Twenty years ago, Mercedes-Benz launched the compact SLK roadster onto the world, complete with a folding metal roof that was the first truly workable example of its kind in modern motoring. It has since gone through two-and-a-half generations and 670,000 worldwide sales, but even though this Mk3 model has had a mild facelift, it marks the end of the SLK era as the badge changes to SLC, a nameplate we last saw in 1981. That aside, it's business as usual for this premium open-top, with the diesel proving to be a likeable car.
In the metal
Other than a name change from SLK to SLC, for the 2016 model year, the car has been modestly spruced up with a moderate facelift, some additional in-car connectivity tech, the ability to drop the roof on the move (you need to be stationary or just inching along to start the process, though) and the nine-speed 9G-Tronic automatic that is replacing the 7G-Tronic that went before it. And 'facelift' is wholly accurate, as the styling of the car is largely identical to the Mk3 SLK, save for the front end. Viewed nose-on, it looks a lot like a shrunken version of its opulent sibling, the SL, also recently redesigned. Save for the second-gen model and its proboscis monkey bonnet treatment, looks have never been a problem for the SLK, so its classy, expensive appearance with a new SLC badge won't put buyers off.
Nor will the interior, which has had even less Botox work done to it. The instrument cluster is of a new design, there's a fresh three-spoke sports steering wheel and some sundry trim finishes are scattered about to brighten up the dash in places, yet in essence the SLC has the same cabin as the SLK. Again, not a major criticism, as it's well made and thoughtfully laid out, with a neatly integrated display screen in the console too, yet there's not much design flair to the cockpit; it's all very regimented and orderly.
Take one look at the SLC 250 d's stats and two things should be apparent: one, with 204hp and 500Nm, it's more powerful than the original SLK 230 Kompressor of 1996, so it's quick enough for anyone's needs; and two, its peak outputs are both done and dusted by 3,800rpm. OK, no diesel is rev-happy, but clearly redline chasing in the 250 d is an exercise in futility.
It's also the 2.1-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder unit under the nose, which is about to be phased out for the all-new 2.0-litre 'OM654' engine. Now, we've tried this 2,143cc lump in many, many different Mercedes products over the years and, by current standards, it's a noisy and unrefined beast. Therefore, having it in a car with an exposed passenger cabin - so you can hear its grumbling exertions even more clearly - looks like a really bad idea. Except... this is easily the quietest application of the 2.1 we've encountered. The SLC is extremely muted, even if you do decide to venture past 4,000rpm, and while that is wonderful for the roadster's genteel driving manners, it doesn't exactly make it a scintillating sports car to take hold of by the scruff of its neck.
A lot of the major controls of the SLC are well calibrated, however, so it's tidy enough when you're on a nice, sweeping road and you keep it just within itself. The steering in particular is very pleasant, with quick reactions, good weighting and even a modicum of feel coming back through the rim. The brakes are effective and the nine-speed automatic gearbox responds briskly to paddle shift inputs when required, very rarely refusing its driver a requested cog swap. There's a bit of lean across the axles, notably at the rear with the hood down (when there's more weight at the back of the car, see?), which can bring on the early onset of roll oversteer. And if you get too hot with entry speeds in corners, the heavy diesel engine means understeer is never too far away. It's thus not a ragged edge car, meaning a spirited journey in it will involve short-shifting and a dearth of engine/exhaust noise, which is perhaps not what you have in your head when you dream of driving off into the sunset in a sporty roadster with a gorgeous companion by your side.
Better, then, to revel in its comfort and refinement. Harking back to the big SL once again, never more than now has the SLC felt so much like a small scale model of the larger GT. The nine-speed auto is super-smooth in regular driving and the ride is excellent too, while even with the hood down the cabin is a pleasant place to be as wind buffeting is minimised by clever aerodynamic features. We reckon 70.6mpg is beyond impossible to achieve, given we got 35mpg while only driving it moderately quickly, but if you could get 50 to the gallon from the SLC while looking damn fine doing so, then the 250 d would make perfect sense.
What you get for your money
Here in Ireland, we get a three-model line-up, starting with the turbocharged petrol 1.6-litre SLC 180, delivering 156hp and 250Nm for €47,235. This 250 d is likely to be the best-selling model, although its near-€60,000 starting price makes it a costly car. Topping out the range is the bonkers AMG 43, but at €86,960 in a country that doesn't exactly go crazy for convertibles, we expect these to be few and far between on our roads. Other markets get two iterations of the 2.0-litre petrol turbo, the 184hp 200 and the 245hp 300, and we briefly drove this latter one on the launch event - even with the 43 in attendance, it wasn't overshadowed in the performance/noise stakes and it's a shame it won't make it here.
Standard SLC specification includes part-leather/Dinamica trim, cruise control, Active Brake Assist, climate control and the seven-inch media display system, among more, although there will be options such as Airscarf neck-level heating, Magic Sky Control (you can alter the opacity of the glass portion of the roof), adaptive damping and more, which will push the ticket up further.
New name, same old story for the SLC: it's a perfectly pleasant two-seat premium roadster with oodles of kerb appeal, a decent interior, that party piece folding metal roof and a range of strong drivetrains... but it's not massively exciting to drive. Perhaps the vario-roof isn't the SLC's main USP any more, as more pertinently it is the only manufacturer to offer a rear-wheel drive diesel roadster like this (the Audi TT TDI is front-wheel drive only) and the fact you'll get decent fuel economy from the 250 d as a result is reason enough to place it near the top of your shopping list.