Although Mercedes-Benz’s SLK roadster, in its previous two iterations, has done reasonably well on the global sales charts, it has never been the most highly regarded vehicle in the Three-pointed star’s line-up. Entry level versions have generally been nothing more than poseur’s boulevard cruisers, while the more performance-oriented models have suffered from lacklustre dynamics. And in truth, it’s always looked slightly odd with its long nose, short back-side and relatively pinched tracks. With the third-generation model one gets the sense that Mercedes is really serious about changing the SLK’s image. Is it third-time lucky for the small roadster? Let's take a closer look at the SLK 200.
Mini-SLS looksThe previous-generation SLK tried to offer the dramatic SLR McLaren’s looks in a more compact form, but with limited success. The F1-inspired nose dated rather quickly and never quite gelled with the rest of the package. The new model, in turn, has taken a lot of styling cues from the current Mercedes-Benz top-dog, the SLS. So, the front-end is more “chiselled” and square-jawed. This alone gives the SLK a more macho appearance. Unfortunately Mercedes has gone and somewhat spoiled the effect with some very aftermarket-looking “spot” lights in the front apron. Pity… In profile the SLK remains much as before, and at the rear the slightly rounded rump is again not quite in tune with the appearance at the front. So, mixed results in terms of design, but certainly a step in the right direction. For once, the wheels (17-inchers are standard), actually appear to line up with the arches.
The cabin is somewhat of a revelation. Again the inspiration comes from the SLS, and this means a cliff-faced facia dotted with attractive round ventilation outlets and constructed of fine materials. In fact, the SLK now arguably boasts class-leading perceived quality in the cabin, which says a lot given its rivals include the impeccably built Audi TT. We particularly like the metallic-faced instrumentation and the way the silver-trimmed centre console flows into the transmission tunnel. Top marks, Mercedes…
One of the main attractions of the SLK has always been its Vario hard-top. Of course the main benefit of a folding hard-top (as opposed to a soft-top) is the extra security and insulation it typically offers. Negatives include weight and, on some cars, some creaking from the structure. In the SLK’s case, however, there is another problem – the car has to be stationary for the roof to be operated, which really is not up to scratch in the modern convertible game. Also, the roof operation takes 20 seconds – an awful lot of rain can fall in that time.
That said, the cabin is a great place to be, roof up, or down. The standard features package is comprehensive and includes climate control, auto wipers, electric seat adjustment, radio/CD/Bluetooth, multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, leather upholstery and six airbags. You pay extra for satellite navigation and park assist.
Focus on economyAs the BlueEfficiency badge suggests, the focus with this particular model is as much on efficiency as it is on providing a sporty drive. The turbocharged 1,8-litre engine delivers 135 kW and 270 Nm of torque, the latter at least available from a low 1 800 rpm all the way to 4 600. Mated with the brand’s 7G-tronic transmission, Mercedes claims an optimistic 0-100 km/h time of 7 seconds and 237 km/h top speed. In reality the SLK doesn’t feel that fast, but it’s certainly nippy enough to have fun and the exhaust sound is surprisingly rorty. And yes… it is very economical, though achieving 6,5 L/100 km will demand some very light-footed driving.
The engine then, is probably up to the job. We’re not so sure of the transmission – 7G-tronic usually works better when there’s more torque on offer. In this SLK it offers three modes; Sport, Economy and Manual. None of these modes is quite spot-on. In Sport, the gearbox hunts wildly for the correct ratio, so progress isn’t very smooth. In Economy mode, it just shoots up to the top gear as fast as possible, and it takes a lot of throttle movement to get the message across that more power is needed. And lastly, in manual mode, it is just too slow to effect the desired change. If you’re a relaxed driver, you’re likely to be quite happy with the transmission, but it could certainly be sharpened up.
Supple suspensionWith its multi-link rear suspension and anti-roll bars at both ends, the SLK offers good agility for what it is, but stops short of offering electrifying driver engagement. Still, there appears to be more grip and, subjectively speaking, the steering feels more precise and linear in its weighting too. The ride is very good, again evidence that the SLK will continue to appeal mostly to customers looking for a stylish runabout, rather than a sportscar. Drop the roof and wind buffeting is well controlled, and with the roof in place the noise insulation is impressive.
Mercedes-Benz SLK 200 - VerdictThe SLK has indeed improved in a number of key areas, most notably in the cabin where the quality and design are really top-notch. Similarly, Mercedes has certainly made worthwhile improvements to the ride/handling balance, and there’s a palpable sense of detail refinement in this SLK that wasn’t there before. If Mercedes could fit it with a sharper transmission and made it possible to operate the roof on the move, it would be a very, very hard to beat package.
- Better looking than before
- Excellent cabin design and quality
- Fuel economy
- Roof-up security
- Having to stop to put the roof up/down
- Not exactly very fast
Fast factsEngine: 1,8-litre, four-cylinder, turbopetrol Power: 135 kW @ 5 250 rpm Torque: 270 Nm @ 1 800 rpm Transmission: Seven-speed automatic Wheels: 17-inch alloy Top speed: 237 km/h 0-100 km/h: 7,0 seconds\ Fuel economy: 6,5 L/100 km
- Audi TT Roadster 2,0T FSI quattro s-tronic: Probably the best roadster at this price level, the TT packs more power and more grip (quattro) than its rivals. Plus, it’s arguably the best looking too. The s-tronic dual-clutch transmission is superior to the 7G-tronic in the Mercedes.
- BMW Z4 sDrive20i Roadster M Sport Steptronic: The current Z4 is no longer the newest kid on the block, but if its classic rear-wheel drive antics you’re after, it still does the job. The design – inside and out – is however somewhat off the pace. Offers similar performance to the Mercedes.
- Nissan 370Z Roadster Automatic: Add some extras to the Mercedes and the price can quickly escalate… which brings this Nissan into contention. It may lack a premium badge, but it goes like the clappers and comes fully loaded.