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First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-AMG S-Class Coupe and Cabriolet

A sunny California day with four high-dollar two-door Germans

Basem WasefwriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

LOS ANGELES, California—You might expect a first drive of the 2018 Mercedes-AMG S65 Coupe to open with a rosy recollection of motoring down the Côte d'Azur through a fragrant waft of lilac blooms. But our defining moment in Benz's $250,900 übercoupe differed slightly—specifically, getting caught in the left turn lane of a bustling intersection along a particularly ruthless stretch of central L.A. 's Pico Boulevard. The light had just switched to red, leaving a split second to accelerate into a hard left turn before angry cross traffic could make minced meat of the German coupe.

As trivial as it may sound, that left turn could gone disastrously wrong in a previous generation of Mercedes-AMG's immensely powerful S65 Coupe. It's taken years for the boys in Affalterbach to tweak the formula for their 12-cylinder top dog, obfuscated by the simple (and decidedly First World) issue of how to wrangle ungodly amounts of torque—in this case, a stunning 738 lb-ft (or 1,000 newton-meters) of rotation from the handbuilt, 6.0-liter twin-turbo V-12. As such, earlier iterations only squeezed five forward gears into the transmission and off-the-line acceleration was hampered by an all-too-easily triggered traction control system.

Even more problematic, maximum twist now commences at a mere 2,300 rpm and doesn't abate for another 2,000 rpm, requiring tighter orchestration of throttle tip-in, transmission slip, traction control, and rear wheel grip while executing that quick, hard left turn from a standstill. (Spoiler alert: The torquetastic two-door squirted ahead and away from harm's way, exiting the vehicular maelstrom with an effortless whoosh of is nearly silent turbochargers.)

Improvements from the recently updated S-Class sedan have trickled into the coupe for 2018, among them a new COMAND multimedia interface that's spread more seamlessly across a single bonded glass panel, replacing the separate-screen solution of the previous version. Minor aesthetic changes include new headlamps and OLED taillamps, new interior trim options, revised front and rear bumpers, and a new "Panamericana" grille that recalls golden era Benzes.

Other 2018 S-Class coupes and cabriolets get the gift of smaller displacement and greater power. The S560's displacement drops from 4.7 to 4.0 liters, but output increases by 14 hp for a total of 463 (torque remains unchanged at 516 lb-ft), while the S63's twin-turbo V-8 now displaces 4.0 liters instead of 5.5 but produces 603 hp compared to the outgoing model's 577 hp. This AMG V-8 differentiates from its usage in C-Class AMGs through bigger turbos and greater boost, but cylinder deactivation is utilized only in coupes to maintain a premium aural experience in the convertible models.

The S63s also gain Mercedes-Benz's MCT nine-speed automatic, which replaces the outgoing 'box's torque converter with a wet start-off clutch and the ability to shift quicker with double clutching on demand. Speed demons will no doubt appreciate the multiclutch gearbox's so-called Race Start function, an otherwise gentlemanly way of saying launch control.

AMG chose to not mess with V-12 success and the S65 retains its 621 hp, 738 lb-ft output and recently added seven-speed auto. A fully variable 4Matic+ system is now standard on all S63 models, but keeping things counterintuitive, the torque-iest top dog S65 retains its rear-drive-only configuration, pushing all of its prodigious power to the aft wheels. As a result, the plebian S560 accelerates to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, the manly S63 does the deed in a mere 3.4 seconds, while the S65 requires 4.0 seconds.

The S63 and S65 we sampled in Los Angeles felt imperviously quiet and quick, with slightly more sound satisfaction in the V-8 model when the Sport exhaust button (or the appropriately aggressive S+ setting) was selected. These super sleds tick a whole slew of boxes for speed-seeking sybarites, from their outrageously comfortable (and of course, massaging) seats to their outstanding interior materials and delightful cabin details like the complex curves of supple leather on the instrument panel, thinly pinstriped piano-black accents, and the way the cabin elegantly wraps around passengers. My only quibble with my tester's Designo-optioned interior was the curiously garish Swarovski crystal on the center console of the otherwise discreet interior.

Leave the S63 in regular driving modes, and there's enough power on tap for the nine-speed to shift early and smoothly, imperceptibly nudging the 2.5-ton car ahead without drama. Punch it, and the proceedings occur much more quickly, though with surprisingly little perception of speed. Sure, there's more accompanying sound and g-forces, but these big Benzes are masterful at masking their velocity, insulating occupants in the quietness of the cabin and the suppleness of the air suspension, even in convertible form.

Things get a tad saucy when the exhaust snaps, crackles, and pops in its most aggressive setting, and the soft-top model can drop its top to amplify the sounds in 20 seconds at speeds up to 40 mph. But on the grand scale of automotive raciness, Mercedes is ultimately playing a game of millimeters here, incrementally turning the dial ever so slightly to yield a bigger effect from its subtly altered tuning.

As such, the threshold for imperfection when operating at these elevated levels is also heightened. One jerky downshift at slower speeds in the S63 seems downright jarring, whereas a similar experience in a lesser car might have been more easily dismissed. Defying expectations is the maneuverability of both models on canyon roads. Despite their expansive proportions (S Coupes are more than 20 inches longer than a Corvette), they manage to go where they're aimed, with the assistance of brake vectoring and surprisingly reassuring steering feel.

As the sun sets on the sparkling Pacific while piloting the S65 through the heart of Malibu, I'm surrounded by a constellation of high-dollar competitors. There are Bentley Continental GTs and Rolls-Royce Wraiths vying for attention, heavy hitters in this lofty two-door segment. Frankly, if keeping up with the $300,000 to $500,000 Joneses is your bag, Mercedes-Benz's handsome big coupes may not be your steeds of choice. But when enveloped in the S Coupe's impeccable cabin, ensconced away from the noise of the world, engineering and elegance have a way of quietly and assertively making their case, offering a quick, quiet way to disappear into the distance.