Driven: Merc’s stunning S-Class Cabrio

Driven: Merc’s stunning S-Class Cabrio

Nice, France – Perhaps the most amazing thing about the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class Cabriolet is that it shifts shape. Not in the mystical Native American sense, where according to the folk lore of “shape-shifting”, a fox can turn into a beautiful young woman, or a US Marshal can become a wolf or a bear. Or whatever.

No, this S-Class Cabriolet can look long and sleek, or bold and compact, depending on your angle of view as you stroll around its achingly elegant extremities. And in fact, when you experience the car from behind the wheel it seems to embody these two apparently polar characteristics, depending on whether you are cruising down the promenade or rushing up to yet another apex of a tortuously-twisty mountain-road bend.

South African journalists lucky enough to attend the international launch of the S-Class Cabriolet last week were to experience both these extremes. Our test route started out as a poseur’s dream as we cruised the beachfronts of Nice before attacking country backroads.

“This is one of the most beautiful and exclusive S-Class models ever,” says Gordon Wagener, head of Design at Daimler AG. “It embodies luxury and is an expression of effortless superiority and progressivity”. That is some statement, given that Mercedes has built some of the most elegant cabriolets in history, particularly the 220 SE model built from 1961 to 1968.

The lines of the 2016 S-Class Cabriolet are so balanced that the car can look small from some angles. This is particularly so when the beautiful three-layer fabric top is erected, a device that is said to offer perhaps the most silent in-car experience of any cabriolet yet built. With the top lowered very swiftly, via effortless electronics and hydraulics, the car’s length of 5044mm becomes apparent.

Its width of 1910 mm is quite attention-grabbing when you are threading your way into mountainous regions above the Cote d’ Azur, passageways that were designed more with Citroën 2CVs in mind. And yet, if more road space and run-off area were available, this would be a car that is remarkably adept at hard braking, cornering fast and accelerating.

In S500 form it employs the beautifully balanced 4633cc bi-turbo V8 that is my favourite of all the S-Class engines. It’s rated at 355kW and 700Nm, seamlessly transmitted to the rear wheels through the excellent nine-speed automatic gearbox known as the 9G-Tronic. The ‘box learns your driving habits continually and adjusts its up-shifts and down-shifts according to behaviour on the throttle.

The ride, on standard-fit air suspension, is suitably wafty. But the dynamics on twisties are satisfying, despite the car weighing more than 2000 kg, because the mass has been so carefully apportioned throughout the car. There’s aluminium in the nose and boot, steel in the ultra-rigid passenger cell, and all manner of electronic devices to prevent brake lock-up, oversteer, understeer or crashing through sheer stupidity. Just like your regular Mercedes S-Class sedan.

The S500 derivative embodies all that is good about what is essentially a rich-person’s whim, effortlessness being its core value. Should you be really stupid and attempt to invert the car, perhaps by driving off a cliff, you can rest assured that the automatic roll-over bar in this one is now actuated by a gas-generator. Nothing as crass as a spring that springs the roll bar into position.

There is no practical reason for buying the S-Class Cabriolet. Because the fabric top’s foldaway compartment needed to be located behind the rear passenger seats, these had to be moved far forward, to the extent that with normally-sized large adults of South African proportions, rear legroom is extremely, er, truncated.

Yee-hah fun

So too with luggage space. Even with the hood erected, there is just 350 litres of “stowable” area, and with the plastic luggage-protector moved automatically into the boot when you lower the roof, this available luggage space reduces to just 250 litres. An acceptable figure for, say, a Hyundai i10, but rather disquieting for a car needing more than five metres of parking-bay length. A classic example of form presiding over function, and all that.

We also tried the Mercedes-AMG S63 4Matic. Just having concluded prior to our lunch stop-over that the 500 was the perfect compromise, it has to be admitted that the S63 is brutal, yee-hah fun. The exhaust note from its 5.5-litre turbocharged V8 is positively rude. Think Nice nightclub at 2am doing doughnuts, rather than genteelly easing into the Grand Hotel Du Cap Ferrat valet area, gently crunching gravel.

Think surprising grip from the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system (35 percent front, 65 percent rear power allocation), and get your head around a 3.9 second 0-100 sprint – in a car weighing 2110 kg!

The S-Class Cabriolet will arrive in South Africa in October, in S500 and S63 (rear-wheel-drive) form. Prices have yet to be finalised. It will be expensive. And the AMG-fettled S63 will be very expensive. This is as it should be.

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