Summer’s Best Convertible: Mercedes-Benz S-Class S550 Cabriolet

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The promise of open-air motoring is that it’s some kind of fountain of youth, but spend time in most convertibles and before long you feel like you need hair plugs, hearing aids, and a back realignment. You’ll find tight two-seat cabins, suspensions curiously ratcheted for the track, and top-down acoustics that evoke a wind tunnel. A roadster is fine for a short sprint down Collins Avenue, but what about finding a roomy drop-top that can comfortably cover real miles?

You’re in luck. This summer, Mercedes-Benz delivers its first luxury four-seat convertible since 1971 (see below), with the S-Class S550 Cabriolet. The S-Class is, of course, Benz’s tech-loaded flagship and standard-bearer of luxury. A cloth-top version sits somewhere between BMW’s cheaper 6 Series convertible ($85,000 plus) and the stratospherically pricey Bentley Continental GT Convertible ($218,000 plus). But the S-Class stands alone — a futuristic throwback to a bygone era of open-air cruising.

Driving it is akin to setting off on a yacht. (Should you buy one, resist the urge to smash a bottle of Bollinger on its side.) Close a door and you notice that its curves fuse with the instrument panel in a kind of high, wraparound design comparable to a finely crafted speedboat’s. Press the pedal and the V-8’s exhaust note is like the gurgle of a Chris-Craft inboard. Careen around big, sweeping turns, as we did, and you’ll notice the car doesn’t shrink around you like smaller roadsters. The Cabrio’s air suspension keeps it stable and predictable despite the 4,800-pound weight, with power effortlessly delivered via a liquid-smooth nine-speed automatic.

This might be the most composed convertible in the world: On the highway, with the top up, it’s nearly as quiet as the S-Class hard-top. Let the top down (which you can do as long you’re not going above 37 miles an hour), and it automatically adjusts each passenger’s climate. Should you want to relax, its cruise control pilots the car with near autonomy, torquing the wheel to stay centered in a lane and braking down to a stop in traffic.

But you’re not going to be ceding control of this car very often. So get the muscled-up AMG S63, a version devised by Mercedes’ high-performance division. Though a juiced land-bound yacht might sound something like installing Guy Fieri as the head of Per Se’s kitchen, that’s not the case here. The S63’s rear-biased all-wheel drive, along with an increase in power via a 577-horsepower, 5.5-liter V-8, a stiffer subframe, and bigger brakes, brings better control and more fun.

Of course, you pay for greatness — the S63 costs $176,400. If the want is strong but you’re rational, you could wait a year and pick up one with a few miles on the odometer. But then again, life, like summer, is too short. [449 HP, 0–60 in 4.5 secs, $131,400; mbusa.com]

No Top, Lots of Class

In 1961, Mercedes-Benz introduced the 220S, a two-door, four-seat convertible with simple, clean lines and a profile particularly understated for its era. It was more than just a pretty car: Later in the decade, the model was among the first of any automobile to feature safety tech like crumple zones and three-point retractable seat belts. A 1971 280SE — the last S-Class Cabriolet until now — can fetch upwards of $290,000 at auction.

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