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First drive: Mercedes sharpens its SLC roadster

Pampered: The Mercedes-Benz SLC gets more than a new name in the latest reworking of the German two-seat roadster.

The Benz roadster formerly called SLK goes under the scalpel for middle-age tuck


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9 Apr 2016


MERCEDES-BENZ is hoping to reinvigorate its most affordable drop-top sportscar model in Australia with sharper pricing, a broader range and fresh looks.

Previously called SLK, the significantly facelifted two-seat roadster that now goes by the moniker SLC to fit Benz’s new nomenclature will include a new, modestly powered 1.6-litre entry model, SLC180, for about $72,000 plus on-road costs – roughly $15,000 cheaper than the previous most affordable variant, the SLK200.

The SLC will also get a much more affordable AMG-enhanced flagship, the V6 biturbo SLC43, at about $135,000, representing a cut of more than $25,000 over the current SLK performance champ, the $162,010 naturally aspirated V8 SLK55.

With its smaller 3.0-litre V6 blown engine, the SLC43 takes a power and torque haircut over its big-bore 5.5-litre predecessor, down 40kW on power and 20Nm of torque to 270kW and 520Nm, but thanks to a trip to Weight Watchers and a new nine-speed automatic transmission, the new AMG version is said to be just 0.1 seconds slower from zero to 100km/h, at 4.7 seconds, while using less fuel (7.8 litres per 100km on the combined test scale).

Firm prices for the four-variant range will be announced closer to launch which, at the latest guesstimate, is scheduled for about September, around the same time as the new Benz sportscar supremo, the S-Class Cabriolet, lobs.

Sales of the SLK slumped 50 per cent last year, to 235 units, as the ageing sportster copped a black eye from Audi’s all-new TT that enjoyed 651 sales for the 12 months.

The Benz roadster’s decline has been steady since the SLK topped more than 700 units in 2012 when the now-superseded model was freshly minted.

Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific hopes the SLC’s new sparkle will reverse the trend, back to about 30-35 a month or 350-400 a year.

In its latest guise, the SLC retains the folding hardtop roof and rear-wheel drive, but the exterior makeover includes the new trademark “diamond” grille as part of the heavily reworked nose.

Interior space is still just adequate, with limited seat slide for tall drivers and few repositories for bibs and bobs. The boot space is also somewhat cramped, getting worse when the folding panel roof soaks up a chunk of the luggage space.

That roof can only be folded below 10km/h, although it will keep folding when the cars is travelling at up to 40km/h if the driver accelerates.

The car is built on the same platform that has done duty through two generations already, and it is starting to show.

The new range starts with the 1.6-litre SLC180 that makes do with 115kW of power and 250Nm of torque that propels this base model to 100km/h in 7.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 226km/h.

Although the nine-speed automatic transmission will be standard fare here – and on all SLC variants – the relative success of a manual gearbox in Audi’s new TT has prompted the Australian Benz product planners to have another crack with a self-serve cog swapper – a six-speeder in this case – as an option on the base model.

Next step up the SLC ladder is the 2.0-litre turbo SLC200 with 135kW and 300Nm at a price of about $84,000 – a 5.0 per cent improvement on the superseded variant with the same engine and roughly in line with the base Audi TT roadster.

The most popular SLC is expected to be the SLC300 from about $95,000. Again this uses the Benz 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, but with more puff, taking it to a handy 180kW and 370Nm.

The only non-four-cylinder variant is the aforementioned V6 AMG SLC43 that, unlike many other AMG-enhanced models, makes do with a torque converter auto transmission instead of a punchier dual-clutch arrangement, albeit with a sporty shift control for downloads on the run.

We sampled just the top two variants at the international launch in the south of France, so we cannot pass judgement on the more affordable boulevard cruising versions. May we suggest that keen drivers might test them against rivals such as the more affordable, new-generation Mazda MX-5.

Thanks to unseasonable rain across the hills behind the French Riviera – site of our labours – we did not get to reach too many conclusions about the handling abilities of the more powerful variants, either.

Even with all the nanny technologies fully engaged, we dared not push the limits on the slick, tight, winding, narrow roads, so a full road test will have to wait. We did not even get to drive with the folding hard top down, such was the persistent rain.

What we can tell you is that SLC300 is competent and comfortable, if a little unexciting behind the wheel. There is enough get up and go for most drivers, and the badge on the grille is beyond reproach.

Naturally, the AMG SLC43 ramps it up a large notch, the V6 delivering a goodly amount of poke accompanied by a suitable V6 bark that turns into a satisfying crackle on the down changes in sports mode.

On some occasions, we felt the AMG transmission gods got a little too enthusiastic during down-changes under brakes, jumping a gear too many with a resultant frantic revving of the engine.

We came to think that perhaps the car was egging us on, willing us to even more enthusiastic driving. Or not.

Does it lose anything to the previous V8? Firstly, the V8 soundtrack is sadly missed, despite the admirable attempt to fill the cabin with bark. The V6’s turbos deliver handy mid-range torque, but the V8 started much lower in the rev range.

While the V8 was always there, the V6 sometimes goes missing. However, at a $25,000 discount, the V6 looks rather better.

The reduced weight over the front axle is also an asset, helping to sharpen turn in. And then there are fuel efficiency gains that improve the thirst to 7.8 litres per 100km in the official combined test.

A bigger question is whether the car’s underpinnings and cabin layout are showing their age. Inside, the centre console is button heavy compared with newer Mercedes offerings, and the body feels a little less taut than newer rivals such as the TT and MX-5.

Seat squeaks in both cars we drove might be attributable to this flex.

We could not complain about the fit and finish of the cars we drove, nor the styling or equipment levels that have been revved up this time around.

The base SLC180 gets 18-inch alloys, leather upholstery, autonomous braking, sat-nav, digital radio, manual air-conditioning, electric adjustable heated leather seats, heater exterior mirrors, leather steering wheel with gear change paddles, and a reversing camera.

One step up, the SLC200 gets multi-mode Dynamic Select for various driving styles, memory function on the seats, steering column and mirrors, Apple CarPlay (no mention of Android Auto) and a sportier exhaust note.

The mainstream SLC300 makes major gains with keyless start, Airscarf neck warmer for winter top-down driving, automatic folding and dimming mirrors, red contrast stitching on interior fittings, some AMG body bits and performance exhaust, bigger 70-litre fuel tank, cross-drilled brake discs, autonomous cruise control, lowered suspension, blind-spot warning and lane-keep assist.

Topping the range, the SLC43 gets softer Nappa leather upholstery on sports seats, an upgraded multi-media system that includes Harmon Kardon surround-sound stereo, sporty flat-bottom AMG steering wheel, ambient lighting in three colours and, of course, the full hard-edged AMG performance package with upgraded brakes, speed-sensitive sports steering, a front splitter and rear spoiler, sports suspension and sunroof.

To protect your pride and joy, an anti-theft alarm is standard. Matte paint finishes are also available too.

By no means is the SLC a sad case – it is competent and fun, at least in the two guises we sampled in our limited test drive. But it is as sharp and tasty as some of the newer offerings from luxury rivals?We suspect not, but maybe we should drive the car in something less than a flood to be really sure.

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