Auf wiedersehen, Pet

As the Mercedes’ SLK/SLC prepares to jog on, we consider the status of the niche model.

mercedes slk
(c) mercedes-benz-passion.com

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.

1996 R170 SLK. (c) Mercedesfans.de

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.

Wagener slk
Gorden’s Gin. (c) autokult.pl

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?

mercedes slc
(c) carlease

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “Auf wiedersehen, Pet”

  1. Please note that R107 is the full size SL introduced in 1971. The first SLK was called R170.
    If there is no market for a (relatively) cheap open top two seater then how does Mazda sell the MX5?

    1. Dave: I do make every effort to ensure my articles are thoroughly proof read before going live, but from time to time errors and omissions can slip past – especially as we generally have a pretty tight turn-around on material here. In this case however, I think it’s fairly clear from the text that this was simply a typo and not a lack of basic research on my part. In fact the car is clearly referred to by its correct nomenclature elsewhere in the piece.

      But thank you for your kind correction. We appreciate our gimlet-eyed readers and their efforts to keep us on our toes. I will reverse the errant numerals so that they correctly reflect the vehicle I was referring to.

  2. I might be wrong but i think the mx5 always appealed to a more “car lover” base less susceptible to be wowed by fashions – aka Suv’s, Crossovers.
    While the Slk was bought by the fashion conscious crowd, now defecting en mass to the high riding hatchback mutations.

  3. The original R170 SLK was a pert and pretty and pert little thing, even if rather inert dynamically. It also coincided with Mercedes-Benz’s nadir in the quality of its engineering and build. I had the misfortune to own one and it was the most unreliable car I’ve ever had. At least I got rid of it before the wheel arches rusted out!

    The quality was restored in subsequent models but, as Eóin has said, Mercedes-Benz lost the plot with the styling. One detail that particularly offended me was the rear window treatment. Presumably to improve the packaging of the folded roof in the boot*, they narrowed the rear screen and inserted triangular high gloss black plastic fillets either side, which looked fussy and unpleasant. In fairness, this was the least of the R171 and R172’s aesthetic issues:

    * Before you could fold the roof in the R170, you had to pull out a horizontal roller blind in the boot, which halved the available boot space:

    1. Apart from its stance, surfacing and that glorious snout, my favourite bit about R171 is that little aerodynamic stick-on aid by the rear wheel arch. Which, strangely enough, was never to be seen in the official press photos.

    2. Hi, Eóin, it was obvious that this one reference to the car was a typo (or mixed numbers). My correction was not meant to suggest you didn’t know what you were writing about.

    3. These tiny aerodynamic addenda could also be found on certain versions of R170:

      Depending on tyre size (width) they were a mandatory part of type approval to prevent excessive spray from the rear wheels in wet conditions.

    4. You live and learn – I always thought it was an aerodynamic aid.

      There’s an even more grating example of similar addenda to be found on the previous generation (Euro) Honda Accord, but in either case, I do wonder why there was no more visually pleasing/coherent way to incorporate these features.

    5. If you didn’t unroll the blind the roof wouldn’t open. The blind was there to make sure that your luggage didn’t intrude the space needed to store the roof. The roof mechanism is quite powerful (and the roof itself is quite heavy) and the roof could easily damage your luggage or your luggage could damage the roof like cracking the rear window.

      My suspicion is that the tacked on ridge on the Civic’s side panel serves the same purpose as the rubber strips on the Sierra’s D post. They create a defined point where lateral air flow splits from the bodywork in order to make its behaviour controllable just like a Kamm’s tail does. Early Sierras came without that rubber strip and had very smooth air flow around the D post but were extremely susceptible to cross winds. Soon after production started the Sierra got this wind splitter and crosswind susceptibility was gone.

      Very early Sierra with smooth D post:

      Not so early Sierra with rubber strip running around trailing edge of window in D post

  4. My R170 had rear mudflaps, do didn’t need the add-on. I guess that’s why it wasn’t simply incorporated into the bumper moulding.

    Christopher’s photo of the R171 neatly shows just how unhappy the treatment of the tail is. The downward curving boot shut line, bodyside crease and clear elements in the tail lights make the tail look like it’s sagging badly. In comparison, the R170 is masterful. In particular, the boot shut line is in exactly the right place and avoids encroaching into the rear wing, a problem that afflicts almost all of these steel-roofed convertibles.

    1. The real question concerning these water deflectors is why everybody else manages to design cars that don’t need them and Mercedes of all things has them on nearly every model at least on bigger tyred (aka AMG) versions.

    2. In Christopher’s photo of R171 the rear wheel also looks appreciably smaller in diameter than the front wheel, despite being closer to the camera, due I think to the significant discrepancy in the amount of bodywork framing each wheel and the arch-gap being different. I had to actually measure it in Photoshop to make sure the photo isn’t distorted (it isn’t). It truly is an unhappily styled car.

    3. Gosh, Richard, you’re absolutely right. I hadn’t noticed it before, but once you see it, it’s impossible to ignore. I’ve looked at other photos of the R171 to prove Christopher’s photo isn’t a one-off, and its the same effect, to a lesser or greater extent, in all of them.

  5. When did Mercedes stop being the Mercedes we (I) loved? I think the R170 had at least two wheels on the slippery slope downwards the Olymp. While the exterior strikes the balance between being timeless, yet also somewhat fashionable fairly well, I think the interior has aged very poorly. Did it ever not look like a toy car?

    But besides the interior design there is one critical element of this car that has aged even worse: The steel! Most of the 10s (if not 100s?) of thousands of SLKs have long started to crumble – after only less than 20 years. And that is truly unforgivable. (Especially when considered that in comparison, the much older and much less looked after Mercedes 190s (W201) still look much better.)

    Given the current sad state Mercedes is in, I am actually happy they spare as a Gordon Wagener re-interprtation of the SLK.

    Now I also failed to substantially touch upon the broader and more interesting theme of the demise of the niche car. Apologies.

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