MERCEDES-Benz is struggling to resolve the future of the fourth-generation SLC roadster.
There is no replacement for the now five-year-old model in Mercedes’ official new model program to the end of 2018, and the new car is not expected until 2020 at the earliest.
Complicating the decision is the reality that sales in the segment, which includes the BMW Z4, Audi TT and Porsche Boxster/Cayman, are shrinking fast, having dropped to half the level of the 250,000 cars a year that sold a decade ago.
Last year, Mercedes sold around 21,000 SLKs, though it won’t reveal the exact number, far below the 55,000 sold in 1997, the SLK’s best year. Locally, Mercedes shifted just 235 SLKs in 2015, admittedly the runout year, compared with a best of 927 in 2005.
The question must be: as buyers move to SUVs and “crossovers”, seen by many buyers as trendy, is there sufficient volume to justify developing a fourth generation SLC/SLK, even if it comes off an existing platform?
At the SLC launch, Wheels asked Mercedes-Benz chairman Dieter Zetsche if the company was looking at a front-wheel-drive, MFA (Mercedes-Benz A-Class) based roadster.
“A front-wheel-drive roadster is a very different animal,” says Zetsche. “Especially the Mercedes-Benz long hood and the long space between the wheel and the front door, which is a signature. That is very much learned, and inherent to the brand.”
“Going forward, we all know there are big expansions in the auto industry, and those expansions are more to sedans and SUVs than sports cars,” he says. “Within this climate, we have to look also at our coupes and convertibles and roadsters.”
“It would be plain dumb to go to front-wheel drive,” says Michael Rapp, from the AMG development department. “Why would we?”
“Putting the mechanical package together for front-wheel drive means the weight distribution is around 60percent over the front wheels. A lot of this is okay but it is not good for the character of a sports car. There is no decision, but I would stay with rear drive.”
This inevitably means developing the new car on the new W206 C-Class architecture.
Insiders told Wheels that plans to combine the development of a new lightweight architecture, called MSA for Modular Sports car Architecture, for the next generation SLC and SL have been dropped.
So exotic are the materials planned for the new R232 SL – due in 2020 or 2021 – that the SLC version (R173) would inevitably mean an uncompetitive price. Instead, the new SL will share its architecture with the AMG GT.