As easy a task as it might appear, a roadster purchase is anything but that. It’s a highly complicated, often emotional exercise that’s no less intricate than a nuptial commitment, although nowhere nearly as important. While for some a roadster is just a good-looking car with a retractable roof that gives them that wind in the hair experience, for others it’s a prerequisite that a convertible should also be a great sportscar, which is capable of making the driver feel one with the machine as with the elements. That’s why the Porsche Boxster and the Mercedes-Benz SLK, both launched two decades ago, have had very different clientele. While the front-engined Merc quickly gained a reputation for being a hairdresser’s car, the mid-engined Porsche continued to set the benchmark in the segment as the complete roadster that perfectly blends performance and style. Even considering the last-generation’s SLK 55 AMG with its rip-roaring V8 offering a performance advantage over the Boxster, the SLK was never considered in the same league as the Porsche, which remained the yardstick for open-top motoring. However, things have changed quite a bit in both camps of late. Mercedes-Benz, which is on a renaming spree, has replaced the SLK with the SLC. And along with the new name, it has infused a whole lot of changes to the car’s mechanics in the top-spec AMG variant. When we drove it along the Maritime Alpine pass of Col de Braus in Nice, France earlier this year, we found it was much more focused than its predecessor. And as is always the case, we made a mental note to throw it into a ring with the new Boxster — which by the way has gone through a complete transformation as well — as soon as we had both available here in the UAE.
What we have here is the range-topping Mercedes-AMG SLC 43, which replaces the brutal SLK 55. The 5.5-litre naturally aspirated V8 from the previous model has been ditched in favour of a twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 that’s good for 367bhp at 5,500rpm and 520Nm of torque from 2,000rpm. Despite losing two cylinders, and displacing two and a half litres less, the extra oomph offered by the two turbochargers ensure that not much is lost in terms of power and performance. So these figures are not too far off the 416bhp and 540Nm churned out by the old V8. Mated here to a nine-speed automatic, the V6 is good enough to help the SLC 43 dart to 100kph from nought in just 4.7 seconds, which is only a tenth of a second slower than the SLK 55’s sprint time, while top speed is pegged at a respectable 250kph.
The Boxster has also undergone pretty substantial changes, right from a new denomination to a downsized engine, placed mid-ship. In a rather contrived shot at establishing an illustrious bloodline, Porsche has adopted the 718 moniker from the mid-engined 718 racecar that scored many a big win for the brand in the Fifties and Sixties. It is quite obvious that this is more of an effort to distract those likely to lament the demise of the sonorous naturally aspirated flat-six.
Replacing the old six-pot in the Boxster S is a 2.5-litre flat-four, which, mated to a seven-speed PDK twin-clutch transmission, makes 345bhp at 6,500rpm and 420Nm of torque from 1,950rpm onwards. Although the power and torque figures are less than those of the AMG’s the 718 Boxster S equipped with Porsche’s Sport Chrono package can do the benchmark sprint from 0-100kph in just 4.2 seconds, which is half a second quicker than the SLK’s time. It’s also got a 35kph advantage in top speed, too, which is limited to 285kph in the Porsche. Sport Chrono package also gives you a motorsport-inspired mode selector button on the steering wheel, which allows you to alter engine, gearbox and chassis characteristics. The rotary switch allows you to choose from Normal, Sport, Sport Plus and Individual drive modes. After playing around with all four settings, you’re bound to leave it constantly in Sport Plus, in which the Boxster impresses greatly with its superb poise and excellent body control. Throttle response is also direct and snappy, with even less apparent lag than the new 911 Carrera, and the PDK slices through the cogs with sublime ease. The steering is remarkably accurate for an electrically assisted set-up and keeps you informed of every nuance of the road you are driving on, although it doesn’t quite have the same gritty feel to it as earlier Boxsters. On the mountain roads in Huwaylat, the Boxster displays near endless traction and provides a much more engaging and flattering driving experience than any other car in the segment, including the SLC.
Don’t get me wrong. I just said the Boxster is dynamically still the best. That doesn’t mean the SLC is a pushover. In fact, the Merc’s turbo six is arguably one of the best engines in this class, showing no hint of hesitation at low revs, and picking up pace in a hurry as you put your foot down. Throttle response is even crisper in the most dynamic Sport Plus mode, where the gears are controlled via steering mounted paddles, and its performance gives you no reason to miss the V8, except for the distinctive growl of the larger mill. The V6 does have a great soundtrack, almost similar to the GT V8’s at times, but overall it isn’t as impressive as that of the good old eight-cylinder’s. But then, even the Boxster’s engine note doesn’t have much character to it. In fact, neither of these cars will give you the kind of aural pleasure that their predecessors did, even with their roofs down.
Coming back to the SLC’s performance; despite its ageing chassis, the Merc does a pretty good job of carving up corners, without feeling as nose-heavy as its predecessor used to. Although steering is a bit too heavy at times, and less involving than that of the Boxster’s, the SLC is overall a much sharper car than most others in its class, including my personal favourite, the Jaguar F-Type. It’s more playful than the Boxster, but it’s simply not as engaging or sure-footed. However, as an open-top cruiser, the SLC is right up there, what with its sophisticated, quiet ride and simple but well put together cabin. It also looks sharper than the Boxster, with the AMG front splitter, deeper side sills, rear spoiler and diffuser all adding to the muscular, hunkered-down stance.
Inside, although the SLC’s cabin looks a bit dated compared to the thoroughly modern and more expensive looking interior of the Boxster, it somehow feels homelier and more inviting than the Porsche’s, which has a cold, aloof air about it. The SLC’s roof is metal, and can now be opened and closed at speeds up to 40kph, while our tester also has the optional Magic Sky Control system specced, which lets you adjust the intensity of light that seeps in through the sunroof. It’s a cool feature — the roof goes from fully transparent to opaque at the press of a button. Although it doesn’t have this adaptive roof, the Boxster has an edge over its rival here as its fabric roof rolls back in less than 10 seconds at speeds up to 70kph.
Both cars offer more than enough legroom and headroom for six-footers, but the SLK, despite its relatively narrow cockpit, seems to have a wee bit more shoulder room than the Boxster. Talking of practicality and space, the Boxster offers more cargo room than the SLC, as having the engine mounted mid-ship frees up the entire area under the bonnet. It swallowed our snapper Stefan’s gear without any fuss, while the same baggage couldn’t be squeezed into the Merc’s boot, which is much narrower, and not as deep. Moreover, the Porsche offers a second luggage space at the back, which, although shallower than the one up front, will come in handy if you have to carry additional baggage. Inside, both the cars have enough cubbies, door pockets and cupholders to store your oddments.
As I said earlier, the soundtracks of both the SLC and the 718 are nowhere near as good as those of their forebears. So driving around with the top rolled back isn’t as thrilling an experience as it was in those earlier models. With the roof down, both cars offer pretty similar al fresco driving experiences. However, driving at the same speeds, there somehow seems to be more wind whizzing around your neck in the Boxster than in the SLC.
With all the updates and changes, the Mercedes-AMG SLC 43 and the Porsche 718 Boxster are still two very different roadsters. The SLC is a remarkably more purposeful sportscar now. It looks good, rides well, is dynamically better than many other cars in its class, and has one of the best six-cylinder engines around.
But is it a match for the Boxster? The answer depends on what exactly you look for in a roadster. As I said at the outset, if it’s just the wind in the hair experience and the attention that a convertible gets you that you’re after, then the SLC is no less of a car than the Boxster. But if you want your drop-top to be one of the best-driving cars as well, then you don’t have options. The Porsche Boxster is still the benchmark.