TOUCH OF CLASS
If Cary Grant were a motorcar, reckons jon wall, he’d probably be a Mercedes-Benz E 400 Cabriolet, a sophisticated old-school charmer if ever there was one
It may not be widely recognised in our youthobsessed culture, but the benefits of growing old are many. According to “research”, the elderly – among whom I must by any reckoning now be counted – tend to be happier in their own skins, have a higher sense of their own worth and care less for what others think of them than do their more youthful counterparts. Although I wouldn’t for one moment claim these for myself, we’re also said to be smarter, wiser and more emotionally stable. Indeed, after having dreaded the onset of decrepitude for decades, joining the ranks of the superannuated has turned out to be far cooler than I ever thought it would. A couple of months ago I discovered another advantage of old age, when the kindly folk at Mercedes-Benz offered me a set of wheels for a lengthy journey I was planning with my son and daughter-in-law. Not so very long ago I’d have been holding out for the most adrenalised machine they could provide, but instead of some street fighter on steroids they suggested something far less extreme: an E-Class 400 Cabriolet. As this sophisticated soft-top wasn’t exactly what I’d had mind I quickly recalibrated, abandoning notions of terrorising other road users along our 2,500km route and instead refocussing on behaviour more appropriate to my supposed maturity. Not that I wasn’t looking forward to the E Cab, because I’ve been a fan of Benz’s current premium-executive contender since my first experience of the four-door saloon in early 2106. Then, it struck me as a car that does most things required of it – which essentially revolve around wafting a quartet of decent-size adults and their baggage over considerable distances and in great ease and style – pretty much perfectly, and I haven’t seen fit to change my mind in the interim.
There’s also, however, a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect to the E-Class. Because what’s normally a sedate, sober and discreetly luxurious saloon also serves as the basis for the ferocious AMG E 63 S, which, with more than 600bhp under its bonnet and a glorious V8 soundtrack that conjures notions of Battle of Britain dogfights, vies with BMW’s M5 as the best supersaloon money can buy and is hands-down the most characterful. Equally beguiling, but in different ways again, are the E’s coupe and estate versions. While the E 400 Cabriolet is a good deal more restrained than the 63, it’s hardly devoid of muscle – and that’s no bad thing, as this substantial soft-top weighs almost 2 tonnes even before passengers and baggage are loaded on board. Up front is a splendid biturbo V6 whose 3 litres (the numbers in German car names these days bear scant relation to engine size) are good for 328bhp and, from 1,600 revs, 480Nm – the latter being key to getting all that mass in motion. Power and torque are fed to all four of the Cab’s wheels via Mercedes’ nine-speed multi-clutch gearbox and the smart 4MATIC system, and our car was also optioned with air-suspension, a combination that suggested smooth and assured progress on most surfaces and in almost every weather condition we’d be likely to encounter on our journey. Unlike the previous E Cabriolet and the CLKs that preceded it, which sat on a smaller C-Class platform, this latest model is the genuine article as it shares its underpinnings with the E-Class – and that translates into greater length and, most important, a meaningful increase in legroom for rear-seat passengers. Additionally it means that the current ragtop E is a far more handsome car than the one it replaces, for those extra centimetres (it measures around 4.83 metres from end to end) help turn it into a thing of extraordinary elegance, in spite of the considerable girth that’s accumulated around its hips. Fortunately Mercedes has resisted the temptation to opt for a folding hardtop, as the multi-layer fabric roof – which when raised involves no trade-offs in wind- and rain-proofing, or interior noise – looks especially fetching in an old-school sort of way. In fact, decked out as our car
With the AMG Line body kit and fancy metallic paint, the E 400 Cabriolet borders on the knockout
was with the AMG Line body kit, 19inch 5-twin-spoke Sport alloys and fancy metallic paint, the Cabriolet borders on the knockout, especially when the roof is stowed inside the boot and the broad polished band of aluminium that encircles the cabin is fully revealed, much like the rear deck of a classic motor yacht. Inevitably, rear-seat access is hampered by the absence of two doors, just as valuable boot space is taken up by the folded roof; otherwise, travelling four-up in the E Cab involves no compromises when compared with the regular saloon. With its top-quality leather, wood and metals, its ritzy interior is more or less identical, from the superb (and superbly upholstered) seats that even after hours of occupancy are a pleasure to park one’s backside on, to the vintage-Hollywood glamour of the dash, with its multicoloured ambient-lighting bar and central row of circular air vents, though that’s given up-to-date immediacy by the pair of 12.4-inch TFT displays taking up more than half its width. Top down (an exercise that takes around 20 seconds), wind buffeting is minimised by the Aircap system, which involves twin retractable windbreakers, one above the front screen and the other behind the back seats; front passengers are also spoiled rotten with Airscarf, a nifty feature that jets toasty warm air from the headrests on to cold necks. For me, though, the most compelling aspect of my week’s stewardship of the E 400 Cabriolet was simply the magnificent way in which we were transported the length and breadth of Britain, the silken V6 propelling us in a gentle rush, the nine-speed transmission slipping imperceptibly from gear to gear, and the air suspension floating us along hundreds of kilometres of motorway tarmac with pillowlike softness. You can, if so inclined, select a more aggressive drive mode than Comfort, though I never once felt the need; less a sports car than a pleasantly sporting one, the Cab is perfectly capable of covering vast distances and leaving slowcoaches in its wake even at its most laid-back – and it’s all the more enjoyable for it. Engage Sport Plus and mash the accelerator to the carpet and it will canter to 100km/h in a creditable 5.5 seconds. Throw it into a bend and, notwithstanding the somewhat airy steering, it will haul you around securely, no problem. Not that you’ll likely feel like trying either; it just isn’t the kind of car in which to play the hooligan. Instead, relax into those gloriously comfy chairs and let the Mercedes-Benz E 400 Cabriolet entice you with its oldfashioned refinement and luxury, for this world of hypercars and absurdly hot hatches also needs quietly opulent automobiles such as this. Indeed, out of all the vehicles I’ve driven in the past 12 months it’s this one whose key I most regretted handing back after my tenure. Old age? Possibly – but then only a hyperactive youngster could resist seduction by such a classy and gracious charmer as this.
OLD-SCHOOL SOPHISTICATION AND GLAMOUR MEET CONTEMPORARY TECH IN THE E 400 CABRIOLET