As actors go, Pamela Anderson has a range that runs all the way from A to B. Unlike Meryl Streep, she cannot master a foreign accent or distill a lifetime into a single glance.
And yet Ms. Anderson has certain features that were enough to forge a screen career and pay for a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. A car executive would probably describe her as a stroke of product-planning genius: when Ms. Anderson jogged down the beach in a red swimsuit, her limited thespian range became a non-issue.
With this in mind, let us turn to the Mercedes E-350 cabriolet. As cars go, it was decent enough. The engine was a smooth V6, the stereo was clear, and there was a Mercedes star on the front. But a single feature really defined the car – the top came off. And like Ms. Anderson, whose career was launched when she appeared on a stadium big screen at a B.C. Lions game wearing a tight Labatt’s T-shirt, this was all the Mercedes really needed.
A convertible top makes any car feel faster and more attractive. You are bathed in sunlight, and the wind reminds you that you are actually in motion instead of operating a video game. Like a motorcyclist, you experience the road in a way that others cannot – gusts of lilac and hot tar waft through your open cockpit, carried on the summer breeze.
Not all convertibles are created equal. On one end of the scale are cars like the Ariel Atom, where you ride completely exposed (a helmet is a good idea, lest you take a rock in the head). And on the other end of the scale are convertibles like the luxury-laden E-350, which make topless driving as painless as it can possibly be.
Inside the Mercedes cockpit was an array of buttons that controlled top-down features that would once have been considered the stuff of fantasy. First was the Aircap, a blade-shaped wing that emerges from the top of the windshield to guide the airflow, creating a bubble of still air within the cockpit. In many convertibles you’ll be lucky to keep a cap on your head, but in the E-350, I sat in a zone of miraculous calm – my hair was barely ruffled.
There was also a system called Airscarf – a set of vents that blew warm air around my neck and head, as if I were being pursued by a blow dryer. (The system can also be used for cooling.) To top it off, the seats were filled with tiny holes that could pump cold or warm air. Pure decadence.
Many years ago, I spent time in a decrepit Austin Healey that didn’t have a top of any kind (the canvas had rotted away, so I went without). When it rained, the only options were parking beneath a bridge or driving fast enough to blow the water over my head. When it was cold, I wore a ski jacket, thick gloves and a black balaclava that I had to remove at fuel stops so they wouldn’t think I was robbing the gas station. When it was hot, I doused myself with water from a plastic bottle.
Given my ascetic driving history, the E-350 came as a reminder of how far engineers have pushed every aspect of performance, including comfort. Back in the day, I suffered for my top-down art. I froze, I roasted, and I was deluged. But not in the Mercedes – it was hard to imagine that a topless car could be so dry and warm (or dry and cool, depending on the weather). In a week of driving, I raised the top only once (when I left the car parked outdoors on a night that looked like rain).
When I drive a test car, I usually take extensive notes on various aspects of its features and performance, and clock the fuel mileage for comparison purposes. But with the E-350, I ignored all documentation and simply drove it with the top down every day, amazed that I could. The trunk space was limited by the space required for the convertible top, and the weight of the additional features hurt performance a bit, but who was thinking about that? The Mercedes was like Ms. Anderson – limited range, but with a defining feature that rendered all else irrelevant. I’m an Audrey Hepburn fan myself, but you get the point.
For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)
Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/