• Topless in St. Tropez.

    Topless in St. Tropez.

    As one of the best yachtsmen in the world, Alex Thomson is no stranger to rough waters, icy gusts of wind, and sea spray in the face. So will the luxury of the new C-Class Cabriolet jar with such a hardened man of the seas?

    Text: Fabrice Braun | Photos: Benjamin Pichelmann

One of the year’s first fine spring days.

The sun casts the Mediterranean waters off St. Tropez in a glittering, resplendent blue, the Côte d’Azur keen to live up to its name on one of the year’s first fine spring days. Alex Thomson slips on his shades and casts a brief gaze over a beach still undisturbed by human bustle. A cautious squeeze of the accelerator stirs a gradual crunch of sand under tires as the C-Class pulls away at measured pace.

Alex Thomson with the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Cabriolet.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class Cabriolet.

“I want to feel the wind in my face when I’m driving.”

No sooner has Thomson set off than he reaches for a silver-coloured button on the center console and settles back to admire the show. A flap behind the rear seats opens, the side windows glide silently downwards, and the cabriolet’s black soft-top roof folds down with the tranquillity of a Zen-state yogi. Just under 20 seconds later, the roof has slipped out of view under a cover in the rear – a trick it can perform at up to 50 km/h (31 mph). Thomson grins; he likes what he’s seen. “I want to feel the wind in my face when I’m driving,” he says. “Doesn’t matter what car I’m in, I always drive with the windows down.”

“It looks fantastic”.

It’s no surprise Thomson likes a little air. He is, after all, a professional sailor – one of the world’s finest, with a penchant for the toughest races the sport can offer. The 42-year-old was the youngest skipper to win a round-the-world race, and one of his first single-handed expeditions saw him notch up the fastest solo crossing of the Atlantic. To generate publicity for his sport, he has dived into the ocean from ten meters (over 30 ft.) up on the mast of a full-powered race yacht, dressed in a dark suit of which James Bond would approve (the video of the “mast walk” has had more than two million YouTube views), and he recently took to a kiteboard for a not dissimilar stunt, using a pull from a race yacht to fly at a height of 85 meters (approx. 280 ft.) through the air.

Such extracurricular exploits aside, Thomson came third in the 2013 Vendée Globe regatta. The world’s most grueling solo yacht race challenges its competitors to sail some 23,000 miles around the world – nonstop and single-handed. For days and nights on end in the Southern Ocean, Thomson faced down icebergs, storms, and loneliness, riding 15-meter-high (50 ft.) waves at 70 km/h (over 40 mph). In between times he also had to get some shut-eye, sleeping 20–40 minutes every four to five hours to prevent total exhaustion and the risk of making a potentially fatal mistake.

But back to southern France, 24° Celsius (75°F), and a relaxed cruise along the coast; a gentle breeze wafts off the sea and into the open cabin. Adventurer though he is, the man at the wheel is far from bored by the experience; indeed, he’s clearly finding it very much to his liking. “It looks fantastic,” is Thomson’s immediate reaction to the first Mercedes-Benz cabriolet based on the C-Class. The two-door soft-top cuts a more dynamic figure than the C-Class Sedan, its silhouette when the roof is closed resembling that of its Coupe sibling. The suspension is 15 millimeters (0.6 in.) lower than the sedan’s as standard. And on the C 400 4Matic with AMG Line trim that Alex Thomson is driving, the sporting impression is further enhanced by 19-inch AMG light-alloy wheels and the eye-catching diamond radiator grille. The hood, meanwhile, feels almost as long as the bar at St. Tropez’s legendary VIP Room club. And, with its muscular shoulders and LED tail lights, the striking rear end further underscores the car’s dynamic character.

Alex Thomson.

This balance of athletic presence and elegance.

This balance of athletic presence and elegance is also warmly appreciated by our elite yachtsman: “Give me a sporty car any day of the week – but I’m not keen on anything too showy. Spoilers and the like are not for me,” says Thomson. “I prefer a little understatement,” he adds, as if to emphasize his Britishness. The father of two is likewise pleased to find two individual seats in the rear (which can be folded flat) and other practical details besides: “I’ve just sent my wife a photo,” reports Thomson with a smile. “All she wanted to know was whether the buggy for the kids would fit in the back – which it would.” The trunk can swallow up to 360 liters of cargo, or 285 liters’ worth with the roof down – which is a lot for a cabriolet. And ample for an extended family jaunt along the Côte d’Azur.

A taste for fresh air.

The open-top C-Class makes rational sense, then. But cabriolets are really a thing for the heart, of course. Especially when the model in question exudes the dynamic prowess of the C 400 4Matic. Thomson is not about to deny his love of speed. “I always look for how much power a car has and how fast it can get from zero to 60 [about 100 km/h],” he says, flicking the Dynamic Select switch to Sport Plus to change the character of the engine and suspension in a split-second. Then he hits the accelerator. The cabriolet’s 3-liter V-6 engine develops 245 kW and is good for 0 to 100 km/h (approx. 62 mph) in 5.2 seconds. But on the narrow roads of the St. Tropez hinterland, that would be like Thomson plowing his 18-meter (60 ft.) yacht with the wind in its sails through a swimming pool. So he eases his foot off the gas, but not without a broad smile on his face: “I just love feeling the power of an engine,” he admits.

A few miles further down the road, a sudden gathering of clouds blocks out the sun and turns things a tad fresh inside the car. It’s perhaps nothing that would register with a master mariner for whom even a wall of icy rain off Newfoundland would never prompt a shaky hand. But it is enough to perturb the average mortal from more temperate climes – and for that reason alone a good opportunity to test out a stylish and comfort-enhancing feature of the C-Class Cabriolet: the Aircap automatic draft stop. Thomson presses the button to activate the Aircap system, triggering the emergence of a traditional draft stop between the head rests in the rear, and a wind deflector from the windshield frame. Turbulence inside the cabin is reduced immediately.

Mercedes-Benz C-Class Cabriolet interior.

All under control.

In Gosport, the coastal town in southern England that is home to Thomson and his team, these sorts of optional extras could increase the amount of time spent with the roof down significantly. But do such creature comforts appeal to a hardened sea dog like Thomson, currently eyeing-up another shot at the Vendée Globe this November? Wouldn’t he prefer to experience the elements in all their fury? “Back in the day, a yachtsman would take a certain pride in standing out on deck, clinging on at the helm, getting battered around the face by wind and water, but that’s not for me,” says Thomson. “I don’t define how much of a man I am by the amount of wind and rain I can take.” Indeed, Thomson tries to protect himself as well as possible from bad weather on board his high-tech vessel: “If I’m not wet, I can work better and go faster. It’s as simple as that.” Luxury under the open sky is all about being able to decide when and where you want to feel the wind in your face – even for a yachtsman, it seems.

Image gallery.