THE PROS & CONS
- LOVE IT: Luxury, Sportiness, Road hugger, Semi-autonomous advances
- LEAVE IT: There is a little less cargo space in the trunk when the roof is down — but who cares?
- INTERESTING: AIRSCARF function, which blows warm air out of your headrest and onto the back of your neck and keeps you toasty warm even when the weather outside is approaching frightful.
COURMAYEUR, ITALY-So, about a month ago, I’m standing at the bottom of a set of stairs leading to the Observation Deck near the top of Mont Blanc which, at 15,774 feet, is the highest mountain in all of the Alps. I am out of breath.
The last time I was this winded was in 1989 in Flagstaff, Ariz., and I had been shovelling snow in January to get my car out of a parking lot. Flagstaff is a mere 6,910 feet above sea level, which is about half the height of where I’m at now. And where I’m at now, I haven’t done much of anything except look around.
I finally stop huffing and puffing and resume my ascent, and I get to the top, and I think I’m Sir Edmund Hillary when he reached the summit of Mount Everest. Except there’s something on the Observation Deck of Monte Bianco (I’m on the Italian side of the mountain, remember?) that sure wouldn’t have been on Everest when Sir Edmund and his guide, Tenzing Norgay, made history in the Himalayas back in 1953.
What’s here on the Observation Deck (although there’s not much observing going on, as there is fog everywhere) is a 2018 Mercedes-Benz E-Class Cabriolet. Mercedes selected Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco as the backdrop for the introduction of this wonderful car, which will go on sale in Canada later this year.
I say wonderful, because there is next-to-nothing the matter with this automobile. If I was to start at 10 and, going down a list, put a check mark for anything negative I found in terms of performance, styling, quality, visibility, convenience, vehicle dynamics, safety features, and all the rest of the things automotive writers look for when they’re out and driving about, I would have a clean sheet when I finished. And the score would still be 10.
To top it off, in writing about other cars I’ve covered or reviewed in recent months, I have at least once — if not more times — used the phrase, “almost drives itself.” Well, this E-Class Mercedes does drive itself. Not all the time, or all over, but in some conditions and under certain circumstances that I will tell you about as we take this trip around the Mont Blanc region together.
Mercedes invited a group of journalists to Europe to be introduced to the new Cabriolet. Over the course of two days, we drove southward from Geneva, Switzerland, to the Skyway Monte Bianco, a distance of 187 kilometres, mostly through France. And then it was back to Geneva on a more northerly route through France that was only 137 km in length. My driving partner was Quebec journalist Marc-André Gauthier, who talks about as much as I do, which meant neither of us could get in a word edgewise. But it was good to compare notes.
Our car was a white E400 4MATIC that was to die for. We are a couple of big guys, but we had no trouble settling into the two front seats. And if we’d cloned ourselves, I’m sure our doppelgangers would not have encountered difficulty fitting into the two back seats, either. Why? The 2018 E-Class is 74 millimetres wider than previous cars in its class, which is the main reason four big guys could fit right in there comfortably.
The front seats are power adjustable, so you can experiment until you find the perfect fit for yourself, whether you’re driving or riding shotgun. And because the car is also longer and taller (123 mms and 32 mms, respectively), the people in the back seat won’t get squished.
Did I say the car was roomier? Now you know.
Oh, and remember: Cabriolet means convertible. In the olden days, when people saw the U.S. in their Chevrolet soft tops, the car had to be parked on the side of the road in order to put the top up or down, which was a real bother. That was one of the two main reasons convertibles fell out of favour — safety being the other.
So, the soft top on this car — four colours, by the way (black, red, dark blue, and dark brown) — can be opened or closed in 20 seconds, and you can do one or the other while going as fast as 50 km/h. And Mercedes-Benz has also installed rollover protection, in which rollover bars automatically deploy if the car starts to tip.
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There is a lot to like about what’s standard on this automobile. There’s the high-performance LED lighting system, heated and power-folding exterior mirrors, leather upholstery and an ARTIGO leather dashboard, smartphone integration, a rear-view camera, active parking assist, automatic headlight activation and rain-sensing windshield wipers.
One quick other thing about the windshield wipers. Mercedes is making available a wiper system called Magic Vision Control, in which the water line goes directly into the wiper blade and squirts out washer fluid directly ahead of the wiper’s edge. When the top is down, the system reduces the amount of fluid automatically so that the windshield can be cleaned at any speed without anyone in the car getting splashed.
Gauthier was driving the first day and we were listening to the radio. We had the AIRCAP system deployed (a flap across the top of the front windshield reduces air turbulence by deflecting the flow of air over the passenger compartment) so we were able to listen and chat.
I’ve often wondered, for instance, how there could be such a vibrant pop music culture in Quebec when its population is relatively small when compared to the rest of Canada and North America. A big reason, I learned, is that Quebec music and musicians are very popular in France. They make a lot of money there. A song on the radio would end or another begin and Gauthier would say, “He’s from Quebec; he has my last name, but I don’t know him,” or, “She’s singing the No. 1 song in Quebec from three months ago.”
About 35 km from Geneva, Switzerland, on the first day — we actually picked up the cars at a golf course outside the city — Gauthier was at the wheel and we were bombing along, and suddenly — and I mean suddenly — we turned a corner and found ourselves smack-dab in the middle of what only could be described as Shangri-La.
There was a lake with water so clean and clear, it was green. A beach was filled with small children while older kids and adults were out in the water, playing on water slides or racing each other in paddle boats. There was a Ferris wheel out in the lake. The entire scene was shaded by several dozen large trees that looked at least a century old. It seemed like paradise.
We were passing through Annecy, which was once a destination city in the Tour de France. We had come upon the Lake Annecy waterfront — the highway was a two-lane road and there was just nowhere for us to pull over and park — and as we turned to follow the shoreline, there was a huge cliff towering above us and to our left. I was busily scribbling notes about what we’d just seen when Gauthier suddenly said: “Stop. Look up.”
If he hadn’t shouted, I’d have missed an absolutely glorious sight. One of the advantages of the Cabriolet is that there is no roof and it’s easy to look up and out. Above us then was about a dozen paragliders who had launched themselves from the top of the cliff and were floating down toward the water. Apparently, the region is one of the best in the world for that sport.
I decided then and there that if ever I should go on holiday in France, Annecy is where I would make my base — not to do any of the stuff I was just talking about, you understand, but to watch others in action. You have to trust me when I say that I am a marginal swimmer, at best, and paragliding is not on my bucket list. But observing and appreciating? I can sure do that.
There are expressways in France (the speed limit is 130 km/h, which means the gendarmes let you go 140, and isn’t that civilized? I wonder if Kathleen Wynne knows …) but most of the roads we drove on were narrow, two-laners that got even tighter as we drove through villages that were hundreds of years old.
What’s intriguing about this part of France is that every house — and I mean every house — has a huge woodpile adjacent. We were driving through the Alps, and they still get winter there.
The villages and farms are too spread out for natural gas lines, and oil costs a fortune in Europe, be it for gasoline or home heating because it’s all imported. Ergo, the buildings are all heated in the late fall and winter by the burning of wood in stoves or boilers. It’s ironic, then, that much of a country that’s intent on banning the sale of gasoline and Diesel vehicles by 2040 is dependent on a form of heating that emits about as much — perhaps even more — pollution as the burning of fossil fuels.
Another observation: automobile dealerships are significantly smaller than they are in North America — at least, in the part of the world we passed through. The automaker would have a sign on the outside of a one-storey building, and there would be three or four cars on display outside, but that would be it. But, I digress.
I drove the car on the second day, and when we left our hotel in Italy to return to France, we re-entered the 12-km-long Mont Blanc Tunnel. Think of the 1.5-km tunnel beneath the Detroit River that connects Detroit and Windsor and multiply the distance by about 10 and you’ll have a picture in your mind of what this tunnel between France and Italy is like. Gauthier had been driving when we went through it from France to Italy and I had a chance to look around; now, it was his turn to rubberneck while I kept us on the straight and narrow.
This tunnel shaves off anywhere from 30 to 60 km for huge transport trucks moving goods between Italy and the rest of Europe. Those trucks, incidentally, are all flat across the front (unlike North American semis) because there is a length limit on the total rig and a tractor with the driver sitting on top of, or beside, the engine allows for longer trailers and more cargo. My observation, which is something Gauthier also found intriguing: it must be murder on fuel mileage when driving into a headwind.
There is a strict speed limit when in the tunnel (50-70 km/h) and vehicles must remain 50 metres apart. These rules — rigidly enforced — are the result of a fire in the tunnel in 1999 in which 38 people died. The toll, one way, is 41 Euros ($60), but it’s worth it to save the time it would take to drive around the mountain.
There is really not much to see in a tunnel. The maintenance people who walk back and forth across the road between vehicles all have reflective tape on their boots and their trousers, which can keep you occupied in the beginning, but we found the time better spent studying the Cabriolet’s control screen that starts in front of the driver and extends over to the middle of the dash. It boasts everything a standard dashboard would have, plus some things you might never have thought about, like the Live Traffic Information system
I strongly suggest that it is not a good idea to go driving off down the road without familiarizing yourself with everything available because there are menus and submenus and the control buttons are all on the steering wheel. Once you’ve taken in everything that’s on offer a couple of times, things become clearer, but it can be intimidating in the beginning because it almost seems like you’re preparing to take off in a plane with you as the pilot.
Once out of the tunnel, we crossed the border from Italy to France. Although it will likely never happen, particularly since the United States seems so intent these days on making it even more difficult to cross the border, not easier, it was such a pleasure to come across several old, boarded-up, customs and immigration buildings that, at one time, heralded a border crossing. “Papers, please.”
No more. But, you don’t see any of this “Welcome to wherever” stuff, either. There’s a sign that says, simply, FRANCE. If you look back, the sign on the other side of the road says ITALY.
And 50 metres in, whichever way you’re heading, you’d better be able to speak either French or Italian. It’s incredible. Even though there are no borders, there’s no blending of culture or language at all — at least on a large scale. You cross into Italy and they speak Italian; you turn around and go back to France, and it’s French. It’s almost as if there are invisible walls separating the old countries of Europe.
I felt very James Bond-ish, ripping along the country roads. You’ve seen in the movies where Bond is being chased by the bad guys and they’re able to go blasting down the side of a mountain because of a series of switchbacks — the road goes down to a hairpin, then up slightly to another hairpin, and down again, and so on. I’m happy to tell you that my Mercedes was glued to the road the whole while, as I didn’t waste any time getting away (in my mind) from Blofeld, or Rosa Klebb, or Le Chiffre. And no Aston for this James Bond, boy. My Mercedes more than filled the bill.
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And when I say it filled the bill, I meant it. This is, for starters, a luxury car with strong sports-car tendencies. This explains the nimbleness of the car, which enabled me to “escape” while being “chased.” The 3.0-litre, twin-turbo V6 makes 329 horsepower and 345 pound-feet of torque and it becomes a little rocket (0-100 km/h in 5.5 seconds) when combined with a nine-speed automatic transmission and 4MATIC all-wheel drive.
I found no reason, in the hills, to go to a Sport or Sport+ setting because the car was doing everything I wanted it to do. But my driving partner reported that everything from handling to throttle response became crisper when he went from mode to mode, and I made a mental note to give those settings a try the next time I’m out in an E-Class.
When I was on the expressway, though, I had to try out the Intelligent Drive System. I switched it on and settled back, but my hand was never far from the steering wheel or my foot from the brake. It’s not that I don’t trust it (Mercedes says semi-autonomous driving like this is possible at speeds up to 210 km/h), but it’s like anything else that’s new — you have to take time to get used to it. Gauthier had done a turn with this the day before and so we compared notes.
The car will go straight on its own and can go around sweeping curves. When you put on the turn signal, it can change lanes on its own and will slow itself down if it’s gets too close to a vehicle in front.
But it hasn’t reached the level of sophistication required to take over and drive — at speed — on some of those twisty, secondary roads we’d been on during the last day and a half. And whether self-driving, or “autonomous” cars will ever be able to do that remains to be seen.
I remained at the wheel when we arrived in Geneva where we gave up the E-Class Cabriolet for a new, all-electric, Smartfortwo that I will tell you about in a week or two. But I had some difficulty finding the transfer station, which was in the middle of the old town.
The GPS was working but the sound was off (not everything went smoothly between Gauthier and me), and I was worried that if I looked at the screen to plot my directions that I might inadvertently run somebody over. It is a very busy place.
Four-way intersections in Europe — Switzerland, anyway — are much like they are here. The roundabouts can drive you crazy, though, particularly if you are in the middle of a city and pedestrians have the right of way. I had one eye on the pedestrians, and now I will tell you about the motorcycles and the scooters, which I had to keep my other eye on.
Unlike North America, there are no rules — apparently — about where the people who ride those things can and cannot go. So, you can be sitting patiently, waiting either for a light to change or a pedestrian to clear the road, and suddenly a motorcycle will drive between you and the vehicle to your left, cut across right in front of you, and then zip ahead between the car in front of you and the car on its right. And we’re not talking one motorcycle or scooter here: you can feel under attack by what seems to be dozens. By our standards, it’s anarchy.
There are cyclists, of course, but bicycles don’t seem to be (or didn’t seem — to me — to be) as popular as the motorized two wheelers, which can get you here and there in a jiffy, and with a lot less effort than it takes to pedal.
The 2018 Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet will be available in Canada later this fall. No MRSP is available, but stay tuned. Climate change — if the past few years are any indication — means you can look forward to driving with the top down for at least a week or two past Thanksgiving in October. After that, though, remember that this E-Class has the AIRSCARF function, which blows warm air out of your headrest and onto the back of your neck and keeps you toasty warm even when the weather outside is approaching frightful.
When it comes to this car, they’ve thought of just about everything.
2018 Mercedes E-Class Cabriolet
Engine: 3.0-litre, twin turbo, V6
Output: 329 hp; 345 lb-ft torque
Transmission: Nine-speed, automatic
Acceleration: 0-100 km/h in 5.5 seconds
Curb Weight: 1,880 kilograms
Price: To be determined
Sky-high Cabriolet is a mountain-topper
Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco, if you’re in Italy), a.k.a. the White Mountain, is 15,774 feet at its peak.
A cable car that goes up the mountain on the Italian side has two stops — Le Pavillon (at 7,129 feet) and Point Helbronner (at 11,358 feet).
You can only go higher on that mountain if you intend to climb to the summit. Point Helbronner is the last stop for tourists.
Which is where Mercedes-Benz managed to plunk down a 2018 E-Class Cabriolet.
Few cars — if any — have been higher.
How did they do it?
If you think of the CN Tower, the only way they could “top off” the world’s now-third-tallest, free-standing, structure back in the mid-1970s was with a helicopter that lifted a 335-foot-long steel broadcasting antenna and put it into place.
The Sikorsky helicopter that did the job was nicknamed “Olga,” and she finished the Toronto job — with help from two pilots and a co-pilot — on Feb. 22, 1974.
To get the Cabriolet up to the Observation Deck on Mont Blanc, Mercedes-Benz used a — guess what? — Sikorsky helicopter (no nickname, though) to lift the 1,715-kilogram car up and over Le Pavillon station and set it down gently in place where journalists could admire it, along with the scenery, during its global unveiling.
The day the Star was there, however, was foggy and blustery. The day the helicopter did its initial work was clear as a bell.
Isn’t it always the way?
Automaker puts safety first
Everything Mercedes-Benz does to make the driving experience easier is all about safety, a product manager in the auto company’s sales and marketing department says.
“Our target is to one day have a zero per cent risk of accidents,” Claudius Steinhoff told Toronto Star Wheels in an interview during the launch several weeks ago of the automaker’s E-Class Cabriolet.
Steinhoff was one of several company executives who sat down in Italy to talk to a group of Canadian automotive journalists about the Cabriolet in the context of advances being made toward self-driving cars.
The E-Class boasts an intelligent driver component, which allows the car to steer itself (when on wide, sweeping roadways), change lanes when you signal or bunt you back into your lane if you don’t, and help you to brake.
“Safety is the core of our brand,” he said. “Mercedes-Benz has always put a lot of effort into developing safety systems and our goal is to have no accidents at all in the future. Conditions around the world are very different, so there’s a way to go. But this is our target.”
Steinhoff said that when all is said and done, he is most proud of all the “active” systems available to E-Class customers.
“I like the emergency braking,” he said, “and if you reach the end of a traffic jam, the car brakes automatically. All these are systems that avoid accidents and for which I am most proud.”
Having said that, he added: It’s one thing to develop the features; it’s another to make sure drivers feel comfortable using them. They (the active systems) might feel a little freaky for people at first, so maybe we start the process on highways, and the next step is the winding roads and the next step is the cities.
“It’s very important that technology has to take one step after the other and the drivers have to do the same thing.”
Steinhoff said self-driving or autonomous-driving cars are still a long way off.
“There are difficulties, because around the world, you have different weather conditions and you have different traffic conditions and so on and so forth. The basic technology is already tremendous and very impressive, but it’s still got a long way to go.
“The way from these partly automated functions to fully automated functions is mostly a matter of reducing the risks to the absolute minimum, which is zero per cent. If you have that, you have complete safety.”
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