Mercedes-Benz’s first-generation SLK was undeniably a sales success. Its combination of designer looks, a folding hard-top and that badge at a reasonable price proved too much to resist for the world’s upwardly mobile. But the market doesn’t stand still.
Some rivals, such as the Audi TT, BMW Z4 and Honda S2000 have surpassed the SLK’s design appeal and performance, while there have always been questions marks over the Mercedes’ ability to entertain. That’s where SLK version 2.0 comes in, said to be the result of a seriously intensive development process in pursuit of petrolheads’ approval all over the world.
Mini SLR looksWhile it is immediately apparent that the new car’s proportions have been stretched (it is wider, longer and even taller), the most eye-catching part of its design is undoubtedly the nose, inspired by the current top dog in the Mercedes model hierarchy, the SLR McLaren. In turn, that car’s quirky nose treatment was directly inspired by the McLaren F1 racers. Clearly Mercedes is hoping that a little bit of F1 “DNA” will endow the SLK with some street cred. Whether you appreciate the connection or not, the SLK is certainly a striking machine.
Courtesy of its folding hard-top design (which requires more space to fold in the rear), the car’s proportions are quite different to its rivals – the nose is long and the rear deck is high, but far more rounded than before and incorporates a small, integrated spoiler. Neat 16-inch wheels put the finishing touches on what is a very pretty car. Roof down, it arguably looks even better.
The cabin represents a major step up from its rather blocky, plasticky predecessor. The longer wheelbase has been used to improve the driving position and the seats offer a wider range of adjustment. The facia design and execution look and feel significantly more upmarket, with soft touch materials and satin-silver accents contributing to the premium ambience.
Although there appears to be a frighteningly large number of buttons on the facia, familiarity soon sets in and they’re all well-marked. Besides, the reason why there are so many in the first place is because this base-model SLK is very well-equipped as standard, including the likes of cruise control, a very powerful sound system and Bluetooth phone compatibility.
Topless preferenceDepending on the prevailing weather conditions, driving without a roof can be as uncomfortable as it is desirable. Mercedes-Benz’s engineers have tried very hard to make the SLK an attractive topless option, no matter what the temperature. It features an all-new neck-level ventilation system called Airscarf, which channels warm air directly to the occupants’ shoulders. The system is automatically controlled based on the outside temperature and also the speed at which the car is moving. It works a treat, and means the SLK’s top-down attributes are more readily enjoyable, more often. By the way, the SLK’s roof stows neatly into the rear compartment in a fully automated 22 seconds.
Of course, the SLK’s unique hard-top roof adds a measure of extra security compared with a soft-top, too, in addition to better NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) control. Roof-up, the SLK could just as well have been a coupe, save for the odd creak here and there.
More funMercedes-Benz’s chassis experts have really worked hard to give the most junior SLK a more engaging dynamic character. That said, while the ride is certainly firm, it is hardly ever jarring, and retains its good comfort levels at higher speeds. Driven enthusiastically you’re likely to be impressed with the much higher levels of grip, and the more precise steering. The car never feels as lively at the rear as, for example, the BMW Z4 but, nevertheless, the improvement is significant. If this is the base SLK, then more powerful versions should be quite something.
Under that long bonnet is a new supercharged 1.8-litre engine that develops 120 kW and 240 Nm of torque. The Mercedes-Benz SLK200 Kompressor, of course, is no lightweight, tipping the scales at a fairly substantial 1.4 tonnes. Within that context its performance is rather impressive. Mercedes claims a 0-100 km/h time of 8.6 seconds and a 230 km/h top speed. Playing a big part in the SLK’s surprisingly spirited performance is a six-speed manual transmission that is significantly better than the self-shifters usually offered by this company. The transmission provides crisp, accurate shifts with little hindrance between the gates.
Resultantly it is a delight to move up and down the ratios in search of the optimum performance. And while the SLK200 doesn’t have a particularly rorty exhaust sound, the supercharger whine provides some aural entertainment. The engine’s other big talent is economy – even when using the engine’s performance potential the engine remains comparatively frugal. A daily figure of around 10 litres/100 km – with the odd blast thrown in – is realistic.
VerdictIn its latest guise the Mercedes-Benz SLK200 Kompressor, even in base form, is no longer a poseur’s car. Offering a balance of performance and economy, ride and handling that arguably hits the sweet spot better than any of its rivals, the SLK200 should appeal to a very wide spectrum of buyers. Now add the Mercedes badge, vastly improved build quality and even a long maintenance plan, and you really can’t go wrong here…
We don’t like:
Lack of steering feedback
Some creaks from roof
Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder, supercharged, petrol
Power: 120 kW @ 5 500 rpm
Torque: 240 Nm @ 3 000-4 000 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheels: 16-inch alloy
Top speed: 230 km/h
0-100 km/h: 8.6 seconds
Fuel economy: 10.46 litres/100 km
Its controversial styling may be a massive turn-off to a large percentage of potential customers, but underneath that flame-surfaced skin hides an extremely capable, fun-to-drive roadster that is dynamically superior to the Mercedes.
A more predictable (boring, for some) handler, but the Audi has plenty of charm courtesy of its unique exterior design, beautifully made interior and powerful 1.8-litre turbocharged engine.
Chrysler Crossfire Roadster 3.2 V6:
A fair bit more expensive, but it does offer more power and very individualistic design. Under its skin the Crossfire is essentially a previous-generation SLK, and consequently doesn’t feel as convincing on the road as the new model.