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Mercedes Unveils New E-Class Cabriolets

Despite their E-Class moniker, these Cabriolets ride on a rear-wheel drive platform that shares a lot with the smaller, lower-priced Mercedes C-Class sedans.

MONTVALE, N.J. (AP) -- The new-for-2011 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolets are stylish cruisers -- but a bit old-fashioned.

The open-top, 2011 E350 and E550 look pretty on the road, ride smoothly and have the latest amenities and technology to make even cool-weather driving more comfortable than expected. But like past Mercedes Cabriolets of the early 1990s, the E-Class Cabrios have fabric soft tops, not the more complicated and weighty retractable hardtops that are common today. And so the E-Class convertibles offer a good amount of trunk space.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the E350 Cabriolet with 268-horsepower V-6 is $57,725. The uplevel E550 with 382-horsepower V-8 starts at $65,675.

Both models come with many standard features, including leather-trimmed seats, seven-speed automatic transmission, dual-zone climate control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, 18-inch wheels and adjustable, 14-way, power front seats. Standard safety items include front and side air bags, a driver air bag to help keep the driver properly positioned behind the steering wheel during a frontal crash, electronic stability control and pop-up rollbars that deploy in a rollover crash.

Competitors in the four-passenger luxury convertible segment include the 2011 Audi A5 Cabriolet, which has a starting retail price of $42,875 with turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and the 2010 BMW 650i Convertible, which starts at $86,175 with 360-horsepower V-8.

Despite their E-Class moniker, these Cabriolets ride on a rear-wheel drive platform that shares a lot with the smaller, lower-priced Mercedes C-Class sedans.

But the new convertibles' striking exterior styling, well-crafted interior and 15.4-foot-length ensure that the Cabrios don't come off as entry-level Mercedes.

The tester, an uplevel E550 with 5.5-liter, double overhead cam V-8, surprised with its calm, cruising personality in city traffic and was an easy, welcoming car for everyday use.

Thanks to a nicely damped suspension, passengers didn't feel many road bumps, and even vibrations were predominantly mild. With roof closed, the interior was strikingly quiet for a soft-top convertible. I noticed that typical loud sounds from nearby trucks and the roar of Harley motorcycles in the lane next to me were kept to a minimum. Mercedes engineers call the fabric top an acoustic roof, and it's made thick and sturdy to insulate against the weather and noise.

It also goes up or down in 20 seconds with the touch of a button.

But I had to search to find the button. It's tucked under a small, leather-trimmed cover in the center console.

One of the hallmarks of the E-Class Cabrios is how much Mercedes did to include features that make these cars warm and less windy when the tops are down. One feature is the Airscarf, which blows heated air onto the backs of front-passenger necks through small air holes between the head restraints and the top of the seatbacks. Mercedes put this feature into its SLK two-seater. Now, it's improved and effective in the E-Class Cabrios.

Mercedes also has its new Aircap -- a panel that a driver can activate from the top of the windshield to help direct air flow over front and rear passengers. With side windows up, it seems to be most beneficial for people in the front seat, rather than the back. But it left me wondering: Isn't a convertible ride supposed to feel like you're in the open air and not just under a big sunroof?

These convertibles have structural reinforcements for a stable ride, without shakes when the roof is down. The reinforcements also add weight, making the cars feel solid. Specifically, the test E550 Cabriolet had a curb weight of more than 4,000 pounds, which is about what a GMC Canyon pickup truck with V-8 weighs.

Fuel mileage isn't the best for the four-seat E550, and it uses premium gasoline. The federal government rating is just 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway. My test driving average was less than 19 mpg, but I didn't try to maximize mileage.

The strong power from the throaty V-8 was intoxicating and I enjoyed the rush that came when I pressed firmly on the accelerator. Peak torque is 391 foot-pounds, and it comes on at 2,800 rpm and holds to 4,800 rpm. This is enough for a zero-to-60-mile-an-hour sprint in just 5.1 seconds, according to Mercedes.

The base engine, a 3.5-liter V-6, generates 258 foot-pounds of torque starting at 2,400 rpm.

The Mercedes has little "arms" that bring the front-seat shoulder belts forward so driver and passenger don't have to twist around to grab them after they get in the car.

The two back seats are nicely cushioned and sculpted. But they remain a bit cramped in legroom and, when the roof is on, headroom.

I used every bit of the 8.8 cubic feet of trunk space when the roof was folded down. When the roof was atop the car, I had a full 11.8 cubic feet of storage room in the trunk.

Last month, the 2011 E-Class Cabriolet was among C- and other E-Class models named in a safety recall of 85,300 cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said a loss of power steering fluid could lead impair a driver's ability to steer properly.

Convertibles aren't the only new models for the E-Class line. There's a new, fifth-generation, 2011 E-Class Wagon, too.

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