The Mercedes-Benz SLK has finally found a near perfect heartbeat to finally become what the sports roadster always wanted to be. It took a fresh name in ‘SLC’ together with a new-for-breed 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged V6 engine that in itself introduces new ‘43’ variant nomenclature – plus liberal input from the AMG skunkworks – to get there, but the 2017 Mercedes-AMG SLC43 is, finally, the ‘former SLK’ done convincingly right.
For the gearheads among us, that’s a little surprising. On one hand, and despite much effort by its maker, the SLK had been a perpetual struggler for bona-fide sports car legitimacy, frankly, ever since Porsche’s Boxster arrived on the scene in the mid-'90s. And on another, this whole ‘43’ six-cylinder AMG business – an engine that isn’t hand built like its illustrious ‘63’ eight-cylinder kin – is fresh, unproven and viewed with some scepticism in petrolhead circles who question whether its deserving of AMG stripes.
It’s not as if older SLKs lacked for searching for that ‘right’ engine. It’s just that, more often than not, the turbocharged and supercharged fours lacked balls, the naturally aspirated and force-induced sixes needed more venom and, despite some heroic statistics, the SLK55 AMG’s thumping 5.5-litre V8 felt like an overwrought muscle car engine misplaced in the svelte if stubby 4.15-metre-long sports convertible. SLKs past offered anywhere from 101 to 310 kilowatts yet almost always missed the mark for what the sports car wanted to be and achieve.
At 270kW and 520Nm, the three-litre biturbo six doesn’t top the glory figure heap. Nor does the metal-and-glass-lidded convertible’s 4.7-second 0-100km/h claim. But backed by an Affalterbach-tuned nine-speed automatic and sprinkled with AMG fairy dust mostly in the right places – from soundtrack through to dynamics – the SLC43 hits the sports car character target many of its forebears have missed by a mile.
“It’s the perfectly sized engine for the SLC,” opines one CarAdvice collegue, though that’s only half the puzzle piece. Equally important is the rest of ‘43’ treatment complements the powertrain to produce a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging driving experience. And regardless of how high the driver turns up the heat.
There’s context at play, too. In the newly launched E43 sedan, the same engine, albeit in a slightly hotter 295kW tune, doesn’t quite pickle the arm hairs as much. “Special? Not quite,” was our summation. But that’s in a portly all-wheel-driven 1765kg four-door application. Pumping its slightly tamer goodness in a (not terribly waify) 1595kg two-door’s rear wheels, however, is a different story…
Neither the SLC43’s slightly more muscular exterior treatment – framed by its diamond-pattern grille and gaping AMG-esque front fascia – or the neat, if utterly predictable cabin design, manage to stir quite as convincingly as firing the V6 into life, opening up the exhaust baffles in Sport+ drive mode and hearing the engine roar as the roadster’s 255mm-wide rear rubber scrabbles for traction. Until that point, frankly, the $134,615 (plus on-roads) entry price for the ride seems a more than a little rich.
Our Fire Opal (red) example, for what it’s worth, is in quite honest specification, with a single option, the $2250 Night Package, adding a smattering of gloss black to areas of exterior trim, which lifts the as-tested price to $136,865 before on-roads.
How the engine burbles into life, how the bold engine note bounces around the cabin roof up or envelopes the airspace roof down and how the tail shimmies around for a time before the ESP softly reels traction in, is convincingly ‘AMG tuned’ by design, though it is tempered and lacks the sheer fire and brimstone of AMG’s heavy ‘63’-badged artillery. In SLK-cum-SLC context, it works a treat.
Another victory is the distinct change of character the Sport and Sport+ Dynamic Select drive modes provide compared with Comfort and Eco tunings (plus an assignable Individual mode). And that’s only affecting the powertrain and steering feel in our car – adaptive damper suspension, available optionally overseas, isn't currently offered for this roadster in Oz.
In Sport+, the transmission locks tenaciously onto ratios, hovering the engine rpm between its torque and power peaks, encouraging the SLC43 to lunge forward with every incremental twitch of the right foot. With its lightly sprung throttle pedal it demands some concentration to prevent the roadster hunting along like a pitbull straining against a leash. It’s too visceral a mode for tooling around the ’burbs.
Comfort mode is a stark contrast: the engine is markedly quieter, if with a slightly rumbling undertone, the transmission shifts are utterly pleasant, and yet there’s remains response and a veneer of purpose with forward progress.
But really impressive is the middling Sport mode, the tune so many cars of sporting and performance pretension balls up entirely. In SLC43, throttle response is crisp without being homicidal, upshifts are confident yet polished, the ‘soft rev-matching’ downshifts ensure there’s ample engine energy on tap to march on command when exiting side streets or lunging for gaps in traffic. There’s enough flexibility in Sport that you can go from peak hour grind to back road freedom without needing to touch the Dynamic Select button… which is a boon as, frustratingly, you have to toggle through the modes sequentially via a nondescript button in the central stack.
The ‘43’ treatment has had a positive effect on the handling package its maker describes as including “modified SLK55 AMG suspension” with input from the Affalterbach skunkworks in key areas ranging from the front and rear axle assemblies to the model-specific engine mounts. Whatever the case, the upshot is that, when pushed hard, there are shades of that indicative tail-happy character shared with more or less all rear-driven AMGs produced since current CEO Tobias Moers grabbed the company’s reins back in 2013.
So, balance wise, the SLC43 has a front end that bites down and a tail end that’ll swing playfully if the driver lifts off the throttle urgently entering a corner or gives the right pedal a firm squeeze on exit. If you enjoy the anticipation of a half-turn of opposite lock in the curves, the SLC43 produces the goods, if not the white-knuckled degree of anything wearing a ‘63’ badge. Outright grip is quite modest, though the glass-half-full appraisal is that this roadster can be lively, fun and engaging at a pace that's legal and in a forum that’s public. You don’t need racetrack for the two-door Benz to come alive and reward.
The jury is out as to how close to our test car is the SLC 43 breed's ultimate dynamic potential. You can, for instance, cost option a mechanical limited-slip differential as part of an AMG Handling Package which, for $5000, also adds red brake calipers, a specific leather/Dinamica steering wheel, a tyre pressure monitoring system and, strange as it may be, an analogue clock, though it's not fitted to our example. There is a fair argument that, for $135-large, such equipment should be standard issue. Especially given a mechanical LSD comes bundled in with a sub-$40K Mazda MX-5...
The ride quality is properly sports car firm and the even and direct steering has a degree of sports car heft – neither are tiresome unless you spend the whole driving experience commuting… in which case there’s probably a more suitable and affordable SLC variant out there sat under the ‘regular’ Mercedes-Benz banner. Though firmly set, the suspension does settle quickly over sharp road imperfections and speed humps and if there’s a tiresome ride-and-handling trait it’s that the roadster does slap noticeably across joins in the road or over catseyes.
While the sporty engagement pitch is solid, other areas of the SLC43 package are less convincing for its price. Bar the stubby little transmission controller, the cabin treatment is neat if a little Benz-by-the-numbers in everything from the broader styling brief to the hardware details, and real leather – rather than the the fake stuff matched with suede on the seat trim – ought to be standard for the money.
In the cabin teardown, other areas fail to impress. It has air-con rather than proper self-regulating climate control, the infotainment screen is small and its rotary controller is ill-positioned on the centre console, the glass roof can create a bit of a hot box environment once the mercury rises, and the rearview mirror sits right in the line of sight of left-hand corners if you’re a taller driver.
The automated folding hardtop pulls one helluva Transformers trick, though it’s not the quickest operator on the drop-top block and refuses to pull its party trick on the move. Hardly a deal-breaker, though notable nonetheless when many convertibles can raise or lower their lids at modest cruising speeds. Bootspace is also very limited with the hard-top stowed though erecting the roof does liberate a useful amount of extra volume.
Despite its shortcoming, the SLC43 delivers most confidently where it needs to most and where its SLK ancestors have habitually failed to deliver. It feels the proper sport scar.
Whether it truly deserves an AMG badge remains open to debate. In some purists eyes, the SLC43 will undoubtedly remain firmly in the 'AMG-lite' box while its sledgehammer '63' brethren remain companions on showroom floors.
And deciding if it has the outright sporting talent or not to match the gold standard-bearing Porsche Boxster S ($143,100 plus on-roads) remains to be seen.
It does seem, though, that Mercedes-AMG has produced a fair dinkum proper sports car of satisfying depth – a viable and somewhat unique alternative to the best compact-sized two-door drop-top rivals on the premium market.