SLC 43 AMG makes drivers dig deep for maximum thrills

She’s not shy-looking, fellas – and she’ll turn heads from outside as fast as it glues those on board to the headrests when the throttle is stuffed to the mat.

Despite the performance hardware stuffed into the latest in a line of semi-AMG Benz products, the SLC 43 can be a notably peaceful thing to drive.

Dual exhausts. The unmistakable AMG badge. Sculpts and vents that call styling elements from the world of aviation to mind. Blistering Mars Red paint. The Mercedes-Benz SLC 43 AMG’s strong styling cues, as applied to such a compact package, quickly ring you one right in the schnoz, as if you were a Top Gear producer. Hell, there’s even a BITURBO badge on each side, advertising its power and intent to those nearby like the firearms your favourite western movie hero wears on his hips.

She’s a rocket, a little Benz roadster with a big engine – namely, a 3-litre twin-turbo V6 with 362 horsepower and the better part of 400 lb-ft of torque. There’s a paddle-shifted automatic, dispensing power across nine forward gears that swap fast. Flaps that make the exhaust louder. A Sport mode that sees the steering set in concrete and the throttle become more sensitive than a moody teenager.

Funny thing though: despite the performance hardware stuffed into the latest in a line of semi-AMG Benz products, the SLC 43 can be a notably peaceful thing to drive.

I found myself tasked with a five-hour cruise – after waking at stupid o’clock in the morning – and excitedly anticipating the fluffy pillow waiting for me back home. I made the journey with the adaptive cruise set to a steady 110 km/h and without a care in the world about noise, speed, grip or the intricacies of steering feel and handling. Sometimes, even in rides that set the desire to hoon burning through your guts like four pounds of suicide wings, a peaceful drive is the order of the day.

Engage Comfort mode. The steering is one-finger light, but gets a nice on-centre notch that helps the thing stay centred in its lane without much need to readjust. The adaptive cruise is well-calibrated and looks far ahead, reacting consistently and smoothly, to keep a safe following distance. The engine dawdles along at hilariously low revs in ninth gear, using its big torque to climb hills and execute leisurely passes with hardly a peep from the exhaust and rarely a downshift. And you listen to some Modest Mouse on the Harman Kardon, and you relax.

Those sports seats? They’re only sports seats in appearance, since they’re gorgeously accommodating and comfortable as a day at the spa. Heat vents breathe warm air onto your neck, which one passenger credited for eliminating a nagging headache.

Even the ride quality, on a smooth highway, is no more rigid or jouncy than a slightly sporty sedan. You feel like you’re in something sprung to be fairly frisky, but it’s not smashing your spine over every expansion joint or tar strip.

So, the SLC’s numbers and styling implements talk a big performance game, but here’s a ride that’s willing to play “peaceful weekend getaway cruiser” when motorized monkey business isn’t in the cards.

There are hints that whisper of revs and redlines and thrust and noise into your ear like a gas-burning devil on your shoulder. The checkerboard pattern to the gauges. The “AMG” badges, several of which are visible from the driver’s seat. The dense howl of the V6, should it find reason to rev up a little. The redline, sitting 180 degrees across the tachometer from where the nine-speed gearbox pegs your highway revs. A perpetual invitation to the sounds and sensations of performance motoring. But the SLC 43 AMG will fall into its best behaviour when you’re not in a rush.

But when you are, it shines in several notable ways.

The engine is a gem. Do you like torque and cool noises? You’ll like what’s happening here. Hammer the throttle and a split-second’s turbo-lag later you’re stuffed into the seats, with a deep, hollow howl flooding in.

The power curve is boring and flat: the sauce all just floods to the rear wheels in a massive, solid slab, but the noise compensates. Aurally, it’s not as active as the comparable Jaguar or Porsche, or as beefy and testosterone-gushing as the Stingray, though in its own way it still sounds more delicious than the fibrous, glistening innards of a ripe pineapple. It’s a rich, wet and sweet noise that reminded me of a wolf howling at a jet engine.

Lift the throttle, or fire off a quick downshift from the left paddle, and the SLC gets vocal.

“BUCK BUCK…… BUCK!” Third.

“BUCK… BUCK BUCK… buckbuckbuck!” Second.

“BUCK BUCK… ... BUCK buckbuckbuckbuckBUCKbuckbuck!!!” Right down into first, if you like, and smooth as glass, and with no axle drag.

Cornering hard, grip just comes and comes some more. You feel like you’re driving a great big contact patch. And there’s a smoothness through all of the controls, letting you feel the good stuff, and filtering out harshness, like the feel of much of the ABS action through the pedal, or the roughness of an uneven road through the steering.

Driven real hard, the steering loads up nicely, more precision shining through the harder you push it. The brakes are most easily modulated and precise during very hard use. The engine and gearshifts are the most pleasing at full throttle. Don’t miss the squirmy but predictable feel from the rear end, should you use the throttle to push the SLC through some bends. The SLC 43 is one of those machines that feel best when driven really, really hard – but some drivers will wish for added precision and sportiness during more moderate driving.

For all the performance, the around-town ride is about as quiet and refined and solid and durable-feeling as cars this stiff and sporty get. Sure, it can get downright jouncy and busy, but you never hear from the suspension, and the thin but effective layer of around-the-edges softness keeps violation of your vertebrae to a minimum. Even on roads that make many a performance posh-rocket ride like  wheelbarrows full of cinder blocks, you’ll probably find the SLC feels comfy-sporty, and not spine-crushing (as long as your back doesn’t suck, and you’re not 67).

You’ll find adequate cargo space in the trunk for two bags, more if the roof is up, and decent at-hand storage in the cabin as far as two-seaters go, thanks to various pockets and cubbies. There’s a powerful climate control system and the lighting system is admirably potent, too.

Entry is a touch snug but not challenging for those of average size, and only my largest passengers complained that getting out felt like they were being born again. Once settled in, your 5'10", 190 lb writer found the cabin sporty-snug, not constrictive. Wind turbulence is about average during top-down cruising – definitely present but not overwhelming, and some thin wind blades, which rotate into place, help keep that turbulence to a minimum.

Gripes? The interfaces in the cabin are looking dated compared to some newer Porsche and Audi competitors, and you can’t work the roof unless you’re virtually stationary, though you can work it from the remote while your outside. I did wish for a manual transmission, and when Mercedes told me that there isn’t one, I felt like a kid who just discovered there’s no Santa Claus.

Eighty grand. With some add-on options, this tester stickered at eighty grand. And for that money, it’s definitely not the hardcore, ultra-precise performance tool in the segment. Though it works best when absolutely pushed, anything less than giving the SLC 43 AMG full hell sees a layer of numbness around the very initial inputs to the steering, brakes and throttle, which makes it less nervous and twitchy, but also less exciting. The car isn’t constantly flaunting a high level of precision response. It’s there, yes, but you’ve got to dig deep for it. To really access the best part of how this machine feels, you’ve got to drive it, hard, which is a little counterintuitive, since it does the easygoing thing so well.

As such, the SLC 43 seems a little lost. For similar money, a Boxster S feels more balanced and precise and nimble. The Jaguar F-Type is hands-down sexier. The considerably more aggressive-looking Stingray makes the SLC look like a raspberry cupcake, and has 100 more horsepower.

So, the SLC isn’t the muscle car of this segment. Or the looker. Or the razor-sharp scalpel of tarmac dissection. It’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades – good at a bunch of things, but not the best at any single one. Think of this one as a fun and fast little weekend getaway cruiser and around-town topless runabout that works well as a thrilling sports car when desired – and maybe, not the other way around.

It’s always nice to have options, after all.

Specifications

Engine Displacement 3.0L   Model Tested 2017 Mercedes-AMG SLC 43
Engine Cylinders V6   Base Price $70,900
Peak Horsepower 362 hp @ 5,500 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 384 lb-ft @2,000 rpm   Destination Fee $2,495
Fuel Economy 10.2 L/100 km combined (EPA)   Price as Tested $83,095
Cargo Space 225–335 L  
Optional Equipment
Premium Package ($5,600), Distance Pilot Distronic ($1,200), MAGIC SKY CONTROL Roof ($2,800)