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Mercedes-Benz CLE 450 Cabriolet 2024 review – a six-cylinder drop-top with old school charm

The drop-top CLE melds elements of the C and E-class into a sleek Cabriolet package, offering a smooth, refined drive in six-cylinder form

Evo rating
Price
from £70,450
  • Elegant design, smooth six-cylinder power, old school GT charm
  • Downshifts lack urgency, leisurely throttle response

The convertible car market is shrinking, your choices depleting quicker than the desire for car owners to buy a car that requires plugging in rather than filling up. There was a time when the four-seater cabriolet was a must have in a product planner’s portfolio. Audi (A4 and A5), BMW (3 and 4-series), Ford (Focus CC), Peugeot (307 CC), Volkswagen (Eos) and even Volvo (C70) all turned up to the party with full size four-seater cabriolets based on rather more humble mainstream underpinnings. Mercedes-Benz had two: the C and E-class cabriolets; now it has just one: the CLE.

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Like the coupe that goes by the same name, it's a hybrid of the current C and E-class, the former providing its interior and rear end, the latter the front and mid-section, which surprisingly hasn’t resulted in some kind of automotive headless Frankenstien’s monster. Elegant and well proportioned rather than pretty and seductive, the CLE cabriolet will appeal to those looking for a replacement for their Jaguar XK convertible as much as it will those who don’t fancy its only modern day rival - BMW’s 4-series convertible.

> BMW M440i xDrive Convertible review

Four engines are offered, three of which have four-cylinders and a two-litre capacity, with the 300 and 200 models running on petrol – a black pump 200d is also offered, with all models in the range mild-hybrid units. At the top of the pile currently sits the 450, a 3-litre straight-six petrol that, like the 300, is only available with Mercedes’ 4Matic+ variable all-wheel drive system. The 200 petrol and diesel models are rear drive only and all are only offered with a nine-speed automatic gearbox.

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While the 300 is expected to be the biggest seller, in the UK at least, as with its coupe counterpart the engine lacks the smoothness and refinement this type of Benz deserves. The 200 just lacks guts, the diesel feels very last century.

Which is why we made a beeline for the 450 to see if its six-pot motor adds the quality, smoothness and sense of effortless motoring we thought the CLE300 coupe was lacking in issue 320. Happily it does. Its muffled tone is nicely balanced to provide a sense of occasion, the smooth spinning six hushed at tickover more vibrant at higher engine speeds to let you know it’s happy to be pushed.

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It revs cleanly, sweeping around to 6000rpm before it starts to wind off the urgency and if you’ve no interest in changing gear yourself, the upshift is quick and seamless, the downshift under more demanding braking more last minute than you would plan if you were using the paddles for DIY gear changes. In Comfort mode the throttle response is on the leisurely side and you can find your right foot applying more pressure for not a great deal more propulsion. Switching to Sport sharpens this but the 450 never turns into a snorting sportscar, preferring to make progress rather than hurling itself at the next braking point. The jump to Sport+ is marginal in terms of engine response other than around its peak speed where it hits the limiter quicker.

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Driving the 450 on its paddles allows you get the maximum from the straight-six’s potential and work with the slug of turbocharged torque to maximum effect, especially so out of slower corners where the ‘box will drop to second when in auto when you’re better holding third for a cleaner, smoother and more spritely exit. At 2080kg its quoted 155mph maximum feels an ambitious target, the 450 is at its best when operated around three-quarters of its available speed. Which sounds like an underwhelming accolade, but this breed of car isn’t about chasing lap times and winning drag races.

Roof down, head slowly burning under an early summer sun and the CLE is a charming way to travel. It’s an old school experience, one many have shied away from in a bid to deliver performance at all costs regardless of if that’s what customers want from a car. The CLE Cabriolet is confident, very confident, in doing what it’s designed to do.

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There’s a calmness to how the 450 flows on a road, with a high level of composure, little to no body shake and a steady hand on body control when you put load through the chassis. It steers cleanly and although there’s no feel to the action you can be precise when it comes to positioning through a corner. A series of constant turns are best tackled at a slower rate of knots rather than throwing it at the apex and expecting to be able to balance it on the throttle and steering. It’s too heavy for this and very quickly becomes imprecise and a little clumsy.

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Breaching its traction isn’t really on the cards, it’s not only not that type of car but there's a soft edge to it that means tyre squeal and steady state understeer are all you are going to get from it. Which might lead some of you to ask ‘why equip it with four-wheel drive if it requires little to no taming?’ The simple answer is the CLE’s biggest market - both coupe and cabriolet - will be North America, and the snow states insist on all-wheel drive (perhaps they shouldn’t also insist on tyres harder than volcanic rock that last a whole millennium, then manufacturers could ditch these heavy powertrains).

Mercedes has invested considerably on the CLE’s Cabriolet’s aerodynamics when its 20-layer fabric roof is stowed. A traditional removable windbreak behind the front seats is provided, but the engineers have also developed an air curtain for the car, too. It’s deployable via a centre console switch and controls a windscreen header ‘spoiler’ and air-net fitted between the rear seat head restraints. When deployed the spoiler rises to deflect the airflow higher over the car, reducing the amount of turbulence that wraps around the windows with the small net curtain removing any air that could return and hit you on the back of the head. But here’s the thing, with it not in use the CLE’s cabin is all rather calm and pleasant, with buffeting with the windows up all but eradicated and two way conversations perfectly possible and any speed. With the air curtain in place, all that appears to happen is an increase in wind noise from the header rail, something Mercedes admits is a consequence. Perhaps there’s a benefit in colder weather when you're more likely to feel cooler air whipping around your neck that the seat’s built in air-scarf can’t compete with, but under 30-degree sun it felt superfluous to requirements.

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Taking its interior from the C-class means there’s a sizeable central screen with far too many controls that would be easier to operate if they were physical switches and buttons, and beneath this are the haptic controls to change driving modes (Economy, Comfort, Sport and Individual), entertainment volume and access the assistance system to turn them all off as easily as possible.

Despite ending on the CLE’s negatives, for those in the market for such a car Mercedes’ new two-into-one cabriolet strategy has a charm and appeal. It looks and feels special, the six-cylinder motor delivering the silky performance expected. The CLE300 coupe felt like an old-school Benz let down by its engine, but the 450 motor addresses this regardless of the body type. 

Price and rivals 

There aren’t many rivals to the CLE Cabriolet, with BMW’s M440i XDrive at £68,275 undercutting the £70,450 450 CLE AMG Line Premium. The Munich model has the more engaging, punchier engine with a more vibrant dynamic make-up than the new model from Stuttgart, but where the BMW has the Mercedes in its mirrors in terms of pure driving the CLE is the more elegant and refined option. 

Step away from the traditional sector and you’re into Porsche 911 Cabriolet territory, with a two-wheel drive Carrera Cabriolet starting at £107,000. Or you could go back to BMW and look at the larger rear-wheel drive 840i M Sport cabriolet, which starts at £90,990 but big discounts are out there, dropping its price to just £8000 more than the new Mercedes.

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