The Mercedes-Benz E500 Cabriolet is the CLK that never was. That’s right, this was supposed to be badged as a CLK, and was hijacked by the E Class badge mid-way through development. So despite wearing an E badge, featuring E-Class styling, and utilising E-Class engines, the Mercedes-Benz E Class Cabriolet is actually a W204 C-Class under the skin.
Don’t believe me? The 2760mm wheelbase of the former C Class is identical to that of the E-Class Cabrio. But being based off a smaller, lower segment platform has its drawbacks.
With a retractable soft top roof mechanism to the rear, and a 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8 at the front, the E500 Cabriolet is no featherweight – in fact it tips the scales at 1945 Kg. Go one up in the passenger seat and you’re over the two-tonne mark. That’s S-Class weight, riding on the suspension of a C-Class, and it doesn’t bode well.
To cope with the weight and remain comfortable, Mercedes-Benz has equipped the E500 Cabriolet with adaptive damping as standard. But despite this, the E500 still rides firmly – not because the dampers aren’t suited to their purpose, but because with nigh on two tonnes to carry, the suspension seems severely under-sprung.
The dampers do a fine job of soaking up corrugations in the road surface, but over any surface there is always an impression that the E500 Cabriolet is just too heavy for itself. It’s heavy on its feet, and the shocks feel like they’ve had to be filled with a small amount of concrete to deal with the weight.
With that said, the adaptive dampers are best left in Comfort mode – Sport mode is far too jarring for regular road use and only became handy on long, swooping flyover highway interchanges where the E500 carries surprising speeds without being overwhelmed. In Sport, body roll is minimal, but that’s countered by the concrete ride over any mid-corner imperfections. It does need a certain level of care though – finesse is needed when tipping into corners as a sudden shift in a 2 tonne vehicle is not met kindly by the electronic stability control, nor is it praised by the brakes should you need to stop in a hurry.
With a short wheelbase and a rearward weight bias – due to the roof mechanism – not to mention the reduced rigidity, the E500 Cabriolet doesn’t respond kindly to sudden shifts in its mass. Poke the bear with the safety systems switched off and 2 tonnes snaps around with enough viciousness to put some real hair on your chest – it lacks the progressiveness of a closed roof coupe, or a vehicle with a longer wheelbase.
For this reason, the E500 Cabriolet’s safety systems (ESP and Traction Control) exist as polarised functions; either fully on, and intrusive at the slightest hint of lighting up the rear tyres, or fully off – widow-maker mode hidden behind a shroud of computer interfaces to ensure you don’t accidentally push the button while fiddling with the audio system – no intermediate sport settings to make you feel like a hero
It’s just as well, as the 4.7-litre twin-turbo V8 could land you in some serious trouble. It’s potent – with figures nearing those of the W204 C63 AMG whose chassis the E500 Cabriolet shares. 300kW @ 5000-5750rpm and 600Nm @ 1600-4750rpm are not child’s play – they’re the vicious by-products of a large displacement V8 and forced induction that will propel the Mercedes-Benz E500 Cabriolet from 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds and on to a limited top speed of 250km/h.
The figures don’t tell the tale suitably though. Where other performance cars gain speed rapidly in a smooth wave of acceleration, the E500 Cabrio’s needle snatches increments of 30-40km/h at a time from the face of the speedometer, backed by a wave of unrelenting turbocharged torque. It’s enough to take you from a highway cruise to the back of a prison cell in the blink of an eye.
The noise which soundtracks the acceleration is an aural indulgence of bassy 8-cylinder joy – yet it remains surprisingly subdued unless you open the throttle fully, and even then, best results are yielded with an open roof.
Driving the rear wheels via Mercedes’ 7G-TRONIC Plus automatic transmission the Mercedes-Benz E500 Cabriolet’s big V8 is violent, but a touch blunt. There are trace amounts of turbo-lag followed by a massive slug of torque, but the experience is blunted somewhat by the transmission lag. There’s a distinct moment’s wait as the auto ‘box slurs into action between shifts which just dulls the experience somewhat.
Yet that same transmission is creamy when not under full load, and it’s then that it reveals its true purpose. Despite the W204 C63-chasing acceleration figures, the E500 Cabriolet isn’t a sports car, nor does it purport to be. What it is is a 7/10ths luxury convertible – a lifestyle accessory with a turn of pace.
Spare 20 seconds to retract the roof and raise the mesh between the rear headrests and the aerofoil above the windscreen, and the E500 Cabriolet is in its true element – set for a coastal cruise at sunset or an early morning saunter to your favourite breakfast joint in true style. The front aerofoil and rear netting curb wind and noise intrusion (up to about 110km/h), whilst the AirScarf and heated seats equipped on our test unit mean that even winter-time is time for some top-down driving.
Viewed in this light, the foibles it does have can be quite easily overlooked. They aren’t major, but there are a few minor irritations like the COMAND infotainment system that’s sluggish and doesn’t always reconnect Bluetooth devices. The audio system does a fine job of projecting over the wind-noise though – thank Harman Kardon for that – and the booming V8 compensates when you do decide you’d like to get where you’re going a little quicker.
It’s a stunning lifestyle vehicle, and if the ‘CLK’ benefited anything from adopting the E-Class badge, it’s in its appearance. The E-Class head- and tail-lights, and angular lines of the body fit the compact dimensions of the Mercedes-Benz E500 Cabriolet snugly, making this one of the prettiest convertibles around.
As a vehicle, it has its flaws – the main issue being the weight that neither the suspension nor brakes seem to handle as comfortably as one would hope. The snappy handling and firm ride are also contentious, and the V8 engine, despite its charm, is just too vicious for this application.
The Mercedes-Benz E500 Cabriolet is a fine top-down cruiser, but I have my doubts it’s the best variant of the E-Class Cabrio. A lighter, twin-turbo V6 powered variant in the E400 would be a much nimbler, wieldier companion that would be lighter on the pocket too – the E500 Cabriolet drank fuel at a rate of 14.2l/100km.
The CLK that never was is still a lovely thing to behold. But for those in the market for something of this calibre, you’d be wise to hold of for the time being. The new E-Class has just been unveiled, and with this generation there will be a new coupe/cabriolet pairing built off an E- chassis and not a C- one. If they can capture the charm that makes this E500 Cabriolet so great, then the vastly improved suspension and weight reduction will make the new one an even finer thing to drive.
Words: Roger Biermann
Images: Henrie Snyman