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2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe and Cabrio: Motoramic Drives

Motoramic

2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe and Cabrio: Motoramic Drives

A handy test can determine whether you’re the target buyer for the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe or Cabriolet.

Like their sober sedan cousin, these more fun-loving E-Classes have receiving an unusually thorough “refreshing” for 2014. That’s industry shorthand for a makeover that occurs roughly halfway through a model’s life cycle, as opposed to the stem-to-stern redesign that happens roughly once every five or six years. At January’s Detroit auto show, journalists and janitors alike were struck by the E-Class' dramatized body – especially a black-mesh maw with the kind of gaping, jet-fighter air inlets usually associated with Italian exotics, not a demure Mercedes. Don’t forget the three-pointed star on the grille, roughly the size – and, some suggested, the tastefulness — of Flava Flav's clocks/necklaces.

The flamboyant styling may help the Mercedes lure a few buyers who would otherwise lean toward Audi, BMW, even Cadillac or Infiniti. But these two-door E-Classes, by emphasizing creamy thrust, a soothing ride, creature comforts and safety innovations, aren’t about to alienate their traditional audience. And that’s where the test comes in:

Do you have a stockbroker? More importantly, does he take your calls?

Can you find Laguna Beach, Hilton Head or Greenwich, Conn., on a map? Do you, your family or significant other own property in those areas?

What is your opinion of antique shopping? As necessary as breathing, or more?

Summertime knits, and their proper thickness: Discuss.

Your answers to those questions can determine your fitness for the boutique-friendly side of the E-class lineup.

Tongue removed from cheek, the Coupe and Cabrio are clearly aimed more at couples and empty nesters that have been freed from family duties. Both models trade a smaller back seat for extra style. And the Cabriolet subtracts trunk space to make room for its tight-fitting fabric top.

Those bodies flaunt sleek frameless doors – there’s no roof pillar bisecting front and rear windows — to emphasize the arched roof and muscular profile. Dual strands of LED daytime running lamps spider through LED headlamps, like silvery false eyelashes. Though that front end seems designed to bowl over onlookers, these Benzes also look good from the rear, with widespread flanks and a bright chrome bow that hovers atop a black air diffuser and burnished, trapezoidal exhaust outlets. An optional AMG Sport package, from Mercedes’ in-house high-performance division, boosts visual wattage with 19-inch light alloy wheels and other extras.

Built on the smaller C-Class platform, the Coupe and Cabrio stretch just over 185 inches, nearly seven inches shorter than the sedan. The sedan’s generous 15.9 cubic-foot trunk shrinks to 13.8 in the Cabriolet, which shrivels to a maximum 10.6 cubes when the top is down, leaving just enough for a pair of modest suitcases. Both models will just fit two six-foot polo players in the handsomely contoured rear buckets, but the longer the trip lasts, the more they'll ask for their horses instead.

Drivers and passengers had few complaints on a fast run from Hamburg, Germany to the North Sea island of Sylt, a resort destination for moneyed Germans whose landscape – all soaring dunes, windswept heather and grazing sheep – looks more like Scotland than Deutschland.

The E-Class lineup’s revamped interior, with notable gains in materials and fit-and-finish, is as deluxe and meticulous as anything in the class. Owners choose between two styles of aluminum trim or four types of wood veneer. White dials for the three oval driver’s gauges, a sculpted three-point steering wheel, an analog clock and a new flat frame central display complete the pretty picture.

The Cabrio adopts Mercedes’ optional Aircap system, with a dark metal spoiler that rises from the top of the windshield to divert the breeze. Honestly, I didn’t notice much difference in buffeting whether the Aircap was up or down. More useful is the Airscarf, which streams warm air through headrest vents to keep front passengers’ necks toasty. Compared with the Coupe, the Cabriolet also betrayed a bit of steering-column shake over railroad tracks and rare European potholes. But that’s to be expected when engineers slice this much roof from a four-seat car.

The E-Class goes crazy for Mercedes’ latest “Intelligent Drive” safety systems. Drivers can get a 360-degree bird’s eye view on the central screen. A windshield-mounted stereo camera delivers three-dimensional views 50 meters beyond the car, and 500 meters in total. That allows a pedestrian detection system that can brake autonomously at up to 45 mph, and prevent hitting walkers entirely at up to 31 mph. Active lane keeping applies individual brakes to center the car if you veer toward oncoming traffic, tracking approaching cars with camera and radar.

Switch on Distronic cruise control, and this Benz will even help steer itself through highway bends, guided by lane markings – yet the active steering shuts down if the driver lets go of the wheel for more than about 10 seconds. But like Acura’s similar system, the effect is so subtle as to seem worthless: If you still have to adjust the wheel yourself, why do I need the car to help me do it? As constituted, the system seems an opening step toward more active automation, with a cautious eye toward lawyers, regulators and liability.

Like the E350 sedan, the 2014 E350 Coupe and Cabriolet carry over the 3.5-liter, 302-hp V-6 that’s perfectly adequate for everyday duties. Those rear-wheel-drive models go on sale in June, with optional 4Matic all-wheel-drive available only on the E350 Coupe.

Power users will be magnetically attracted to E550 versions, whose lusty 4.7-liter, biturbo V-8 pumps out 402 hp – 100 more than the E350. Pricing hasn’t been released, but figure about $53,000 to start for the E350 Coupe, or $62,000 for the E350 Cabriolet, a slight increase over 2013 models. E550 buyers will pay roughly $6,000 extra for their V-8 pleasure, in either coupe or convertible.

In these splashy Benzes, the mellow-throated V-8 remains the premium play. But one intriguing powertrain story won’t be told until fall of 2014. That’s when Mercedes eliminates the 3.5-liter, naturally aspirated V-6 in the 2015 Coupe and Cabriolet in favor of a downsized, 3.0-liter Biturbo V-6. Benz will dub that model the E400, replacing the E350 designation. Sedan buyers, take note: That twin-turbo V-6 will also replace the V-8 as the top-shelf engine in the E-Class sedan for 2015, leaving the Coupe and Cabriolet as the only E-Class models (aside from the limited-edition E63 AMG) to offer optional eight-cylinder power.

I sampled that E400 and its Biturbo beauty. With 333 hp, the downsized V-6 delivers about 31 more horsepower than the larger 3.5-liter, but a monumental gain in torque: the E350’s 273 lb.-ft. will rise to roughly 354 lb.-ft, fully on tap at a low, low 1,600 rpm. Mercedes cites a 5.2-second blast from 0-60 mph in the 2015 E400 coupe, or 5.3 seconds for the Cabrio. That’s a full second quicker than this year’s E350, and not far off the 4.8-second mark of the big V-8. That Biturbo V-6, in all likelihood, will meet or beat the 20/28 mpg fuel economy of the current E350.

My gray-bodied, red-roofed E400 Cabriolet proved quite the autobahn beast: With the top down and the wind booming, the Cabrio surged effortlessly to 250 kilometers per hour on unlimited stretches of the autobahn, which translated to 149 mph – not far off the car’s 155-mph electronically limited top speed. (But next time, I’m raising the roof or bringing the earplugs).

These E-Classes steer faithfully and have more tire grip than most owners will dare to explore. Yet they’re still more at home on long highway runs than carving through fast turns. The seven-speed transmission is wonderfully smooth but a bit slow-footed. In these cars, steering-wheel paddle shifters are likely to gather dust.

Despite the provocative come-on of that new front end, these E-Classes remain powerful, cosseting, loaded-to-the-gills cruisers. Your stockbroker awaits your call.