The Mercedes-Benz Ocean Drive is nothing more than a long-wheelbase, V-12-powered S-class. Actually, it's something less than that, because its roof has been sliced off, but that makes all the difference. When was the last time you drove a four-door convertible, one that oozes elegance and style from every angle? If you're like me, probably never. Most people have never even sat in a four-door convertible. So what if the Ocean Drive is held together with Elmer's Glue and a prayer, a fragile prototype that I can drive no more than 20 mph? California, here I come.
The gatehouse guard nods, pushes a button, and motions me toward the black iron gate, which slowly retreats into the shrubbery, exposing the entrance to Ocean Heights, a collection of palatial homes nestled into the hills above the Pacific. The gate track is a narrow strip of steel laid into the concrete. A minor bump in the road for most vehicles, it's a considerable threat to the delicate Ocean Drive. The dampers are on the blink, and impacts with the uneven paving stones in the Ocean Heights entry drive already have sent the car all a-jiggle. I ease the ragtop over the track at what seems like a cautious pace, but the twenty-one-inch wheels scuttle roughly over the dimpled surface. Ralf, the Mercedes engineer who's riding shotgun and who spent most of 2006 helping craft the Ocean Drive, is not amused.
"Sir!" he practically shouts. "We will have trouble if you drive fast. Please keep your speed to 30 kilometers per hour."
Feeling a bit chagrined, I concentrate on alternately glancing at the speedometer, scanning intersections for daydreaming pool boys who might run a stop sign and plow into the Ocean Drive, and ogling the lushly landscaped, modernist houses. Would the people who live in them want to descend the hill to the Pacific Coast Highway in something as bling-tastic as the Ocean Drive? There's no telling, since the only signs of life are from a construction crew, but the big Benz clicks with that particular demographic. "Awesome car!" one worker yells. I would be willing to bet that the Ocean Drive also would have made quite a splash at dinner last night at the hyperhip Mastro's Ocean Club Fish House down on the Pacific Coast Highway, where a Bentley Continental Flying Spur idled in the valet lane.
Ralf seems to have calmed down, so I take stock of his baby. At 20 mph, the Ocean Drive is making a shameful waste of that lovely 510-hp, twin-turbo V-12 murmuring under the hood. Its effortless reserves of torque would make it the perfect engine for production, though. The steering seems lighter than that of a stock S-class, not that I'm giving it any fast inputs. The car doesn't feel like a bowl full of jelly, even though its body has not been reinforced like it will be if it's brought to production, and the cowl is reasonably rigid.
It's too soon in the Ocean Drive's gestation to worry about such mundane matters as structural rigidity and chassis composure. The question at hand is whether or not this car has the aura and the street presence to merit production. It does, in spades. Mercedes-Benz's Irvine, California, design studio, led by Gorden Wagener, smoothed away all of the S-class sedan's clunky curves, fitted an imposing pointed grille that's both more upright and one-third bigger than the one in the S-class, and coated the whole delicious thing in two-tone metallic paint.
It is a big car--more than seventeen feet long--and it has four doors, but the Ocean Drive almost reads as a coupe when it wafts by you on the street, thanks to its raked windshield and the slimming effect of its flowing shoulder line. Even when its long, thickly padded fabric top is raised (a completely automatic process, of course), the Ocean Drive looks svelte and elegant.
The interior was designed at Mercedes-Benz's Como, Italy, studio. It's awash in matte-finish birds-eye maple, gorgeously stitched leather, and open-weave, cream-colored fabric that's applied to the seat inserts, the doors, and the instrument panel. The square-bottomed steering wheel is nice but perhaps a little race-car-ish for this application. The instrument binnacle, the arc of climate-control buttons, and the seat controls are all from the S-class. The rear-seat area is ideal for exhibitionist hedonists, with plenty of foot and legroom, excellent sight lines, and DVD screens. The center console houses a bottle of champagne and two flutes, a prestige-car affectation that has become a clich.
The Ocean Drive is a desirable bauble, sure to curry favor in South Beach, the Cte d'Azur, and anywhere else in the world where sunshine, sea breezes, beautiful people, and money converge. Mercedes-Benz is coy about whether it will be produced, but apparently there are no insurmountable technical challenges. Sources within Stuttgart indicate that the Ocean Drive originally was intended to be a Maybach, but clearly, this vehicle is too cool to be affiliated with that floundering brand. (The party line is that Mercedes has a history of building four-door droptops--a mint 1960 300D was on hand to drive home the point--and that's why the Ocean Drive got a three-pointed star. Mmm-hmmm.) Mercedes made the right branding decision, and it should go ahead and build the Ocean Drive. I'd sure like to drive one faster than 20 mph.