As the Mercedes’ SLK/SLC prepares to jog on, we consider the status of the niche model.
To all appearances, it seems the age of boundless niche-filling has passed. In some respects this is a development which can be viewed in a positive light, especially given the staggering proliferation that took place across many carmaker’s ranges – achieving little for their creators in most cases apart from squandering engineering resources and haemorrhaging money.
It’s been twenty three years since Mercedes-Benz debuted the SLK model, the first compact two-seater from Sindelfingen since the 190SL of 1954. Introduced at the Turin motor show in 1996, the R170 SLK shared aspects of floorpan, drivetrain and suspensions with the W202 C-Class saloon. Styled by Michael Mauer in 1992, under the supervision of Murat Günak, it was perhaps the final Mercedes-Benz design to embody the ultra-disciplined forms and austere detailing of the celebrated ‘vertical-affinity’ designs created under the illustrious Bruno Sacco’s tutelage.
The SLK also premiered Mercedes’ take on the hitherto under-utilised folding hardtop concept. The electro-hydraulic metal ‘Vario’ roof could be deployed in 25 seconds, combining the security and draught-free environment of a hardtop with the sensory overload of open-air motoring. Produced at Mercedes’ Bremen plant until late 2003, the R170 proved something of a minor sensation upon its announcement. Demand far outstripped supply, although the advent of the rival convertible Audi TT in 1999 rained on its parade to some extent.
Geneva 2004 saw the introduction of a second-generation R171 SLK, an entirely new design employing a shortened W203 C-Class platform, which was both wider and longer than the original. Designed by a youthful Gorden Wagener under the supervision of Steve Mattin, R171’s styling theme was more voluptuous in form, yet like most of the Mercedes’ which emerged from Peter Pfeifer’s Sindelfingen studio, somehow more insubstantial. Notable for its SLR-inspired nose treatment – itself believed to have been a reference to contemporary McLaren-Mercedes F1 cars, the ungainly proboscis lent the otherwise petite-looking SLK a somewhat inconsistent mien.
2011 saw another take on the SLK theme, this time however, Sindelfingen confining itself to a reskin, dubbed R172. Credited to Korean stylist, Il-hun Yoon, (now general manager of Genesis’ design studio), R172’s major stylistic shift occurred at the nose, which returned to a more formal, sheer look, in keeping with those of the facelifted post-2008 R230 SL, and second-generation (C218) CLS models from 2010.
In like manner to its larger SL sibling, the revised nose lacked visual coherence, appearing to belong to another vehicle entirely and lending the new derivation a wholly disjointed appearance. A matter which wasn’t remotely addressed by a 2015 name change, when in order to bring a semblance of consistency to Mercedes-Benz’s labyrinthine model structure, the SLK moniker was abandoned.
Three years on, and with the model line fading in the marketplace, Mercedes has announced that not only is the SLC (as it is now called) to be withdrawn, but that no replacement will be forthcoming. It’s a familiar refrain. Worldwide demand for two-seat convertibles is falling, we’re told, with two-seater aficionados deserting the lower-price points in particular.
The other well-rehearsed rationale is that target SLC customers now favour crossovers and SUVs – or to the more cynical minded, Mercedes-Benz can develop and sell high-rise hatchbacks far more cost-effectively than expensive to develop and awkward to produce roadsters. However, if the seemingly undimmed cachet of the three-pointed star struggles to convince buyers, one wonders if it isn’t so much that the market is lost, but simply the marketing?
While proving something of a novelty and an impressively engineered parlour trick, the electric folding hardtop proved not only a piece of needless complication and unwarranted weight-gain, it also tied the hands of its designers, ensuring that successive SLK/SLCs were never as lithe or as pretty as perhaps they might otherwise have been. Because it’s difficult to escape the suspicion that had Sindelfingen made a bit more of an effort to make the post-2004 SLK (and its successors) a more attractive and dynamic motorcar, perhaps it might have maintained a stronger grasp of its brief.
Either way, the SLC will soon be no more and by consequence of its in-consequence few will lament its passing. Meanwhile, another form of niche-filling is emerging, with Mercedes and their rivals preparing an array of high-return, high-profile, high-riding vehicles which can be produced in myriad forms and regardless of market acceptance, will be churned out for our delectation and quite naturally, our delight.
To all appearances, the age of boundless niche-filling reached its peak just before the 2008 stock market crash and has been in full-scale retreat ever since. But the truth is that it has simply mutated. The industry it seems, has learned nothing.