The latest performance-enhanced Mercedes-Benz compact sports car goes for the gusto with high-tech tweaks
As most muscle-car folks know, the forecasted demise of the V8 engine has not happened, especially in the world of high-horsepower domestic iron. Still, advances in turbocharging have made performance-tuned V6 and inline-four engines into viable alternatives to all-out cubic inches.
Such is the case with the latest compact roadster from Mercedes-Benz, which for 2017 had its name changed from SLK to SLC (not to be confused with the long-wheelbase SL coupes of the ’70s). But the biggest change can be found in its top-drawer AMG road rocket.
For 2017, the SLK55 with its howling V8 has been replaced by the SLC43 with its not-quite-as-howling twin-turbocharged V6. This is pure heresy for Benz hot rod fans, which could prompt the German automaker to pop out a V8-powered SLC55 in the future.
For now, the SLC43 carries the performance flag for Mercedes’ smallest roadster. But I’m here to tell you, it’s easy to forget there are not eight pots under the hood when you slam the throttle down and a mountain of torque slingshots the SLC forward with a thunderous roar.
This little car is pretty hot, able to achieve 60 mph in just over 4 seconds, according to the manufacturer’s specs, although the turbo V6 gives up 53 horsepower to the previous V8 version, now 362 vs 415 for the SLK55, and 14 pounds-feet of torque, now 384 vs 398. But according to Mercedes, the SLC43 takes only one-tenth of a second longer to hit 60 from a dead stop vs the SLK55, so it’s basically a wash.
Part of the rush to 60 can be attributed to the new 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic transmission. Yes, there are nine gears in there, which seems like a lot to pack into a gearbox, but it works seamlessly.
The first four gears flip through in rapid succession, and the rest seem to reel out as the mph rise to a final thrust of an electronically limited 155 mph, as ordained by the manufacturer. I never had it near there, although a triple-figure speed is shamefully easy to attain.
The trans works well enough so that the racecar-style paddle shifters seem like an afterthought. The paddles are attached to the steering column – where they should be instead of flapping around with the steering wheel – but with nine gears to choose from, you might find yourself slightly overwhelmed.
I mostly left the paddles alone, enjoying instead the excellent response of the quick-shifting automatic when the SLC was set in the Sport+ mode. That’s the most aggressive mode on the dialed-in selection: Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport+, with Comfort being the general default mode.
There also is an Individual setting in which you can customize your own drivability factors, from mild to wild. I didn’t mess with that, being happy throttling back and forth between Comfort for boulevard cruising and Sport+ for back-road fun.
In the Comfort mode, the Benz shuffles along competently, the throttle and steering response still sharp and the suspension still tight, soaking up road imperfections but accompanied by a fair amount of tire rumble from the ultra-wide, low-profile Continentals. The auto-stop function that shuts down the engine at stoplights is a nice gas-saving feature that has been appearing on more and more vehicles to raise city mileage.
When you hit that favorite winding two-lane blacktop and dial in Sport+, the baby Benz comes alive with vibrant acceleration and incredible adhesion on sharp curves. The lesser Sport mode is basically similar although it retains more of the electronic safety enhancements to better keep you from running off the road.
The tantalizing roar of the engine under power accompanied by the lightly popping exhaust in deceleration makes it hard to keep your foot out of it. Nor should you.
Not to belabor that old cliché about go-kart handling, but this car actually does handle like a go-kart. The steering is very quick and direct, and the body stays nearly flat in fast cornering. The go-kart comparison is inescapable.
The test SLC was equipped with the desirable AMG Handling package, which adds AMG Ride Control Sport suspension and Limited Slip rear, along with such extras as red brake calipers and designer clock. The handling on this car really is remarkable, and the extra $3,700 for the AMG package seems well-spent. The brakes are also amazing.
While the steering is quickly responsive, it is also fairly numb and featureless, providing scant feedback to the driver. So enjoying the awesome handling of the SLC comes with some fuzzy distance between the driver and the front wheels.
Speaking of fuzzy, whoever thought putting Alcantara on the rim of a steering wheel was a good idea? This stuff on the AMG rim is nasty, and makes my fingers feel weird. Please, stick with leather or wood and ditch that fake stuff.
There are many excellent aspects about this tech-laden vehicle, which displays Mercedes’ usual precision and advanced thinking. But there are also some things that make me wonder.
First off is the interior, which is basically a carry-over from the previous SLK generation. Not unattractive, but it is tired, what with the funky telephone-pad button inputs and plastic-metallic console trim. It should have been updated for the latest model, at least with new buttons and trim.
It’s also pretty tight. Sure, this is a short-wheelbase two-seater with a lot of stuff packed inside, but anyone over six-feet tall is going to have a tough time in here, not to even mention a six-foot-six galoot like me. Anybody with a bit of extra heft also will be squished.
Other manufacturers, such as BMW with its Z4, have managed to add extra legroom and headroom to their compact sports cars, so Mercedes should endeavor to do the same, whenever they get around to redoing the interior.
The retractable hardtop, the so-called Vario Top with adjustable tint that I found fairly blasé, looks short and awkward when it’s up. The up-and-down functions work well enough, although accompanied by mechanical moans and groans from the electric motors that seem out of place in a high-end car.
A worse problem with the top when erected was the obnoxious creaks it emitted when the car is winding through curves. Or was it the seats in the fully rearward position? I found it hard to pinpoint the source of the creaks, although they seemed to go away with the top down. Whatever, I would find that unacceptable in any car, much less a Mercedes.
The overall styling is mostly carried over from the SLK, a look that is holding up well with an aerodynamic flair that channels Mercedes’ bigger performance cars. The car does look much better with the top down.
The test car was enhanced with the AMG RedArt package that added a load of red accents to the matte-finish Selenite Grey Magno paint job, including red trim on 18-inch black alloy wheels, front spoiler, rear diffuser and front-fender trim, a $3,500 option that seems a tad over the top, although quite effective. There are even bright-red seat belts.
Standard equipment is pretty intense, such as the excellent Harman/Kardon audio system and the Airscarf to keep your neck warm when the top is down on a brisk day.
This SLC also came with the Premium Package, an array of high-tech comfort, performance and safety features that costs a whopping $6,640. But wouldn’t it seem a shame to skip the niceties once you’ve ponied up big bucks for the AMG SLC43?
Yes, this is a pricey little roadster with a base retail of $61,350 and, on the test car, a bottom line hitting $76,4455.
Overall, the SLC43 can be seen as something of a compromise for Mercedes, adding fuel economy and high-tech abundance while losing some of the raw emotion of the SLK55. Yet it is a roadster that does everything you ask it to, and does it in a snap. So while the precision was dialed in, the fun factor was never dialed out.
2018 Mercedes-Benz AMG SLC43 RedArt roadster
Vehicle type: two-passenger, two-door retractable convertible, rear-wheel drive
Base price: $61,350 Price as tested: $76,445
Engine: 3.0-liter Biturbo V6, 362 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, 384 pound-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 95.7 inches Overall length/width: 163.1 inches / 71.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,541 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 20 city / 29 highway / 23 combined
Assembled in: Bremen, Germany