Car Reviews

2017 Mercedes-AMG S63 Cabriolet first drive: The land yacht, redefined

Mercedes-AMG S 63 Cabriolet (A 217), 2015

Mercedes builds a big convertible worthy of the S-Class name. Climb aboard.

Mercedes-Benz, with the introduction of the 2017 S-Class Cabriolet, has at last succeeded at developing an S-Class for every conceivable corner of the market: Grand touring coupe to uber-luxe limousine — even, if we’re willing to run with the new nomenclature system, an SUV in the form of the recently rechristened GLS — Stuttgart’s got you covered.

From its Burmester sound system to road imperfection-erasing Magic Body Control suspension to adaptive drive tech (it’s getting to be within spitting distance of autonomy), the S-Classmates work tirelessly to isolate drivers and occupants from the pavement beneath them — or at least the most aggravating aspects of it.

We now arrive at the new S-Class Cabriolet, the first convertible variant of a Mercedes-Benz luxury flagship since the W111 cabrio went out of production in 1971. Unlike the rest of the lineup, the cabriolet is designed to let a little bit of the world into the leather-swathed and (literally) perfumed sanctum sanctorum that is its cabin, though it goes without saying that it happens on your schedule and on your terms.

Save for the top, there are no big surprises here. Dimensionally, the Cabriolet is identical to the S-Class Coupe, and like the two-door hardtop it comes in three major flavors: The S550 (known as the S500 in the Euro market), Mercedes-AMG S63 and the Mercedes-AMG S65. The first two get turbocharged V8s (4.7-liters and 5.5-liters, respectively), while the last gets the range-topping 6.0-liter V12.

The S550 comes with a nine-speed automatic; the Affalterbach cars are equipped with the familiar AMG SpeedShift seven-speed auto, which trades its torque converter for a wet clutch, plus mandatory 4Matic all-wheel drive.

When you do decide to lower the three-layer acoustic soft top (in 20 seconds and at speeds of up to 37 mph), there are familiar features like Airscarf to keep your precious neck warm, plus Aircap, a sort of windshield-mounted extendable foil that diverts air around the cabin at speed.

It destroys the elegant lines of the car when deployed — which is to say that it looks stupid — but it means you hold can comfortable conversations while driving at 80 mph. This is still an S-Class, after all.

The new S-Class Cabriolet Press Test Drive, Cap-Ferrat 2016

The S63 Cabrio mid-transformation. The process takes 20 seconds and can be done at speeds up to 37 mph.

What’s it like to drive?

You don’t normally want to think of a car as boaty, especially a performance-tinged luxury car, but there’s something about the S-Class Cabriolet — maybe the proportions, maybe the French Riviera setting in which we experienced it — that inspires the comparison.

We’re obviously not talking about a cumbersome pontoon boat or a trashed bow-rider here. Picture instead a rakish Riva runabout: You hop in, immediately stow the top and just listen to the engine burble. You take off smoothly, confidently, maybe on the way to someplace or maybe going nowhere in particular — convertibles, like boats, are as great to cruise around in aimlessly.

Either way, the point is that this is a craft that’s more about relaxed, confident enjoyment than it is about wringing every iota of power out of the motor or every bit of grip out of the tires. That goes for both the S550 and the S63 Cabriolets, because as we said about the S63 Coupe, even the Affalterbach interpretation is far from rabid.

Since power from the S550’s 4.7-liter V8 is more than adequate, we’d say this has to do with the Airmatic air suspension. The AMG version is never jarring or harsh, even in the firmer “sport” setting, and you’re well insulated from road imperfections whether you’re in “sport” or “comfort.” But you’ll notice the difference in compliance between the two models the in the middle of the first sequence of twisting road you come across.

It’s not a lack of harshness that tells you you’re no longer piloting the S63, because, again, the S63 is never harsh. Rather, it’s the greater degree of side-to-side roll the S550 permits as you flow through corners, the wheels staying perfectly planted all the while. Think of it as the difference between that classic Riva and a more relaxed pleasure cruiser.

The new S-Class Cabriolet Press Test Drive, Cap-Ferrat 2016

The S63 Cabriolet can do 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds. Is that the point of this car? Nah, but it’s good to have the option.

Because of this (and as with the Coupe), we’d recommend the S63 over the base model if you every want to enjoy this car at something approaching speed. Even with that punchy 577-hp V8 underhood, though, the car doesn’t goad you into pushing the limit. You can go as fast as you want to, up to an electronically limited speed of 155 mph, at least, but you’re never going to coax more than a restrained brap out of the AMG-built V8.

Likewise, you can work your way up and down the AMG-specific multi-clutch automatic’s seven speeds, using the paddle-shifters if you wise; you’ll never enjoy the crisp, hard changes of a true DCT, but it works nearly as smoothly as the S550’s nine-speed when allowed to shift on its own.

Again, though, hard shifts are simply not what this car is about (though we’d bet you could give you and three passengers a hell of a surprise on a track). Any convertible, no matter how humble, can be just perfect in the right setting, so it’s no shocker that this one is as good at bringing you completely into your surroundings as a vaultlike S-class sedan is at shutting them out.

Of course, all this goes out the window once you leave the highway and creep into some quaint French mountain town or chic seaside village, what with the oblivious pedestrians, antagonistic Peugeot 205 drivers and narrow streets lined with granite curbs apparently engineered to eat expensive and optional 20-inch forged rims. Old World charm and large automobiles don’t always mix comfortably, and there’s no way around it: This is a big car. Which is part of its appeal, at least in our eyes.

When it all gets to be too much, it’s nice to put the top up and transport yourself, temporarily, into a serene S-Class Coupe, perfume wafting from the optional fragrance atomizer, your mind free to focus on dodging those curbs.

The new S-Class Cabriolet Press Test Drive, Cap-Ferrat 2016

Inside, the S-Class levels of refinement you’ve come to expect.

Do I want it?

It goes without saying that anyone in the market for a $150,000 convertible has options — or at least that’s what we typically say at this point in the review. Thing is, there simply aren’t too many cars like this in this particular open-topped corner of the market.

The likes of the BMW 6-Series and Porsche 911 convertibles are too sporty (and not expensive enough) to directly compete; the Bentley Continental GT convertible has an enviable cachet of its own but drags around a load of tech that, compared to Benz’s space-age suite, feels almost Edwardian; the Rolls-Royce Dawn, price and attitude-wise, occupies another realm entirely.

No, this is something different — very much the sort of cutting-edge, exclusive open-top tourer a leading American luxury car manufacturer might have once built, and may yet build again, but doesn’t build now.

Executed with the sort of elegance and competence you’d expect from an S-Class, there’s nothing else quite like it on the market, though after driving it in the Mediterranean sun, we can’t fathom why.

The new S-Class Cabriolet Press Test Drive, Cap-Ferrat 2016

The S63 Cabriolet, seen here contemplating its position in the luxury convertible market.


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