By Tom Ziegler
March 25, 2011

Sometimes you get lucky. In writing about cars for Fortune, I find myself competing with dozens of other journalists for first crack at the latest in automotive metal. What with the complications of scheduling and the near-constant stream of product launches, I am sometimes left with sun-loving convertibles in January and snow-chewing SUVs in July. Not that I expect any sympathy — they are all fresh from the factory, after all — but the disconnect makes it more difficult for car and driver to perform at their best.

Once in a while, the opportunity arises to match cars to conditions in a way that produces optimum results. That was the case two-times-over when an early spring weekend in the Berkshires followed a week in Southern California.

The MazdaSpeed 3 was just the ticket for slithering around potholes and dodging foraging deer in the tri-corner of New York State, Massachusetts, and northwest Connecticut. With the numbers of pesky speed limit enforcers seemingly occupied by more pressing duties elsewhere, there were plenty of opportunities to glimpse the Mazda’s thrill potential.

With a turbocharged four-cylinder motor that produces 263-horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, that potential is significant. The Speed3 can rocket you to 60 miles an hour in 6.3 seconds. Caution is advised, however, before lighting the fuse. Anything approaching the full application of power produces wicked, almost uncontrollable torque-steer. That’s not uncommon in high-powered front-wheel-drive cars but not something you want to become overly familiar with.

Redesigned for the 2010 model year, the compact Speed3 follows the hot-hatch design formula with its bobbed-tail rear end. From the front, it is distinguished by a hood scoop and a gaping shark’s mouth grille. The test car wore Velocity Red Mica paint, and combined with the expressive body work, it had no difficulty in attracting attention.

The Speed3 carries a reasonable MSRP of $23,340, but loading it up with the tech package (10-speaker sound system, bi-xenon headlights, keyless start), brought the as-tested price to a richer $26,605. One caveat: With its six-speed manual gearbox and high-performance tires wrapped around 18-inch wheels, the Speed3 clearly prefers the open road to the vicissitudes of workaday traffic, and smooth pavement to the chinks and chunks left over from winter’s freezes. When in its element, however, the Speed3 delivered on the promise of its name.

The Mercedes E350 Cabriolet, on the other hand, is perfectly adapted to any road condition — as long as the weather is warm and the sun is shining. This is the cruiser’s convertible: powerful, rock-steady with the roof down, and comfortable for four. It was equipped with a silky seven-speed transmission directing power from its 3.5 liter, 268-horsepower V6 with 258 lb-ft of torque. The fact that those power numbers are almost identical to the MazdaSpeed 3 tells you that the E350 is no drag-racer, but it was perfectly suited to profiling on the Pacific Coast Highway. Driving from Huntington Beach south to San Clemente, passing Maseratis, Bentleys, and a Tesla dealership, the Benz always held its own.

In fact, it did better than that. So many German cars come in silver or black, but the press fleet loaner wore Arctic White on its flanks with a blue canvas top — a striking color scheme that mimicked powerboats nearby in the Newport Beach harbor. I normally avoid white cars because they look as if they just came off the lot at Dollar Rent-A-Car, but not the Benz. The depth and sheen of its paint, combined with the bright chrome fittings on its rear deck, rivaled a Hatteras yacht.

New for 2011, the E350 Cabrio replaces the CLK in Mercedes’ convertible lineup, and its refined design lends an air of dignity — perfectly delivering on the Mercedes brand promise. With an MSRP of $56,850, the car is no bargain, and was even less-so when the usual array of options bumped the as-tested price to $69,475. That’s a big number for a warm-weather car, but in this instance the fit between form and function was so complete that you wanted to overlook the unreality of it all.

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