TRIESTE, Italy — When you set off from Munich chasing the mid-March sun in a car that cries out for the open sky like the 2017 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Cabriolet does, the only direction to go is south, over the Alps. But where after that? Spain’s Costa del Sol is too far, and the French Riviera is still hibernating. Instead we point the Benz drop-top east toward Trieste and the northern Adriatic coast.
The S500 convertible we’ve secured for our journey (which will be badged S550 here in the U.S.) seems as hush-quiet as the S-Class coupe up to 125 mph on the German autobahn. Thanks to its comprehensively insulated triple-layer fabric top that can go up or down at speeds of up to 37 mph, redesigned door and window seals, and sandwich glass, wind and road noise are very well suppressed. At a reported 4,663 pounds, the air-sprung Benz certainly is heavy enough to ride well, even when fitted with soft-compound 19-inch winter tires.
After a five-hour journey through the Alps and into northern Italy, the S-Class cabrio’s soft-top cocoon finally breaks its shell at the Monfalcone exit, close to Trieste and the Slovenian border. From one moment to the next, crisp fresh air grabs you by the lungs, the cabin’s artificially generated 72 degrees drop by half as low-hanging clouds loom above. The olfactory glands are stimulated by authentic scents rather than the pre-fabricated in-dash fragrance dubbed Pacific Mood: young fennel from a roadside field, the salty perfume of a nearby estuary.
When the top comes down, driver and front-seat passenger are treated to splendid elemental isolation. No fewer than 12 sensors and 18 electric motors adjust the air flow and temperature to one’s personal preference. The captain may select from three A/C modes (diffuse, medium, focus) and five different footwell temperature settings. Extra money buys neck warmers as well as heating elements in the steering wheel, center console, and door panels. Rear-seat denizens don’t get nearly the same treatment, although it helps when you specify your topless S-Class with Aircap, a combination of self-extending wind deflector net on top of the windscreen and a mesh device that pops up behind the rear seats.
Downtown Trieste itself is a shark basin infested by kamikaze scooters, vans long past their expiration date, and could-not-care-less city buses. Attack is often the best defense in a vehicular morass like this, and the S-Class Cabriolet, with its 4.7-liter, 449-hp twin-turbo V-8 with 516 lb-ft of torque on tap at an early 1,800 rpm, routed through Benz’s nine-speed transmission, will happily go on the offensive when necessary and can hit 60 mph in an impressive 4.5 seconds.
Our Espresso Metallic road boat with the Cream Designo interior and the shiny Riva-inspired woodwork is perceived as from a different planet here, an unabashed symbol of affluence. It’s also a revenue-creating business magnet for parking attendants, the Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza, street vendors hugging busy intersections, and customs officers. To be eventually let off the hook requires the odd smoky burnout, a 40-second roof-up/roofdown demonstration, and in the case of a certain finanziere, a quick ride from one barrier to the next.
Maneuvering through the steep lanes of the former Austrian navy base is a permanent threat to the car’s wide tires, shiny alloys, low-flying air deflectors, and voluminous exhausts. Paved with cobblestones and structured by ramps of all angles, the old part of town is the perfect proving ground to test the improved multi-camera surveillance system and the air suspension, which generates roughly 1.2-inches in crawling height when required. In theory, the on-board chips will also search, find, and occupy a parking spot if you desire. In reality, however, most streets are so narrow here that 1 inch closer to the curb makes all the difference between having and not having a side mirror.
But despite its impressive level of craftsmanship and high-tech wizardry, we do have a few protestations. For a start, the S-Class convertible uses the same front-end and rear-end design as the coupe. Not a problem, one would think. Trouble is, the very same makeup is about to filter down to the C- and E-Class coupes/convertibles. This cost-saving strategy will make it difficult to tell the three products apart, just as the new E-Class is visually too close for comfort to the C-Class.
The next criticism the S-Class cab must face is its compromised packaging. Why is it that the most expensive S-Class derivative is not based on the standard or long wheelbase S-Class sedan models? Rear legroom is severely handicapped when the front seats are pushed all the way back, and the luggage compartment is barely adequate. The best or nothing? We see room for improvement.
That said, its aluminum-intensive architecture is quantifiably stiffer, safer, and lighter, and in terms of infotainment and assistance systems, there is simply no other soft-top quite like it. Although the standard specification is generous, one can still spend thousands on color and trim alone. And if you’re looking for even more power and panache, there’s the 577 hp Mercedes-AMG S63 4MATIC or the monstrous S65 model powered by AMG’s new 621 hp, 6.0-liter V-12, a car that puts you squarely in Bentley GTC territory.
While the Slovenian border crossing only 5 miles southeast of Trieste is a casual wave-through affair, Croatian officials want to see the papers and inspect the trunk. To convince them that the receptacle for the folded convertible stack is not a secret lair for white rabbits, we close the roof and – voilà — the apparition disappears like magic. Both countries charge toll for the use of their autoceste, which explains why there is almost no traffic, so we have the gray ribbons virtually to ourselves.
Given its dimensions, the top-notch cabrio from Sindelfingen does not feel like an excessively big car. Its steering may not be overly rapid and is a touch on the light side, but precision, self-centering, feedback, and holding forces are spot on. The calibration of the brakes also matches the character of a comfort-oriented cruiser. Though overall deceleration is strong and feel is progressive when spiraling down those blind twisties, initial bite could be a little more aggressive.
In addition, at the end of the long descent down Croatia’s winding Učka pass, the pedal starts to feel mushy. This is such a good road, however, that we decide on the spot to do two more runs, one with the top up with ESP off and one back with the top folded, despite a relentless storm. Although power oversteer is not so necessary in a four-seat convertible aimed at the silver-haired set, the Merc certainly knows how to dance the g-force tango.
The new E-Class lets you choose from a variety of drive modes, but in the S-Class cabrio it’s Comfort or Sport, plus the transmission in manual with shift paddles at the ready should one so desire. On a speed-restricted motorway, Comfort will at its earliest convenience select ninth gear, which equals a leisurely 3,500 rpm at 100 mph. On the rural B-roads leading down to the coast near Rijeka, Sport is seasoning the drivetrain with later upshifts, earlier downshifts, and a more prompt throttle response.
It’s a comfortable and cosseting car, a wonderfully relaxed and long-legged pan-European tourer that’s also clever enough to brake and steer by itself should the situation require it. While the semi-active steering and the lane discipline vibrator are not to everyone’s taste, the latest version of Benz’s Distronic Plus automatic cruise control keeps a watchful panoramic eye out. Though the S-Class won’t tap the even more advanced electronic brain of the new E-Class for another 18 months, it does make another step toward autonomous driving.
My parents never had the money to vacation in Opatija, but we did make day trips to the gingerbread-style “jewel by the sea” from the cheaper parts of Croatia’s Kvarner Bay area. As in Trieste, they speak at least six languages in Opatija: Croatian, Slovenian, Italian, German, English, and a Friulian dialect. Dismissing momentary power-to-weight scruples, the team agrees on coffee and strudel at the Hotel Imperial built in 1885, nine years before Emperor Franz Josef I met his German counterpart Wilhelm II on this very same terrace.
Instead of taking the direct route back home, we meander back north through Slovenia, briefly clipping Italy once more before entering Austria near Villach.
Due to the foul weather, the roof stays closed, but thanks to the sublime soundproofing, one barely registers the raindrops peppering the fabric and the spray echoing in the wheelhouses. There is no doubt about it: The S-Class cabriolet oozes exquisite competence even before night vision separates the deer from the pedestrian, the 23 speakers of the incredible Burmester sound system start playing a Schubert serenade, the LED light fingers cast constantly changing patterns into the dark.
For its class, this is not a particularly spacious car, its generic exterior design clashes with the overdone cabin, and its vehicle dynamics are capable rather than thrilling. But it expertly shields its occupants from most vagaries, top up or down, and despite all the bits and bytes, it still represents conventional luxury — that’s conventional as in plenty of street cred and every convenience item money can buy.
2017 Mercedes-Benz S550 Cabriolet Specifications
|On Sale:||Late spring|
|Engine:||4.7L twin-turbo 32-valve V-8/449 @ 5,250-5,550 rpm, 516 lb-ft @ 1,800-3,500 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible|
|EPA Mileage:||16/24 mpg (city/hwy) (est)|
|L x W x H:||197.9 x 74.7 x 55.8 in|
|0-60 MPH:||4.5 sec|
|Top Speed:||155 mph|