Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2017 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Cabriolet

Framed by a single arch of Roman aqueduct, a vast and gorgeous beast rests momentarily beside a mountain road. Here's the contrast between categories of man-made beauty: that which last centuries, and that which is soon made redundant by the constantly onrushing future. The brickwork is timeless, the satin-finish paintwork only a momentary joy when you stretch the time out to the framework of centuries.

Holy sweet Mary mother of acceleration is this the right car for making the most of limited time.

Brief as the spring morning, brief as the blossoming wisteria, brief as the temporarily traffic-free stillness. Better act fast then – and holy sweet Mary mother of acceleration is this the right car for making the most of limited time.

Once, the S-class Mercedes was the finest car you could buy. Mercedes would probably like you to believe that such is still the case, but there's plenty of competition out there. The Volkswagen auto group has Bentley. BMW has Rolls-Royce. Almost everyone offers a large, luxurious saloon car in a range of body styles.

However, the current S-class has one clear advantage: it doesn't look like a thoughtless heap of sheetmetal thrown together by bling-addled dingbats. Have you seen, for instance, the Bentley Mulsanne? It's the world's most expensive Kia Amanti. And then there's something like the BMW 6 Series cabriolet, which is pretty good until you put the top up, a top which looks like what happens every time I try to fold a fitted sheet.

But the S-class, particularly the AMG model, is just wonderful. Speaking personally, I prefer my convertibles to be skittery little sports machines, but this top-down land dreadnought is as appealing as it is large. The upwardly-curving chrome side strip on the standard model is a bit goofy, but the matte-finish S 63 I drove was utterly stunning. (Don't ever buy matte paint though, matte paint is for people who like washing their car every 15-20 minutes and enjoy being terrified by pigeons.)

This cabriolet version is the latest body style to join the S-class range. Fans of elegant bratwurst now have six different types of sausages to enjoy, from the who-ordered-a-footlong Mercedes-Maybach Pullman, to this new open-faced frankfurter on a bun. There's also a sleek new four-door variant reportedly on the way, another salvo in Germany's continuing assault on the word “coupe.”

Inside, things are about as good as they are on the outside. Despite this being an AMG product, and thus of supposed sporting intent, the seats are nearly as comfortable as those you'd find in a Citroën DS21. For the record, that's a German car, in the South of France, nearly managing to out-French the French.

Like the coupe version of the S-class, the dash of the cabriolet is dominated by two giant, high-resolution screens. Both are bright and easy to use, and didn't seem to suffer from any reflection issues in the Mediterranean sunshine. The rest of the controls were likewise easy to use, including Mercedes long line of buttons for controlling heating and cooling functions; the Comand rotary dial control continues to have a bit of a learning curve. The Burmester stereo is capable and attractive looking, marred only by the lightly gauche “High End” script you get if you opt for the better version.

This is a car capable of perfuming the air, hot-stone massaging your rump, blowing warm air on your neck, and very nearly driving itself thanks to a suite of semi-autonomous technologies. I put the key in the ignition, and we set off.

Wait. Key? Ignition?

Yes, despite an eye-watering pricetag, the S 63 first driven didn't have the keyless start option you now get as standard on a basic Hyundai. The S-class allows for an incredible degree of personalisation, from leather swatches to dash inserts, but this is one option box you shouldn't leave unchecked.

Anyway, off we set, dropping the top and deploying the front and rear wind screens to create a relatively breeze-free cabin. You can lower the soft top at up to 50 km/h, the better to let everyone in town see the smug look on your face.

Smug, or perhaps actually anxious. The S-class is no dented diesel Euro-hatch, and piloting one through the lunacy of French traffic feels a bit like carrying a porcelain aircraft carrier through a shooting gallery. Again, don't go for the matte paint. Is there maybe a Nerf option?

Once out on the motorway and freed from the scourge of suicidal scooters, the S-class displayed its supremacy at open-road cruising. It's utterly effortless to drive, despite the size, and the briefest tickle of the throttle stirs the twin-turbocharged V8 into action.

There are two such bi-turbo V8s to choose from: the S 550 gets a 4.7L powerplant making 455 hp from 5,250-5,500 rpm, and 516 l-ft of torque from 1,800-3,500; the more powerful S 63 gets a 5.5L unit with 585 hp at 5,500 rpm, and 664 lb-ft of torque from 2,250-3,750 rpm. The normal S-class gets a nine-speed transmission, while the AMG uses a more performance-tuned seven-speed automatic.

As you might expect, either engine offers easy motorway passing, with the easily accessible torque giving way to a relentless turbocharged thrust. Even with the windows all up and the air-break deployed, it feels like this big M-B will only top out some time after your head blows off.

However, crossing Europe quickly isn't about high-speed antics – you'll merely end up sampling the cuisine in the local slammer. Instead, the S-class makes distances and traffic effortless with its range of semi-autonomous features. As you might expect from the class of car that once led the world in available technology, the S-class does this stuff better than most. The lane-keeping assist is smooth in its application of steering input, and the stop-and-go functionality of the automated cruise control is like a distillation of trained chauffeur. As befits a pleasure craft of this size and prestige, it feels like you have a little robot crew along with you for the voyage.

Both open-topped variants of the S-class weigh more than 2,000 kg and are buoyed by air suspension, but this doesn't hamper the performance even as we leave the motorway for some twistier French roads. Now fitted with all-wheel-drive for better traction in putting down the power, the AMG variant is a relentless powerboat. Small, diesel-powered French hatchbacks are merely amuse-bouches for its lunging passing power.

And really, I'm not sure why you wouldn't go for the AMG. The standard version is not really any more comfortable, even over lumpier pavement, and the S 63 is perfectly happy to burble along and then roar into action when called upon. It'd be a bit like owning a lion: regal presence, most of the day spent loafing around, explosively feral performance when you want it.

Speaking of which, yet another reason to go for the droptop emerges anytime you flex your right foot. Turbocharging, all-wheel-drive, direct injection: many technologies have been harnessed to make the AMG variants of Mercedes easier to drive and tamer in day-to-day operation. However, they haven't touched the noise this thing makes, and it's like a Tyrannosaur gargling mouthwash: powerful, mildly terrifying, minty-fresh.

In short, oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz? I am ready to give up my Skip Barber caged-Miata dreams and settle down in the south of France beneath the spreading wisteria blooms. The sun will warm my bones here, far from the Canadian winter, and when I get bored I can simply drive to Switzerland in a convertible intercontinental ballistic missile with heated seats.

You can keep your twenty-five footer with its spinnaker sails. I prefer my yacht with wheels, a V8, and a Mercedes badge up front.