It has been 45 years in the making, but Mercedes has finally brought the S-Class Cabriolet back to life. This is expensive, open-top, ultimate luxury motoring of an exalted standard that would befit any manufacturer and while it might not be an affordable way of getting wind-in-your-hair thrills, the S 500 provides one of the silkiest all-round performances you'll ever experience.
In the metal
Joining the already five-strong ranks of the current Mercedes S-Class family, the looks of the Cabriolet aren't too surprising, as it's identical to the existing Coupé model, but with a fabric roof. That was chosen, according to Prof. Dr Thomas Weber - member of the board of management for Daimler AG, Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development - for a number of reasons. It better preserves the Coupé's roofline when the hood is up; there are less messy joins than there would be if the folding top was made of metal; and it would simply be too complex, heavy and expensive to make a retractable hardtop that would be large enough to cover a four-seat cabin.
That's right, four seats. The S-Class Cabriolet does not replace the SL two-seat roadster, instead sitting alongside the 60-year-old icon in the Mercedes showrooms as a more capacious - and expensive - alternative. So, to purportedly allow a quartet of adults to sit inside, it's a big car; more than five metres long and the best part of two metres wide without including the door mirrors. Wonderfully, the design is such that it doesn't look like a bulky behemoth. The front end is imposing, the flanks are defined by that lovely descending swage line that removes weight from the sides and the rear is emblematic of the current Stuttgart coupé/cabriolet appearance characterised by slim light clusters and a number plate recessed into the bumper, not the boot lid. The fabric roof looks fine in position, maybe even making the Cabriolet more attractive than the Coupé, and you can have that triple-layered hood in one of four colours: black, dark blue, dark red and (gulp) beige. Even shorn of the full AMG styling the other two S-Class Cabriolets wear, the S 500 remains a stunning machine to behold.
And then you climb aboard and realise this is one of the best car interiors you've ever seen. The fit, finish and appearance are all second-to-none. Various details delight, such as the two 12.3-inch TFT digital screens in that curvaceous dash, and the various clusters of buttons arrayed about the console, or the beautiful seats and appointments. The equipment list on the S 500 is generous to a fault and one of the features of the S-Class Cabriolet range is that you can lower and raise the roof on the move at speeds of up to 50km/h. Aside from cramped rear legroom that makes a mockery of the four-seat claim (for long distances, at least), this is an interior that is simply beyond reproach.
No S-Class Cabriolet is supposed to be a road rocket designed to destroy a mountain pass. All of them weigh comfortably in excess of two tonnes, this 2,115kg S 500 being the trimmest of the three, and with the sportier SL still in situ, Mercedes has made the S-Class focus on comfort over speed. The S 500 is certainly geared more in this direction in terms of the dynamic balance, whereas the AMG cars are a little firmer to ride in, but even so you'll be surprised by exactly how capable and engaging the biggest Mercedes convertible is.
Helped no end by steering that is remarkably good, and standard-fit Airmatic suspension that matches ride comfort to strong body control, the S 500 is more agile than it has any right to be. It rolls more than the S 63 Cabriolet with its stiffer 'springs' and adjustable dampers fitted, yet you'll notice that more if you follow a hard-driven S 500 and see it leaning, rather than if you're behind the wheel doing the racing driver impression. Most of the time, you start questioning why in blazes you'd want or need the AMG variants. The 500 is adept, has a genuinely interactive rear axle and throttle-adjustable balance, and a fantastic iteration of the 9G-Tronic gearbox that seems ideally suited to this baritone V8.
Yes, the noise in this car is also top-drawer. While not as loud as the S 63, the menacing, creamy rumble the exhausts emit probably make it the better companion for the sort of trans-continental journeys this type of car is made for. And the pace is not in doubt. It makes serious lunges for the horizon on the most modest throttle openings, while the transmission will respond sharply to heftier right-foot inputs and change gears in an instant. Whether 32.5mpg is ever going to be likely in reality probably doesn't matter to the people who can drop this sort of cash on a car, so we didn't bother monitoring the fuel consumption. Sorry.
So let's save the best until last. Having driven the updated SL in the US recently, we thought we'd seen the apogee of how to balance a sensationally good ride with excellent dynamics. And then along comes the S 500. This is perfection. Seriously, it's like the Cabriolet isn't even connected to the rest of the world; maybe Mercedes has invented the hovercar and just isn't letting on. A near three-metre wheelbase, lots of weight, air suspension and adaptable dampers are clearly the cocktail to traversing garbage road surfaces in total comfort, and Mercedes has blended them into a fine-tasting mix for the S 500. The fact that it's also incredibly quiet when cruising - thanks to double-glazed windows, sound-deadening crammed in wherever possible and slippery aerodynamics that help reduce wind noise - equates to a car that is the epitome of grand tourers. We'd have the Cabriolet over the Coupé S-Class, no question.
What you get for your money
Right. We're well aware that a vehicle that's well over €200,000 is hardly Deal of the Week, so five out of five? Have we gone mad? But this really is the very upper echelons of car-making, even if it comes from a manufacturer that has such a wide line-up that it makes vehicles as prosaic as the Smart Fortwo and the A-Class. The S 500 is considerably cheaper than a Rolls-Royce Dawn and it will probably out-drive the British car in most situations; we'd go so far as to say its ride might be up to the standards of the Roller, as well. And it should also undercut the Bentley Continental, which is a heavier car again than the Mercedes.
Gargantuan, showy convertibles like this won't be everyone's cup of tea. Nevertheless, in terms of meeting its design brief - or, indeed, hitting the brief so hard it smashes it into a thousand little pieces - the Mercedes S-Class Cabriolet is unmatched by anything else. Mercedes set out to create a super-luxurious car with a massive dollop of the feel-good factor and it has delivered. The S 63 AMG is just a touch more exciting to drive, but the S 500 makes comfort the king. And for that, it deserves the very highest praise. Magnificent.