¬Mercedes star shines brighter Richard Wiley

¬Mercedes star shines brighter Richard Wiley

You’ve got to hand it to Daimler for turning the Mercedes brand around. Under the curatorship of Jurgen Schrempp, the company embarked on a cost cutting crusade that frankly diluted typical Mercedes brand values which to me are founded on the intrinsic of “over-engineering.”  The focus had gone and the company’s once undisputed leadership of the premium segment was eroded away by those pesky Bavarian rivals at Audi and BMW.

Memory tells me the slide began around twenty years ago and it was compounded by unexpected unions with the likes of Chrysler. One of the few positives to emerge from that rocky marriage was Dieter Zetsche who was a popular figure in the DaimlerChrysler union and who was subsequently to head up the new Daimler company and get it back to its German roots.

While any large conglomerate relies on the collective inputs of skilled people and not just on the wand of one individual, Zetsche boldly declared his intent to lead Daimler and its halo brand Mercedes-Benz back to the top of the premium pile.

The fact that he’s already achieved his objective is worthy of respect and is a function of good product strategy – just look at how many Merc SUVs there are now – and of modernising and broadening the product range while re-focusing on quality. The tighter integration of the AMG division has also been pivotal and reflects the incredible success achieved by Mercedes in F1 in particular.

I mention all these nuances for the simple reason that I was very recently invited along with a select group of journalists to attend what was dubbed a “Mercedes-Benz Dream Car Day” in Johannesburg.

On the menu was to be the new S-Class Cabriolet, the facelifted SLC range, the facelifted SL range and the new AMG C63. The wow factor of a collection like this simply couldn’t be greater so it was a little disappointing to discover on the appointed day that the S-Class was an absentee as it had not yet been cleared through the local market homologation process.

Rather typically too, the weather gods had decided to swathe Gauteng in menacing grey clouds driven by a blustery cold wind – not the ideal environment to enjoy what many regard as the delights of open air motoring.

Before the new metal was presented and then driven, Merc management delighted in telling us that M-B’s passenger car division set all-time records in the second quarter of 2016 and that investment in R&D was at an all-time high ahead of the forthcoming introduction of a bevy of new models in the second half of the year.

The company certainly wants to tighten its grip on the premium sector by occupying more slots with market-led designs and if the metal we drove on the day is indicative of what’s to come, the three-pointed star is destined for more success.

First out of the blocks was the facelifted SLC series which once carried the SLK badge and which was regarded as something of a hairdresser’s vehicle to be a trifle unkind. The real point of this model range is that it provides access to open air motoring – courtesy of a vario roof – at a more accessible price point and these latest iterations refine the formula rather nicely.

Detail styling tweaks inside and out make for a more sporty look and the adoption of Dynamic Select allows instant adjustment of the vehicle’s driving characteristics.

The new line up consists of 135kW SLC200, 180kW SLC300 and 270kW AMG SLC43.  The last mentioned is powered by a 3.0 V6 bi-turbo that offers a 0-100 time of just 4.7s but this model unfortunately escaped my clutches as the younger journos out-accelerated me in the quest to seize the top model.  But I did drive the 200 and 300 versions, both powered by M-B’s 2.0 turbo 4-cylinder in different states of tune.

I had earlier in the day questioned the retention of the lower–powered version but fitted with the optional and outstanding 9-speed auto, I actually preferred this model to the more powerful 300 which sounded gruffer under load but which was admittedly more accelerative. It’s a case of 0-100 in 6.9s against 5.8s.

The 200 offered more than adequate shove thanks to a meaty torque curve and just seemed to deliver the goods with less mechanical fuss, a function of that 9-speed auto which keeps cruising revs down at amazingly low levels.

In the amazing history of the world’s oldest car company, no letters are more evocative than SL even if more recent iterations have moved towards comfortable high speed cruising rather than outright sporting overtones as ingrained in the immortal 300SL Gullwing of 1954.

As from 2016, the latest SLs have been upgraded with a host of significant technical and visual features, not least more powerful engines, that 9-speed G-TRONIC auto, DYNAMIC SELECT with five transmission modes and Active Body Control for improved on-road behaviour. The front end styling is also more sportily executed along with other styling details including aggressive bonnet power bulges and standard-fit LED headlamps.

The new model range is made up of a 270kW SL400, a 335kW SL500, a 430kW SL63 and a 463kW SL65. Out on the road I drove the 500 with roof in-situ and also lowered to test the amazingly effective climate control system which even channels warmed air to the neck region.

The interior of the SL is cozy, cosseting and quite beautifully finished and while the comfy ride and effortless cruising abilities are highly impressive, the sheer grunt of the mellifluous V8 is electrifying as the 0-100 time of 4.3s testifies.

Later in the day, I got to thrash the SL63 with its 5.5 litre bi-turbo V8 around Zwartkops race track and marvelled at the sheer thrust provided by the 900Nm of torque on hand from just 2 250rpm. A 0-100 sprint in a mere 4.1s should satisfy most!

Nonetheless, the SL range really does deserve the “iron fist in a velvet glove” moniker as all models offer immense performance on demand but otherwise deliver compelling comfort and near-silent cruising in a wonderfully luxurious environment.

If driving the SL63 was exciting, the icing on the cake on this Dream Car Day came in the shape of the AMG C 63 and AMG C 63S Coupes, both of which were sampled only on-track.

For anyone unfamiliar with track driving, let me just say that such use can be very cruel to road cars as any handling quirks – usually sourced in the fact that on-road settings take priority – are often very quickly exposed.

Not with this simply gorgeous extension of the C-Class range though. The two-door interpretation with its flowing roof line and muscular flanks really looks the part and the interior execution is the icing on the cake.

Lots of AMG-specific styling details and the use of quality trim materials, not to mention the supremely supportive seats, lift the already superb C-Class interior to new heights.

Then factor in the class-unique 4.0 bi-turbo V8 offering either 350kW or 375kW and a 0-100 run as brief as 3.9s and you know you’ve got something special on your hands.

All this muscle is sent to the rear wheels via a 7-speed AMG SPEEDSHIFT MCT sports transmission with multiple modes and paddle shifters on offer. And there’s the all-new multi-link sports suspension with AMG Ride Control as well as a performance exhaust system with three sound modes and a ‘Race’ setting that provides the most thrilling and melodious V8 bark you could ever wish to hear.

Heading onto a tight race circuit in an unfamiliar car can be a daunting experience, but not in either version of the C63 with their supremely supportive seats and infinitely adjustable driving positions.

Power-a-plenty is on tap – albeit automatically held back should too much be asked such as on exiting tight corners – which in itself provides an exhilarating drive but other elements add to the confidence factor. The steering, with ‘Race’ mode selected as on the C63S, is quick and accurate, the grip and roll control in corners is breath- taking and the huge brakes manage to cope with everything thrown at them.

The whole package was truly eye-opening in both guises and if a sports coupe can be this good on a track, it tells you it must have huge reserves on-road. Rarely have I been so impressed with high performance steeds but when the manufacturer goes to such lengths as incorporating dynamic engine mounts in the top model, you know there’s something very special to be savoured.

I can only recommend a visit to an M-B website to learn all about the technical aspects of the incredible AMG C63 Coupes and to get a better idea of the comprehensive packages offered on the facelifted SLCs and SLs.

Whatever tickles your fancy, there’s no doubting the Mercedes three-pointed star is shining very brightly, a fact reflected in the massively increased sales recorded across the globe in more recent times.

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