Topless and throaty: the new Mercedes SLC roadster
Beginning a relationship is all about knowing which buttons to press. Which button will speed things up and which will slow them down. Which gives optimal control and which gives the firmest possible hands-on experience. Which will take her top down – and put it back up again pronto if it looks like stormy weather.
So it goes with the Mercedes-AMG SLC 43 compact roadster, a streamlined filly of a car that will inspire appraisals certain to send the placard-wielders foaming all over the politically correct bit. Sorry, militants, but there is something indubitably feminine about the SLC 43: it’s curvaceous, graceful and has legs long enough to outrun and embarrass most ardent pursuers on the motorway.
The SLC line is a rebranding of the SLK, but the differences, in the 43 at least, go deeper than a facelift and a more honed, sporty appearance than of old, particularly in the diamond radiator grille and reconfigured front bumper, which incorporates enlarged ducts for engine cooling.
Much of the roadster’s technology has been imported from Mercedes’ lauded C Class, with the range-topping SLC 43 and some of its junior partners featuring 9G-Tronic nine-speed transmission as standard.
The SLC 43 also comes armed with Dynamic Select software, which allows the driver to modify how the car runs. At the risk of drifting into computer-game territory (the software’s drive options appear on the dashboard video screen), the car operates in five modes: comfort, sport, sport plus, eco and individual, which affect the engine, steering, transmission and ride height. Being spoilt for such choice is not necessarily desirable while negotiating, at speed, wild cattle on Hong Kong Country Park lanes in a torrential summer downpour, when roadholding (exemplary) and braking (highly reassuring) are closer to the top of your agenda.
But still, when exploring the options, which may be switched with the car moving, you might put together your own combination of functions under the “individual” programme. “Eco” keeps fuel consumption to the minimum; “comfort” softens the suspension and makes the ride a little more bouncy sofa; “sport” and “sport plus” toughen it up and mean gear changes are made at increased revs.
And therein lies the key to deriving maximum pleasure from a dalliance with the SLC 43. Our relationship was a whirlwind of speed, dashing looks and admiring glances (at her, not me). We worked best together, however, when the SLC 43 was switched to manual transmission (at the push of another button). It was then, at low speed and high revs, topless and open to increasingly benevolent elements, that the throaty growl of AMG’s new three-litre, twin-turbo V6 petrol engine made the SLC 43 sound like a frustrated track star howling for her running shoes.
Sprinting from zero to 100km/h in 4.6 seconds, thence to an electronically curtailed top speed of 250km/h, the roadster rumbled from its twin exhausts, rather than – as in the case of a rival German carmaker – speakers of its entertainment system.
But oh, those buttons. Those infernal buttons. Modern car manufacturers are clearly competing to reproduce Concorde’s console and it is not a good idea to take your eyes off the road while trying to remember which button does what. Straightforward, however, is the lever for the folding hard-top-and-glass roof, which packs the top away behind the seats, and throws it back over again, in a sprightly 20 seconds each way – with the car going at up to 40km/h. Ditto the Magic Sky Control, which allows the glass section to be lightened or darkened at the touch of, yes, a button.
Any relationship has its all-fingers-and-thumbs moments early on, and in the SLC 43 they are abetted by the field of stalks behind the steering wheel, as usual governing windscreen wipers, indicators and more, but also guaranteeing a few Mr Bean-ish moments as you figure out which stalk to flick while fiddling with the Formula One-inspired manual gear paddles – similarly, behind the wheel.
Aluminium and carbon fibre trim plus leather upholstery bring refinement to the cabin. Behind, 335 litres of boot space with the roof up (225 litres down) mean your packing need not be excessively light if you are airport-bound, nor need you be on a starvation diet if you are loading up the weekly shopping.
The SLC 43 packs a lesser punch than the V8 SLK 55, but still produces 362 brake horsepower at 5,500 revs per minute; Mercedes says it is the most efficient six-cylinder performance roadster around, with returns of 36.2mpg and 178g/km of CO2.
Perhaps more telling, however, might prove the reaction of a small boy who reached imploringly towards the car as it sauntered past on its 18-inch light alloy wheels. If the plan is to catch ’em early, the SLC 43 must be doing something right – even at a tidy HK$799,000.