Road tests / 26 March 2018, 12:57pm / Denis Droppa
Johannesburg - While we grapple with land expropriation and poisoned polony, at least we can still generally count on good weather to lift our Mzansi spirits, especially if it can be appreciated from the cabin of a roofless car.
As we head into autumn there’s still time to experience some top-down driving in warm weather, in a car such as the recently-introduced E-Class Cabriolet.
Launched in South Africa late last year alongside the E-Class sedan and coupe, this most glamorous version of the line up swops a steel roof for an electrically-folding soft top.
The car’s available in a three-model lineup comprising the E220d diesel and the E300 and E400 4Matic petrol versions - at prices ranging from a little more than R900 000 to over R1.1 million. It comes in a choice of Avantgarde and AMG trim lines.
The multi-layered fabric roof - derived from S-Class Cabriolet - is available in a choice of dark brown, dark blue, dark red or black, and can be raised or lowered at the press of a button in 20 seconds - while the car’s being driven at speeds up to 50km/h.
Headed seats and an Airscarf - which has air vents in the head rests to blow warm air onto your neck - keep things snug when top-down driving in cooler weather.
There’s also an AirCap draught stop, a rather ugly but effective fitment on top of the windscreen frame that reduces the hair-messing effect of roof-down driving.
Both the Airscarf and AirCap are extra-cost options on the E220d and standard on the two petrol variants.
It’s the E220d on test here priced at R920 184, which is powered by a 2-litre turbodiesel engine that combines good pace with great fuel economy.
We were a little worried about the prospect of inhaling diesel fumes in an open-topped car, but that fortunately didn’t happen and we never perceived any unpleaseant tailpipe smells.
It’s a refined four-cylinder too, and hums along without any tractor-like characteristics.
The soft top is well insulated and though it’s noisier with the roof up than in a regular car, you can still have a conversation at normal speaking levels.
The 143kW and 400Nm engine packs some good pace, ensuring swift progress in both urban and open-road driving.
Turbo lag is minimal and the brisk throttle response makes for a pleasantly responsive all-round performer, thanks also to the smooth 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic transmission.
The main incentive of buying the diesel model is fuel economy, and the test car averaged an impressively frugal 6.2 litres per 100km.
The rear-wheel drive car gets through corners with good agility on suspension that’s 15mm lower than the sedan’s. Steel suspension with selectable Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes is standard.
Air suspension with electronically controlled adaptive damping, selectable for Comfort, Eco, Sport, Sport+ and Individual, is an option.
Our test car’s ride quality was generally comfortable but the optional low-profile 19” tyres (17s are standard) caused a rather jarring ride over bumps and potholes, and exposed some minor scuttle shake in the roofless body.
With its lowered ride the car sometimes scraped its underside on steeply-angled driveway entrances too.
The standard instrumentation combines two round dials and an 18cm colour and a 21cm central display - or for extra money you can opt for two 31cm displays under a shared glass cover that look like they’re floating, with three driver-selectable display styles to choose from: Classic, Sport and Progressive.
The dashboard is straight out of a sci-fi movie with those giant digital screens and strips of ‘mood lighting’, with air vents inspired by the intakes of turbine airplane engines.
You almost feel like Captain Jean Luc Picard sitting aboard the starship Enterprise. It’s a high-tech setting that’s worlds apart from the stuffy Mercs of old, and it’s combined with impressive luxury.
The finely-stitched leather and metallic speaker grilles radiate a premium feel, as do the metal buttons.
Controlling all the multimedia and climate controls can be a little overwhelming - there are so many of them - but there are multiple ways to do so including touch controls in the steering wheel for finger-swipe control, a touchpad that recognises handwriting, a controller knob in the centre console, Linguatronic voice control, and direct-access buttons.
Everything, in fact, except a touchscreen - Mercedes is a late adopter of this technology and the first car to have it is the just-launched new A-Class.
Due to the space required for the folded roof the E-Class Cabriolet has less room for back seat passengers than its steel-roofed counterpart.
Rear legroom in the Cabrio is pretty good but the seats are very upright and won’t necessarily be comfortable over long trips. There’s also not much rear headroom beneath that soft top.
Boot space is reasonable for a convertible, and the rear seats flip down to expand the cargo space.
The roof folds away into the boot behind an automatically operated boot separator that reduces luggage capacity from 385 litres to a still-practical 310. For safety, two roll-over bars hidden behind the rear seats pop up in case of a rollover.
Other standard safety features include Active Brake Assist which autonomously applies the brakes in an emergency, and radar cruise control which not only maintains a safe following distance but also self-steers to follow the car in front.
The E-Class Cabriolet delivers typical Merc luxury and a space-age interior. The diesel version’s a good buy for its combo of power and economy, but I’d choose it with the standard 17” tyres to soften up the ride a little.