Dropped the roof, dropped the ball: Mercedes S500 Convertible first drive, CAR+ May 2016

Published: 23 April 2016

► We drive the all-new Mercedes S500 convertible
► Enough tech to run a space programme
► Wheelbase is only 6mm longer than E-class 

Even when money is no object, the world offers few luxury four-seater convertibles. In the wake of the discontinued Azure and Phantom drophead, the selection has narrowed to the Bentley GTC, RR Dawn, Maserati Gran Cabrio and BMW 6-series. And now the new S-class. Reasons why demand is dwindling include fear of air pollution and UV radiation, the sense of exposure in an increasingly hostile world, and that high speeds turn rear seats into job creation devices for hairdressers.

A long trip in a convertible, four up with the roof folded, is an overt act of self-presentation at the expense of suffering back-benchers. Even 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 which pops up behind the rear seats, rear passengers still need fur hats. The driver and front seat passenger, however, travel in splendid isolation. No fewer than 12 sensors and 18 electric motors are busy adjusting the airflow and temperature to one’s personal preference from three air-con modes and five footwell temperature settings. Nice. 

Assuming the S-class is the world’s most complete luxury saloon, then the S-class convertible must surely be the best part-time tanning booth. But it isn’t, and here’s why. Despite the impressive level of craftsmanship and enough tech to run a space programme, presence and packaging are not entirely convincing.

For a start, the convertible uses the same front and rear end design as the coupe, and with the E- and C-class both pulling the same trick it’ll be difficult to tell the three apart. Then there’s the compromised packaging. One glance at the different wheelbases tells all: S500 2945mm, C300 2840mm, E300 2939mm. Why are S and E separated only by a token 6mm? Why is the most expensive S-class derivative not based on the roomier 3035mm standard-wheelbase saloon? The convertible is not only handicapped by zero rear legroom when the front seats are pushed back, but also by a smaller boot than the shorter C-class. The best or nothing? We see room for improvement. 

At £110,120 the S500 cabrio costs twice as much as the soon-to-be-replaced E500 soft-top. But then its aluminium-intensive architecture is stiffer, safer and lighter, and in terms of infotainment and assistance systems there is no other soft-top quite like it. Although the standard spec is generous, one can still spend thousands on colour and trim alone. Opt for the 577bhp 63 AMG 4Matic or the S65 powered by a new 621bhp 6.0-litre V12, and you’re in Bentley GTC territory.

On the autobahn S500 is as hush-quiet as the coupe. Thanks to the triple-layer fabric top, redesigned door and window seals and sandwich glass, wind and road noise are very well suppressed, and the engine raises its voice only in response to kickdown. At 2115kg, the air-sprung Benz is heavy enough to ride well, even when fitted with soft-compound 19in winter tyres. It’s a comfortable and cosseting car, totally unagitated yet clever enough to brake and steer by itself. While the semi-active steering and the lane discipline vibrator are not to everyone’s taste, the automatic cruise control keeps a watchful panoramic eye – even if the driver happens to be fiddling with his dynamic massage seat or listening to his emails being read out.

Manoeuvring through Trieste’s steep, ancient lanes is a permanent threat to wide tyres, big alloys, low-flying air deflectors and voluminous exhausts. But here’s the perfect proving ground for the improved multi-camera surveillance system, air suspension which generates an extra 40mm in crawling height, and automatic parking. In theory, the on-board chips will search, find and occupy a parking spot. In reality, the streets are so narrow that one inch closer to the kerb is the difference between door mirror and not.

While the new E-class lets you choose from a variety of drive modes, in the S500 it’s either Comfort or Sport. Comfort will hurry into ninth gear which equals a leisurely 3500rpm at 100mph, while Sport seasons the drivetrain with later upshifts and a sharper throttle response. 

True to its dimensions, the 5027mm S does not feel like an excessively big car. Its steering may not be overly rapid, and it is a touch on the light side, but precision, self-centering and feedback are spot-on. The calibration of the brakes also matches the character of a comfort-oriented waftmeister. Pedal pressure is tuned to the strength of a lady’s foot, and deceleration is strong, though the initial bite could be a little more aggressive, and at the end of a long descent the pedal feels mushy. 

We try the descent in the opposite direction with ESP off. Although power oversteer is not in the nature of a four-seater convertible aimed at silver-agers, the Merc certainly knows how to dance the g-force tango! 

Why don’t my trip notes make much reference to the 4.7-litre 449bhp twin-turbo V8? Because this engine delivers without bragging. At 4.6sec from 0-62mph, it succumbs to the 621bhp V12 by a token 0.5sec, its limited 155mph top speed is way beyond top-down plausibility, and our average consumption over 1867km worked out at a remarkably reasonable 24.5mpg.

The S500 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. This car shields its occupants from most vagaries, but despite all the bits and bytes, it still represents conventional luxury.

Other qualities, however, leave something to be desired. For its class, this is not a particularly spacious car, the generic exterior design clashes with the overdone cabin, vehicle dynamics are capable rather than thrilling. In the end it is merely the XL version of a generic style also offered in sizes M and L.    

Triple-layered roof + epic air-deflectors + cosy cabin = blissful serenity. But not if you’re in the back          

Up against

Better than: BMW 6-series – But only because the 6 is a shonky steer

Worse than: Bentley GTC – Opulence like you mean it 

We’d buy: Maserati Gran Cabrio – Gonna be compromised? May as well enjoy the drive

The specs: Mercedes-Benz S500 convertible

Price: £110,120
Engine: 4663cc 32v twin-turbo V8, 449bhp @ 5250rpm, 516lb ft @ 1800-3500rpm
Transmission: Nine-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 4.6sec 0-62mph, 155mph, 32.5mpg, 204g/km CO2
Weight: 2115kg
On sale: Now

Love: It still wants to be driven rather than to drive you

Hate: Pitiful packaging, lack of presence

Verdict: If you want to be considered classy, keep your top on 

Rating: ***

Read more from the May 2016 issue of CAR magazine

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel