Unique AIRCAP system reduces turbulence
by: JAIME VALDEZ, Sharp lines, stunning performance, luxury appointments and a drop top – who can ask for more?

The engineers behind the convertible version of the new Mercedes E550 thought of everything.

The fabric top goes up and down with the simple touch of an electronic switch, of course.

But it also includes an airfoil that rises from the windshield when the top is down that reduces wind turbulence and helps keep your hair from mussing. Called AIRCAP Automatic Draft-Stop, is also goes up and down at the touch of a switch.

On top of that, a small vent just below the head rests on the front seats will blow warm air on your neck if you feel too cold.

And if the sun is too warm with the top down, the front leather seats can be electronically cooled to keep you from overheating.

And the rest of the car isn't too bad, either.

That was supposed to be a joke. The Mercedes E-Class is considered one of the best car lines in the world - fast, comfortable, stylish, safe and loaded with the most advanced high-tech features.

The E550 Cabriolet is arguable the finest four-passenger convertible ever built. Whether the top is up or down, it drives like a sports car. The aluminum 5.5-liter V8 pumps out 382 horsepower, enough to reach 60 mph from a dead stop in just over 5 seconds. The sophisticated seven-speed automatic transmission includes both manual stick and steering wheel-mounted paddle shift modes. The sport suspension setting is sporty and so is the comfort suspension setting. And the four-wheel disc brakes are big enough to keep everything under control.

The exterior and interior of the E550 are both works of art. The body is sleek and sexy, with the sharply-raked nose flowing back to bulging rear fenders. The dash and center console are smartly-designed and outfitted with fine leather, high-quality plastic and tasteful wood trim pieces. Our test model was equipped with the optional premium entertainment and navigation package that did everything short of parking the car for you.

Driving the E550 Cabriolet briskly with the top down on a summer day is one of the great automotive experiences available today. And put the top up only reduces the fun a little bit.

Anyone who reads car reviews on a regular basis knows what comes next - the writer's caveats. After heaping praise on a test car, automotive writers then come up with a few criticisms to prove their objectively. Well, we have them too - and perhaps surprisingly, they concern the convertible top, the Cabriolet's reason for being.

For one thing, the top is so thick that it reduces front seat headroom, especially for drivers with shorter legs. There is remarkably little wind noise with the top up, thanks in large part to the efficient windshield latches that are built into a thick plastic pad at the leading edge of the top. But the pad extends back into the cab several inches, reducing the headroom there.

The AIRCAP system also has its drawbacks. The airfoil works as advertised, directing the airflow over both the front and rear passengers, even at freeway speeds. But it only makes a significant difference when the windows are up, which is not the best way to drive a convertible. When the widows are down, wind turbulence is the same as any other drop-top car.

The AIRCAP system also include a screen between the rear seat headrests that helps redirect the airflow. Unfortunately, the screen also reduces rear visibility, even though it is made of mesh.

And of course the storage space for the top reduces the size of the trunk, but that's true of every convertible.

Rear seat room is also limited, making them best for children. That's true of just about every other four-seater convertible, too, though.

Perhaps surprising, the luxury four-seater convertible market is getting a little crowded there days. Competitors include the Audi A5 Cabriolet, the

BMW 3-series convertible, the Jaguar XK convertible, the Lexus SC430, and the Saab 9-3 convertible. Some cost more, some cost less than the E500 Cabriolet's suggested retail price of $64,800. It's hard to believe you could get more car for your money, though.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 E550 Cabriolet.

• Manufacturer: Mercedes-Benz

• Class: Convertible sport sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive.

• Style: Coupe.

• Engines: 5.5 liter V8 (382 hp, 391 lb ft).

• Transmissions: 7-speed automatic with sport, economy and manual shift modes and steering wheel-mounted shift paddles.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 15/22.

• Price: Beginning at $64,800 ($74,875 as tested).

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