If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then chances are it’s a duck, right? Perhaps in the case of a certain species of fowl such a conclusion would be entirely correct, but with regard to other creatures the famous test of abductive reasoning may not be quite so dependable.
Take for example Mercedes’ baby roadster the SLK, a car introduced around 20 years ago and finally discontinued just a few months ago, after three generations and several facelifts. With a bonnet stretching far towards the horizon, a truncated tail, a retractable hardtop and a snug cabin made for two passengers only, it certainly looked like a sportscar. Watching it disappear rapidly into the distance, you’d likely have said it went like a sportscar – and with the rowdy, 415bhp, 5.5-litre V8 of the range-topping SLK 55 AMG, you’d probably have admitted that it sounded a lot like a sportscar, too.
The problem, however, is that some cynics reckoned the sportlich leicht kurz wasn’t a proper sportscar at all, claiming it was far more about show than go. It was, in other words, the proverbial hairdresser’s car, much like BMW’s Z3 of yore that looked the business but turned out lacklustre. So much for the duck test, then? We’ll see.
I said the SLK has been discontinued but that’s not entirely accurate, for the small two-seater – further “refreshed” to give it a few more years of longevity – continues in the Mercedes line-up, but under the slightly different name of SLC (there’s a logic to this, but please don’t ask me to explain). Furthermore, its mildly revised bodywork conceals some major hardware upgrades, most notably the adoption of Stuttgart’s clever 9G-Tronic transmission almost right across the engine spectrum. Another key revision is to the high-performance AMG model – it’s now dubbed SLC 43 – whose big, naturally aspirated engine has been replaced by a considerably smaller bi-turbo, 3-litre V6.
While that latter move might seem unusually bold, it should be remembered that car manufacturers are adopting reduced-capacity, high-output combustion engines across the board – and we already know Benz to be one of the most enthusiastic downsizers of all. Granted the 43’s 3-litre cedes more than 50bhp to the outgoing 55’s much bigger eight-pot, but its 520Nm of torque is only marginally lower and arguably much more usable, as all that twist is available from just 2,000rpm. Mercedes’ claimed 0-100km/h in 4.7 seconds is thus a mere tenth behind the time for the older car – and with the governed 250 top speed being identical and fuel consumption considerably improved, the company evidently considers it’s a trade-off well worth making.
Then there’s the nine-speed box, which when I first sampled it on the latest E-class I found to be incredibly smooth and quick shifting, with the ability to skip gears on downshifts as well as to select what seems to be the correct ratio for almost every given situation. Combine that intuitive transmission with a punchy, torquey and exible V6 and it begins to become clear how the SLC 43 can be such an effective high-speed weapon.
I’ve borrowed the AMG over what turns out to be the hottest weekend of the year, with temperatures so brutal it’s almost impossible to enjoy the open-air fun promised by the SLC’s electro-hydraulic vario-roof. A 6am start, however, does at least offer one opportunity to lower the folding metal-and-glass device (my test car also comes with the Magic Sky panoramic panel that can be dimmed from completely transparent to almost opaque), an operation that takes around 20 seconds and can be performed on the move at speeds up to 40km/h. With sidescreens raised and transparent deflectors fitted to the twin roll-over bars, I’m fairly shielded from wind and road noise, though not so much that I’m unable to appreciate the exuberant arpeggios emitted by the tuned exhaust system whenever I switch to Sport+ on the Dynamic Select menu of driving modes.
Two hours of that with the temperature nudging 34 degrees by breakfast time being quite enough, I return the roof to the raised position, which is where it remains for the next two days.
And that turns out to be no sacrifice at all, because the SLC’s cabin is nigh on perfect, well-designed and beautifully put together, with superior materials that include full nappa leather on the optional sports seats and steering wheel, and a new seven-inch main display on the infotainment system (which on this AMG variant bundles parking cameras and sat-nav as standard, along with communications and entertainment functions).
With the top down, the roof stows away neatly in the boot yet still leaves reasonable stowage room – a good thing, as there’s next to no space behind the seats. Roof raised, the luggage capacity expands by more than half as much again and seems generous for a car of this class.
As an urban or inter-city cruiser the 43 is in its element, its cabin quiet and refined, and its ride comfortable and largely unruffled, though uneven and concrete surfaces can provoke some body shake, flex and road noise. The variable-rate steering, which has also been revised for the SLC, is both precise and direct, though as the helm’s sharpness and assurance aren’t quite carried through to the chassis, I don’t feel as confident hustling the car through a series of bends as I would, say, a Boxster or Cayman. The stability control is over-intrusive, too, but on the plus side there’s plenty of grip, the chassis is nicely balanced and the car changes direction pretty smartly.
Looks aside, the powertrain is the trump card here, the 3-litre six being so much more sonorous and smooth than the flat four of Porsche’s new 718 (the 43’s most obvious competitor), with the transmission just as fluid. For a while I use the paddle shifters, but as the gearbox seems so much more adept than my own efforts, I’m inclined to let it do all the work. That’s more in keeping with the SLC’s cruising credentials anyway, but it can also mean considerable gains in fuel consumption.
I’m no hairdresser, but I’m nonetheless charmed by the Mercedes-AMG SLC 43. There’s no doubt that a Boxster offers greater agility and poise, yet I wonder if that’s really the issue, because there’s so much to like – and so little actively to dislike – about this engaging and agreeable Merc.
I love the long, long bonnet, the rakishly sloping windscreen, the proportionally tiny cabin and the broad-hipped rump, all palpably old-school Mercedes roadster and redolent of a baby SLS, while the peacock in me is equally enamoured of the way this car draws admirers wherever I park it. The interior, too, is so classy and comfy that I can hardly bring myself to climb out of it. It’s sufficiently refined to be a boulevardier yet quick enough to deliver genuine fun, while the aural reworks from the exhaust are so entertaining I drive around the same city block a couple of times just so I can savour them.
Whether that makes it a sportscar or not I’ll leave it to you to decide, but I will say one more thing about the SLC 43: it definitely isn’t a duck.