IT WAS the year Dolly the sheep was cloned, the Spice Girls had their first number one – and the Mercedes SLK was launched. Today, 20 years after its 1996 debut, Dolly may be chewing the grass in some celestial field but the SLK charges on, albeit with a change of name.
Now called the SLC, to emphasise its close ties with Mercedes’ C Class range, it retains the metal folding roof that distinguishes the model from rivals including the Audi TT and Porsche 718 Boxster. That said, the so-called vario-roof can now be operated on the move at up to 25mph (the SLK roof could only be operated at speeds slower than a crawl).
The SLC is the fourth generation of Mercedes’ compact roadster, although in essence it’s a facelift of the third-gen SLK launched in 2011. Recognising, perhaps, that a simple tidy-up might not be sufficient, the facelift also ushers in a powerful new engine, extra technology and some keen prices.
Mercedes roadster ownership now starts at just over £30,000 for the SLC 200 Sport, the least powerful model. It does 43.5 mpg and costs £145 to tax. Unfortunately, you have to make do with a six-speed manual gearbox and 0-62mph in a distinctly un-sporty 7.0 seconds. Not only that, you must endure cloth trim.
Avoid it not least because it comes without the new dynamic select system that is standard with the nine-speed automatic gearbox available on the remaining engines. This brings a choice of five driving modes ranging from Eco to Sport+. There are real differences in performance, handling and ride comfort between each.
At the other end of the price spectrum is the Mercedes-AMG SLC 43. It replaces the SLK 55 and has a new 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine producing 362bhp, and an even more useful 384 lb ft torque. It’s fractionally slower than its forebear (0-62mph takes 4.7 seconds compared with the SLK 55’s 4.6) but it’s more frugal (36.2mpg), less expensive to tax – and a whole £9000 cheaper.
The SLC’s facelift is fine, so far as it goes. The grille is now steeply raked to make the bonnet appear longer, the nose has larger cooling ducts and integral LED daytime running lights, and the tail lights have been sexed up. However, it’s in AMG Line trim that it comes alive with sporty front and rear aprons, and side skirts, larger 18in alloys, lowered suspension and a more striking, so-called ‘diamond’ radiator grille. Only thing is, it costs £4000 more than Sport.
Inside, the SLC’s instrument cluster has a new 7.0-inch media display and multifunction sports steering wheel covered in Nappa leather. It’s all beautifully finished and assembled but thanks to the ranks of buttons, now looking dated beside the best designs. Air conditioning, a DAB digital radio, sports seats (leather on AMG Line) and a wind deflector are standard on Sport edition upwards.
The third trim level in the range is, of course, a model in its own right. The SLC 43 broadcasts its presence with a barking mad exhaust system and copious badges. Less noticeable is its limited slip differential that boosts grip during hard cornering and acceleration.
The sweeter motor by far is the 2.0-litre petrol in the SLC 300. It’s a revelation: creamy smooth and quiet.
Across all versions, options are numerous and expensive. Worth having is the Airscarf, which blows warm air onto your neck, and the Airguide package which helps reduce wind turbulence in the cabin.
In addition to the 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine in the Mercedes-AMG 43, there are two, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engines producing different power outputs, badged SLC 200 and 300. There’s just one diesel: a 2.1 litre producing 201bhp and 369 lb ft torque, and badged 250 d. As before, it will be the top seller.
It’s not hard to see why. It can go from 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds but returns 70.6mpg and costs £30 to tax. This last figure will please company user choosers but they should take a spin before signing up. See the full stats in the panel on the left.
The SLC is already a heavy car but the addition of the diesel engine only makes it more so. It feels ponderous and flat-footed. It can bob up and down with all that front-end mass, and on all but the smoothest roads the ride rarely settles down.
At low speeds the engine is lethargic and rattly, while at crawling speeds engine braking makes the car shunt. It’s got some serious grunt but there’s a slight hesitation before the power slams in. Sport+ takes some care: the back can easily step out in tight turns.
The sweeter motor by far is the 2.0-litre petrol in the SLC 300. It’s a revelation: creamy smooth and quiet. It has some serious get up and go (0-62mph happens in 5.8 seconds) accompanied, in Sport+ mode, by a satisfying exhaust snarl.
Even the nine-speed auto gearbox (there’s no manual option) responds faster and more seamlessly. The car is exactly 100kg lighter than the 250 d and feels it in its more composed and supple ride, and sweeter but sharper handling and steering responses.
For all its theatrics the AMG SLC 43 just tips the model over the edge. The performance is sensational and AMG has, as usual, done a great job of sharpening the handling still further without any reduction in ride comfort, but this facelift cannot disguise the fact that the SLC is an old model whose chassis was never truly happy even in SLK 55 guise.
Without question, the 300 is the sweeter, more rounded and most satisfying SLC. With an economy figure of 47.1mpg it’s actually more frugal than the 200, while road tax is just £130 – and still 70% of buyers will rush headlong into the arms of the SLC 250d.
That’s a pity because the diesel is the one engine that threatens to unmask the SLC and reveal the ageing SLK beneath.