spot.

CAP expects the E-Class to significantly outperform its nearest German rivals for retained value.

And it needn’t blot its copybook on running efficiency. Our test car averaged 33.4mpg over the full scope of a road test and returned 44.8mpg on a UK-motorway-typical 70mph cruise – not bad for a 255bhp, 1.8-tonne pleasure boat. Fitted into a sleeker, lighter and more aerodynamic Mercedes-Benz E-Class saloon on smaller rims, this four-cylinder engine might, you can imagine, be a genuine and pleasingly refined 50mpg prospect.

 

VERDICT

28 Mercedes Benz E Class Cabriolet 2021 road test review static

The E300 Cabriolet somehow isn’t the kind of luxury car you expect to find on the streets of 2021. There’s a strangely old-fashioned quality to its role as a refined, sophisticated, understated and usable four-seat convertible, but it’s a likeable one.

The E-Class family’s latest four-cylinder engine doesn’t disgrace the E300 at all, proving itself potent and refined enough to serve a laid-back suntrap well, even if it doesn’t inspire you to cherish the driving experience. The car’s chassis is guilty of the occasional moment of structural wobbliness but generally works fine as the basis for a becalmed driving style – although it probably works better if you avoid Mercedes’ 20in alloy wheels and low-profile tyres.

Relaxing four-seat cruiser still entices but is a little spec-sensitive

This car’s design isn’t set to stun, and neither is the driving experience. But it is a car that enriches balmy days and enjoyable drives with its mellow charm and its unassuming sense of indulgence, without trying in any way to be exciting or dramatic. In doing so, it reminds you that any luxury car that fails to create a sense of occasion is probably missing something.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.