Review: Topless in France with the 2017 S-Class Cabriolet

Whether the S 63 or the S 550, the S-Class Cabriolet drives with an unprecedented combination of performance and luxury.

19 seconds. That’s how long it takes for the Mercedes Benz S-Class Cabriolet to transform from a docile, luxurious soft-domed coupe to a chrome-fanged, open-air dream cruiser. Its top sneaks down subtly, wryly, like Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man. It practically intones, “Are you ready?” as it baits you with LED side-eye. One moment it’s something genteel and the next it’s deserving of every superlative. Wait to start the engine until after the top is down, by the way — the AMG S 63 barks on command.

On a drive across the Riviera, the car drew looks from everyone: a Frenchman on the Promenade de Anglais proposing a one-sided trade for his Citroen C15; an herb-foraging duo in Montaroux, gleefully waving from the side of the road; construction workers in a cliff-carved village near Les Arcs, hollering jokes as they shored up a patch of asphalt. The car even turned heads on a slow crawl through Cannes, still special even in a locale where vehicles of its class are common.

“It’s the easiest car to explain to people,” one Mercedes development head said. “They just look at it and go, ‘Wow.'” Mercedes did declare 2016 “The Year of the Dream Car,” after all, and the S-Class Cabriolet fits in perfectly. The car carries the smoldering torch for the iconic, elegant 220 SE Cabriolet, a classic car last made in 1971 that can fetch around $300,000 in auction today. The bright minds in Stuttgart took 45 years to bring another open-air, two-door four-seater to market, so perfection is expected, and delivered. Getting in the driver’s seat of a cabriolet like this changes a person — it changed me. I mused on why the S-Class Cabriolet and its fantasy-car ilk exist — if not to feed our own egos, to elevate us, to remind of us luxury we didn’t know we needed but can’t seem to live without? The S-Class Cabriolet has an easy way of fueling an inflated sense of self. A man possessed by opulence, I took to the roads.

I found that the car’s moniker is not just symbolic. It is dripping in luxury like its S-Class siblings, each feature translated to thrive in a convertible. Like the S-Class coupe, the Cabriolet is a feat of physics and noise reduction, but it’s even more vital here as the car shoves air over the windshield, offering only a whispering whoosh as the byproduct. Even sans roof, the cabin is quiet enough to hold a normal conversation. As a driver, your body wants for naught. The Airscarf headrest warms your neck. The steering wheel heats your hands, as the armrest does your appendages. The massage feature soothes your back. And yes, the Aircap protects your coif.

2017 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Cabriolet

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Engine: Twin-turbocharged, 4.7-liter V8; twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V8
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Horsepower: 449; 577
Torque: 516 lb-ft; 664 lb-ft
0-60: 4.5-3.9 seconds
Drive System: Rear-wheel-drive; four-wheel-drive
MSRP: S 550, $131,400; AMG S 63, $176,400

The climate control is the pinnacle of perception, using 12 sensors and 18 actuators to detect sunlight and humidity and hold temperature accordingly. No need to adjust when going topless either — the Thermotronic HVAC is smart enough to do it for you. The three-layered soft-top convertible can be operated by keychain or by button in the center console at speeds of up to 37 mph. It stretches tightly when closed, fitting “like a nice bikini,” as one designer said. And though there may be some jockeying for legroom, the car and its 117-inch wheelbase can legitimately accommodate four adults. As another Mercedes rep beautifully put it, “Design is never just an end in itself.” There is function embedded in all this luxury — most notably in the engine.

The AMG S 63 offers a 577-horsepower, 5.5-liter V8 bi-turbo engine with 664 lb-ft of torque (!) while the S 550 is powered by a duly capable 449-horsepower, 4.7-liter V8 with 516 lb-ft of torque. The AMG offers a mind-numbing 0-60 time of 3.9 seconds and the S 550 clocks in at a more than adequate 4.5 seconds. (Toll booth stops have rarely bred such anticipation.) The car is wide, sure, and heavy, yes, but it never lumbers. On narrow French roads, the handling is nimble and firm. The air suspension delivers S-Class-quality comfort in standard mode, but cedes to boyish aggression in sport mode, releasing the exhaust flaps to sound an emotive bellow from the engine. The AMG gets the proactive, anxious MCT 7-speed automatic transmission while the S 550 has the more palatable, forgiving 9G-Tronic 9-speed transmission.

“It’s the easiest car to explain to people,” one Mercedes development head said. “They just look at it and go, ‘Wow.'”

The AMG S 63 adds to its embarrassment of riches with ceramic brakes and 4Matic AWD with rear-biased torque distribution. Whether the S 63 or the S 550, the S-Class Cabriolet drives with an unprecedented combo of performance and luxury. It has power that will pin you to your seat, and elegance that might put a passenger to sleep, were their driver not so tempted to find the redline. Where the Bentley Continental GTC and the Rolls-Royce Dawn may come across staid, and the BMW 6-Series might slot as pedestrian, this car sits in a white space. Inasmuch as a car of this price can be effortless, the S-Class Cabrio is.

A Mercedes rep practically laughed when I asked how many the company expected to sell when the car hits dealerships in late spring. He made it clear: exclusivity, not volume, is the focus. With a starting price of $176,400 for the AMG S 63 and $131,400 for the S 550, I see his point. As I turned in my keys, dropped my press badge in the hotel trashcan and made the transatlantic trudge back to my daily driver, my day in the S-Class Cabriolet stayed firmly burned in my mind. In this car, I was drunk on luxury, high on power, and in sober reflection, it seems no other hit will compare. Dreams, after all, are fleeting.

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