In 1996, Mercedes Benz launched their contender in the luxury roadster class, the SLK. This was an era when the segment was experiencing a resurgence, with technically complex electronic roofs and funky designs and colours that only the 90s could have inspired. Every respectable manufacturer tried their hand in this segment, but only few managed to get the mix just right. Mercedes Benz called their car, the SLK which in very Germanic fashion, stood for ‘Sportlich’ or sporty, ‘Leicht’ er, light, and ‘Kurz’ which means short, referring to the wheelbase.
The first-gen R170 was a thing of beauty, ranging from the SLK 200 models (as seen in Sri Lanka) with 136bhp, right up to the madcap SLK 32 AMG 349bhp, built to take on the ‘hottest’ versions of rival cars in the class. Proportions were spot-on, with a squarish footprint that to this day results in handling that (given the testimonies of first and second owners of one such R170 in Sri Lanka, and the writer’s occasional shotgun rendezvous in the same car) is a joy to experience, and hard to catch off-guard.
The second iteration of the SLK or the R171, was dynamically improved in almost every way. Emulating the SLR which was launched around the same period, the SLK featured a front bumper very reminiscent of the MB supercar. There was however a strong line-up topped off with the SLK AMG model which featured a 5.5 litre v8 (no, not a typo) pushing 355bhp. In a car weighing around 1500kgs.
Neither of these cars would be called ‘class leaders’, by no fault of their own. It has always been a tough segment. A tale as old as time, really. Advances in technology, vehicle dynamics and performance have made this once novelty segment into one featuring thoughtfully developed purpose built sports cars.
Roll on the R172, where Mercedes seemed to have discovered a definitive identity for their roadster. The great proportions were back, though staying true to the boxy design theme of the line-up around launch. A V8 was carried forward for the SLK 55 AMG, now with a 415bhp motor. But something magical has happened with the facelift R172. They now call it the SLC, C referring to the same C in C-Class. Compact? Perhaps. Will there be an SLE? Given the many niches the Germans seems to discover, It’s anybody’s guess. What matters though is that Motor spent a Sunday afternoon testing the top dog SLC 43 AMG.
The first things you notice on almost any current lineup Mercedes, are the flowing LED day time running lamps. That’s normal, because that is what their intended purpose is. The second thing you notice is just how breathtaking the SLC is. The test car’s special matte grey paint (officially designo cerussite grey magno) and the optional ‘AMG Night Package’ which splashes gloss black on the door mirrors, and selected bits on the bumpers, really helped with making it seem like something from the Lockheed-Martin skunkworks division. True, it isn’t a supercar; but it is no less striking to look at; a master-class on how to successfully facelift a motor vehicle. This results in the car being both beautiful and aggressive at the same time, and you quickly forget that platform-wise this is the same car, just a facelift.
Inside is where you are quickly reminded that this isn’t exactly ‘all new’. It’s a great cabin, no doubt. With a blend of soft-touch plastic, brushed aluminum, metallic surfaces and sporty stitched leather, it is unmistakably Mercedes with characteristic ‘luxurious robustness’. The quality in this cabin is extremely close to, if not at the, pinnacle of ergonomics and engineering, as far as interiors go, right down to the cool retro A/C vents. Design wise however, it is quite like every other Mercedes in the current lineup. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it might be a deal-breaker for some, especially those who have seen other interiors from rivals that are fresher and sharper.
Thankfully all this translates to a car that is user friendly, and approachable. Getting inside might prove a bit of a challenge for taller folk, although it won’t matter as much as getting out, given that all eyes will be on you when you ‘arrive’ at a hotel lobby for example; at least for a few weeks till you devise your own rendition of a graceful exit. What I can add though, is that it is harder to get out of the facelift than it is the R170. Still these are common gripes of any low sports car. Is the SLC’s brilliance is enough to dazzle these concerns into oblivion?
On The Road
It is. What you get is a 3.0 litre Bi-turbo V6 (two cylinders less than the SLK55 AMG it replaces) motor with 367PS and 520Nm of torque, good for 4.7s to 100km/h and a 250km/h top speed. We didn’t test any of that however, as we were not on a closed course. But we got as close as legally allowable. Very quickly might I add. There are several driving modes that can be selected and what was fascinating about this, was that with each mode, the car transformed. In comfort mode, it drove like any other Mercedes, calm and composed with a seemingly distant rumble of exhaust noise, never hyping the three magic letters on the boot lid. The ride was not willowy for sure, but was very comfortable and almost makes you forget that you had 367PS under your foot at your disposal.
Switch things up to SPORT+ you actually feel the car’s suspension firming up and immediately the exhaust note enters the scene. What a glorious cacophony of sweet cackles and pops it makes. Even without using the paddles to shift down, the 9G-Tronic equipped car sorts everything out, rev-matching and emitting all the right noises to make a grown man giggle with glee. Put your foot down and a sonorous melody of canned thunder erupts from the AMG pipes. Beautiful. Beastly.
The logic behind having a SPORT and a SPORT+ option needs to be explored further, as the resulting drama of the latter clearly makes the former redundant. There was even an ECO mode which was true to its name, equipped with an engine start stop function at intersections.
As you would expect with the proportions of the car, and the sophisticated dampers it comes with, the handling was nothing short of brilliant. Through a few quick corners the car remained flat and seemed to encourage you to take the same corner faster. The rear wheels are staggered and have been given the negative camber treatment, though not just for the aesthetics, as we found out on the twisty bits.
Living With It
Let’s face it. Nobody is going to buy this car, expecting to fit a large suitcase in it. Surprisingly however there is a lot of space in the boot, even with the top down, for a duffel or medium sized backpack. There’s also a lot of cubbies inside the car for knick-knacks, bottles etc.
The gorgeous leather seats are very supportive, but also comfortable even when driving the car slowly. Once you manage to seat yourself inside the car it’s quite a cozy & ergonomic place to be, given the low seating position. While the SLC can be optioned with a Harmon Kardon surround sound system, the standard Mercedes system proved quite satisfactory to my lay-ears. The SLC also has a rather excellent gear knob, with ‘SLC’ machined to the top of it, engraved on a brushed metallic surface.
Is it fair to evaluate the entire SLC range based on the SLC 43 AMG? Well yes, as the SLC 43 AMG sacrifices none of the creature comforts (it’s no Superleggera) on offer with the rest of the range. Seeing as we haven’t reviewed an SLC R172 facelift so far, this would be a good opportunity for a general discussion on the practical aspects of the SLC. 2 seats are all you get by design, but they are very comfortable, and can easily fit a tall individual. The layout of all the buttons and controls are very logical and intuitive, especially if you have been in a Mercedes cockpit before. Unless you want to put the ‘Vario’ roof down. This has its own neat little compartment with an airplane-like release lever/toggle.
The screen seems a long way-off, and as commonly stated in reviews of other Mercs seems like a iPad stuck to the dash. The infotainment system seems a little old fashioned, especially considering some of the other funkier, more modern systems out there. Overall though the dash isn’t the most cutting edge in this segment, it does complement the exterior, adding to the duality this car offers in terms of comfort and performance.
What Mercedes have done, especially by downsizing their fastest model offering, is create a unique identity for the SLC. Approachable and easy to use, comfortable to daily drive, yet at the flick of a switch comes alive to embrace a character that is truly of its own. Mercedes have not set out to follow anyone in this segment and have probably for the first time since 1996, created the perfect balance between beautiful car and beastly performance. This duality will appeal to a certain buyer, who wants something subtle enough to drive in traffic but potent enough to enjoy a twisty b-road OR a straight line, with AMG drama on demand. It isn’t 12 AMGs lesser than its predecessor, it’s 43 AMGs perfect!
As far as the SLC facelift is concerned, the design has given the R172 a new lease of life, and with the new range of power plants, including a very intriguing SLC 250d, creates the possibility that this could well be the most successful roadster since the R170 for the marque.
Motor would like to thank our very own Gishanka De Silva for allowing us the privilege of testing his mum’s pride and joy, as well as showing us what the car was truly capable of in terms of driving dynamics in the right hands, all the while grinning ear to ear through the AMGs melodious exhaust notes. This is the first and only SLC 43 AMG in Sri Lanka at the time of writing, and while it retailed for 29Mn rupees, prices may change given specification.
ENGINE V6, 2,996cc
Max Power 367 bhp @ 5500-6000rpm
Max Torque 520 NM @ 2000-4200rpm
TRANSMISSION 9G-Tronic 9-speed tiptronic
Rear wheel drive
SUSPENSION Fully independent
BRAKES Ventilated Discs
WHEELS & TYRES 235/40 ZR18 F
255/35 ZR18 R
KERB WEIGHT 1595kg
FUEL TANK 70 litres
PERFORMANCE 0-100 in 4.7 seconds
TOP SPEED 250 km/h