Along with the invention of the modern automobile, we also have the Germans to thank for Birkenstocks. Actually, it was just one German named Karl.
In the early 1960’s Mr. Birkenstock, heir to a centuries-old family shoemaking tradition, decided that it would be a good idea to strap a couple of pieces of leather onto a hunk of cork and, voila, the drum circle was born. What’s not known is exactly who the first person was to wear a pair of his footwear with socks. Adherents to this visually questionable fashion statement claim that it offers the best of both worlds: the usually exclusive properties of ventilation and warmth.
Now another German has taken the same concept and applied it to an automobile. Many Germans, actually; heirs to the century-old carmaking tradition of another man by the name of Karl, and more commonly known as the Mercedes-Benz engineering team,
The car is the 2011 E-Class Cabriolet, and the development is called AirCap. Activated by a button hidden in the armrest, the unique system is comprised of a deflector that rises a few inches from the top of the windshield and a mesh pane that covers the gap in between the two. Its purpose is to redirect the flow of oncoming air up and over the cabin to decrease the turbulence inside, creating a cocoon of comfort even at highway speeds.
Another wind blocker can be inserted between rear seat headrests to further enhance the feature's effectiveness, and the entire package is adjustable up or down depending on who, if anyone, is sitting back there. To experience AirCap’s maximum potential you can also close all four windows, which turns the E Cabriolet into the world’s first virtual hardtop car.
At this point - with the deflector deployed, windows up and roof down - you also find yourself behind the wheel of something a bit ungainly-looking. It's unfortunate, because the E Cabriolet is an otherwise deftly designed car that combines a somewhat menacing countenance with a light touch that gives it the presence of a Ford Mustang that’s been to the tailor. It is a knockout at dusk with all of its LEDs and HID lights turned on and the chiseled bodywork reflecting the last bit of sunlight. Fortunately, that its beauty is somewhat diminished when using AirCap is less of an issue from behind the wheel.
More so is the realization that it works…a little. There’s no fanfare or chorus of angels when you hit the button, but a tall driver will notice the couple of extra inches of toupee-safe headroom available. Likewise, shorter rear seat passengers will appreciate not being entirely disheveled from the neck up when they arrive at the restaurant. As an option, it’d be tough to justify the extra expenditure for AirCap - as it is, the wind in the car is pretty subdued without it - but since it comes standard, who can complain?
More telling by its inclusion is that, unlike nearly every convertible known to man, there’s enough room in the back of the E Cabriolet for people to actually sit there. Granted, it’s not coast-to-coast comfortable, but for a night on the town, the more the merrier.
That said, this is driver-focused car and, top up or down, it delivers in spades. The model I tested at length was an E550 powered by a 382 hp 5.5-liter V8 (a 268 hp 3.5-liter V6 is also available) and the earlier comparison to a Mustang isn’t too far off the mark here, either. This is Mercedes’ pony car. Granted, with plebes like Ford’s finest cracking the 400 hp barrier these days, 382 hp doesn’t sound particularly impressive, but 99% of the time it’s oh, I don’t know, about 114 hp more than you need (i.e., the V6 is more than adequate).
With thrust firmly covered, a very solid body structure and an active suspension with electronically-controlled dampers take care of the handling and comfort balance. Only the worst potholes cause anything resembling body flex or creaks, and there exist hardtops that don’t fare much better. On anything smoother than a speed bump you’ll hear no argument from the car, or be disturbed in the excellent bucket seats, which are incidentally outfitted with another Mercedes innovation called AirScarf that blows hot air down your shoulders so that you can drive with the top down into the long, cold night.
What’s next, AirUmbrella? (Don’t even think about it without talking to my lawyer, Mercedes-Benz).
When you finally give in and put the top up, it’s surprising how well it keeps out the noise, as well as the wind, for one made of fabric, rather than a rigid retractable roof. This design decision allows the E Cabriolet to retain a reasonably useful trunk that has plenty of room for a couple of pieces of carry-on luggage and the requisite golf bag that M-B’s stereotypical M.D.-endowed owners cherish so much.
There’s also a ski pass-through hidden behind the rear seat armrest, which is remarkable for a convertible. Under it is one of many, many speakers scattered inside and outside of the cabin - the two behind the rear headrests finding themselves hanging loose on the rear deck when the roof is down – that offer more than enough sonic power to combat the elements.
Not all is perfect, however. The design of the dashboard is as uninspired as the exterior is snazzy. It’s angular and plain, and at this price - $65,675 to start – some leather would be appreciated. There’s also the matter of the steering wheel, which feels great in your hands but is noticeably off-center from the instrument panel. This is a huge pet peeve of mine and at this price…well, you get the picture.
Nitpicks aside, the driver definitely has the best seat in the house. Visibility is fantastic, even with the top closed. Those engineers did a great job of minimizing blind spots – the shape of the roof is nearly identical to the one on the hardtop – and there’s a backup camera available to fill in the blanks. The only problem with it is that it won't work unless you have the screen for the COMAND infotainment system already turned on, which is a bit of a turn-off.
You can also use the display to watch DVDs, but only when the car’s parked, which I’ve never really wanted to do. Then again, I suppose you can skip dinner, pull over somewhere nice, drop the top and turn the E Cabriolet into a very small drive-in movie theater.
Just hope that it’s not windy out, because AirCap doesn’t do much good when the car is standing still - unless your space is pointing directly into the wind.
Bring socks...and a sweater.
2011 Mercedes-Benz E550 Convertible
Base Price: $65,675
Type: 4-passenger, 2-door convertible.
Engine: 5.5-liter V8
Power: 382 hp, 391 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
MPG: 15 city/22 hwy
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.