Vehicle Comparisons

Mercedes-Benz SLC

Mercedes-Benz SLC

After two decades of building its SLK model in the compact roadster segment, Mercedes re-launched the car in 2016 as the 'SLC', the name change acknowledging this model's traditionally close relationship with the brand's C-Class saloon, a car with which it shares most of its technology. Fresh additions to the model line-up have revitalised the range: the sporty top-of-the-line Mercedes-AMG SLC 43 variant for example - and the entry-level SLC 180 derivative. In visual terms, stand-out SLC features include the standard-fit diamond radiator grille and the optional LED Intelligent Light System.

The mainstream engines start with the SLC 180 which features a 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine developing 156bhp. Next up are the 2.0-litre petrol variants, the SLC 200 which offers 184bhp and the SLC 300 which delivers 245bhp. The efficiency champion remains the 204bhp diesel model, the SLC 250d. For high performance, there's a fresh range flagship, the Mercedes-AMG SLC 43. This car mates a 367bhp, 3.0-litre V6 biturbo engine with a modified version of the AMG sports suspension familiar from the old Mercedes-AMG SLK 55, and the combination is reflected in the sporty performance figures, with the SLC 43 accelerating from rest to 62mph in 4.7 seconds.

The SLC 180 and SLC 200 models are fitted with a 6-speed manual gearbox. The brand's latest sport/comfort-oriented 9G-TRONIC automatic transmission is available for these models as an option and fitted as standard in the SLC 250d, the SLC 300 and the AMG SLC 43. Mercedes thinks that a big SLC selling point will be its 'DYNAMIC SELECT' vehicle dynamics system, one of those that enables you to alter your car's engine, transmission, steering and suspension characteristics at the touch of a button. The five modes - 'Comfort', 'Sport', 'Sport+', 'Eco' and 'Individual' are easy to select using the DYNAMIC SELECT button in the upper control panel on the dashboard console. The selected mode is shown on the colour multifunction display and also appears as a pop-up message on the head unit display. DYNAMIC SELECT is a standard feature in the SLC 300 and SLC 250d. In the SLC 200 with 9G-TRONIC, transmission mode selection is available as an option. The SLC 43 features an AMG Sport exhaust system as standard and uses the two adjustable exhaust flaps to adapt the sound to the mode selected via DYNAMIC SELECT. This is optional on some other models and keen drivers will also want to look at the extra-cost 'Dynamic Handling package' which features a 10mm lower chassis, an adaptive damping system, a direct steering system and the brand's clever 'ESP Dynamic Cornering Assist' package.

As part of the facelift that's transformed the SLK into this SLC model, the Mercedes-Benz designers have tried to further hone this roadster's sporty look. There's a re-styled front section that sees the steeply raked diamond radiator grille elongate the appearance of the arrow-shaped bonnet. In addition, there's a bumper which features striking air intakes, dynamically modelled contours and high-quality chrome trim at the lower edge, along with distinctive headlights incorporating LED daytime running lamps, plus there's the option of an LED Intelligent Light System. The side view of the SLC reveals the typical features of a roadster, with a long bonnet, a passenger compartment that is set back and a short rear. The silhouette is defined by a variety of things; the gently rising beltline, the sweeping curve of the roof, the powerfully moulded wheel arches, sporty 16 to 18-inch light-alloy wheels and the ventilation grilles in the front wing.

Inside, Mercedes has tried to give the cabin a higher quality feel, with extra flashes of aluminium and carbon fibre, plus electroplated control elements for the electrically adjustable seats and gearshift paddles. The instrument cluster looks smarter too, with the tubular instrument surrounds now featuring black dials and red needles. A large, multifunction, colour TFT display with a 4.5-inch screen sits between the two dials, with a black-dialled analogue clock available as an option. The main central infotainment display between the two ventilation outlets in the centre console goes up in size from 5.8 to 7 inches. There's also a smarter flat-bottomed steering wheel trimmed with DINAMICA microfibre. As with the old SLK, you get an electrically-operated panoramic folding hard-top vario-roof that you can operate at speeds of up to 25mph. This can come with a 'MAGIC SKY CONTROL' option allowing you to lighten or darken the glass top at the touch of a button. Plus, we'd also want to make sure you have the 'AIRSCARF' neck-level heating system. The 335-litre boot continues to be the biggest in the segment.

Mercedes-Benz is a company that is often underestimated. It understands its audience and knows how to develop cars that tap into their needs and aspirations with laser-guided accuracy. The latest SLC is no different. Expect this car to continue the SLK's record of solid achievement.

If anything, it's a car that's become more finely attuned to market conditions than ever before. The efficiency of the engines and the increasingly impressive technology integration mean that the SLC slides effortlessly into a position that makes many of its rivals seem from a prior generation. If you believed that the two-seat roadster was becoming a selfish and irresponsible indulgence, Mercedes clearly thinks it can persuade you otherwise.

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Mazda MX-5

Mazda MX-5

Lighter, sharper and better engineered than the car it replaces, this fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 does everything right. It's offered with a 1.5 or 2.0-litre petrol engine and what it lacks in outright power it more than makes up in agility and tactility.

This rejection of a 'more is better' philosophy is a bit of a running theme throughout this 'ND' MX-5. The car's offered with either a 1.5-litre 131PS engine or a 2.0-litre 160PS unit. Mazda's chassis engineers will steer you to the 1.5-litre powerplant as they feel it's the purest specification for the MX-5 and also the lightest, tipping the scales at around the tonne. That makes this the lightest MX-5 since the original first generation 'NA' car of the Nineties.

This fourth-generation design conforms to five key criteria that Mazda claim define the MX-5 - rear drive with a front-mid engine layout, 50/50 weight distribution and an eagerness to change direction, plus a low kerb weight and an affordable price. All models get six-speed manual gearboxes.

The MX-5 isn't about straight-line pace, it's about agility and tactility. Because the engines are smaller than their predecessors, this allows them to be tucked down and back in the car. That means they can be set 13mm lower and 15mm further back than on the previous car. Mazda reckons the bonnet and overhang used here are the lowest and shortest of any production model. Weight has been pared back by using aluminium for the bonnet, boot and front wings, while the soft top hood is also lighter, improving the centre of gravity. Much of the front suspension is aluminium, as is the gearbox casing, the differential casing and the bracing that runs down the car's backbone. The virtuous circle of weight saving means that the smaller wheels only need four bolts as opposed to five. Lower rotational masses mean that the brake assemblies can also be made smaller, simpler and lighter.

The shape of the MX-5 hasn't changed radically from generation to generation. This one's no exception, but there's a bit more aggression about the detailing, the car looking like a shrunken Jaguar F-Type roadster from the rear three-quarter. Some have thought there's something a bit fishy-looking about the front end but it'll probably grow on you. See one in the metal and you'll be amazed at just how tiny it is. It's fully 105mm shorter in overall length than the outgoing version, despite the wheelbase only being 15mm less. It also stands 20mm lower and 10mm wider. Lower and wider is always good for a roadster's stance.

In another clever touch, the seat cushions are supported on netting instead of the usual metal springs, allowing Mazda to reduce weight and seat the driver's hip point closer to the road. A lower driver then means the windscreen header rail can shift backwards, in this case by 70mm, which in turn means the hood is shorter and lighter, and also easier to package when folded. See what we mean about that virtuous circle?

Weight is the enemy. Excess weight in a car dulls its responses, makes it harder to turn, stop and accelerate, ensures that it drinks more fuel and puts greater stresses on virtually every moving part, parts which then have to be beefed up and made heavier to cope. The Mazda MX-5 reverses that cycle, stripping weight off which in turn allows it to pare more weight back with other simple lightweight componentry. It's a brilliant piece of engineering.

It also goes to show that you can probably have more fun with 1.5 litres worth of MX-5 than you can with some supercars. No, that's not hyperbole. Try it and you'll see. If you measure your cars in terms of smiles per mile, the MX-5 has to be right near the top of your shortlist.

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Fiat 124 Spider

Fiat 124 Spider

Fiat is at last back in the roadster market with this appealing little 124 Spider model. There's nothing especially innovative about the familiar engine and borrowed underpinnings but everything's been woven together into a desirable package that offers a tempting blend of Latin flair.

The design of this 124 Spider may borrow much from Mazda's rival MX-5, but what lies beneath the distinctive bonnet is all Fiat's own. Here, you'll find the brand's proven 1.4-litre MultiAir, turbo-charged four-cylinder petrol engine which delivers 140bhp and 240Nm of torque to the rear wheels via six-speed manual transmission and a compact rear differential. This unit is capable of accelerating to 62mph in 7.5 seconds and has a top speed of 134mph. If that's not enough, there's a pricey Abarth variant with a 170bhp version of this same engine and a limited slip differential to better get torque to the tarmac.

The 124 Spider's suspension uses a double-wishbone layout in front and a multilink set-up in the rear, specifically tuned for greater stability while braking and turning, while the dual-pinion electric power steering system has been specifically tuned to give the Spider a responsive, Italian feel. We've yet to drive the car but it should indeed feel different from its MX-5 rival, if only because Mazda declines to use turbocharged power beneath the bonnet.

Designed in the FIAT Style Centre, the front-end of the 124 Spider aims to encapsulate the essence of its classic predecessor in a modern and bold package. Under the skin, the underpinnings may be borrowed from Mazda's MX-5 (the fabric hood is too) but the Italian brand has done much to give this model its own identity. The profile view is pure classic roadster, with its long wheelbase, a cockpit hunkered low near the driven rear axle and a long bonnet, all tied elegantly together by a horizontal line that emerges from the front wing, kicking up over the rear haunch and flowing toward the tail lamp, aping the distinctive bodywork of the original 124 Spider.

The nose of today's version also takes its inspiration from the 1966 original, with the style and position of the LED headlamps and the hexagonal upper grille all drawing heavily from the details of the classic roadster. The bonnet of this car also emulates the twin power domes of its predecessor, while the rear view is defined by two main features: the swallow-tail rear wings, the upper surface of which cascade inward toward the decklid: and the sharp horizontal tail lamps with their distinctive ring shape. An integrated rear spoiler enhances aerodynamic performance, while twin exhaust outlets are a reminder of this car's sporting pedigree.

There's a lot to like about the 124 Spider. You would expect that. After all, you can't go too far wrong if you base a product on a market-leading alternative, in this case Mazda's MX-5. Given that, Fiat has done a good job here to give its derivation of this design its own distinctive appeal. A lot of UK enthusiasts have been long waiting for an affordable Italian roadster of this sort and they won't be disappointed with what's been delivered here.

Are there issues? Well, we're not sure that the turbocharged 1.4-litre Fiat engine used is quite as characterful as the normally aspirated powerplants that Mazda uses: it's certainly not as efficient. That apart though, we'd recommend you try this Latin contender if you're in the market for an affordable roadster. It's a welcome addition to the brand's line-up.

Click here to find out more about our Fiat 124 Spider range