This is the new Mercedes-Benz SLK, the third generation of Stuttgart’s folding hardtop sports car. Traditionally, 50-something females have been the SLK’s key demographic, but Mercedes is trying to shift the needle a little towards men. It’s a tricky brief : improve refinement and usability even further, while enhancing driving dynamics too. But Mercedes is bullish: ‘We were surprised when BMW came out with the folding hardtop for the Z4,’ remembers SLK product manager Heiko Schmidt. ‘Our USP was gone, it put pressure on us. But now we have the better overall package: better comfort and agility; the more efficient car.’
WHAT’S NEW ABOUT THE NEW SLK?
Well, it sits on the same 2430mm wheelbase as its forbear, but the track is wider, plus it’s 31mm longer, 33mm wider and 5mm taller. The styling is still instantly SLK, but its tauter and more aggressive : the front echoes both the SLS supercar and the pretty 190 SL from 1955, while the rear lights wraparound and cut into the rear flanks, adding width and muscle tone.
Inside, the extra width means there’s welcome extra elbow room, and while the basic look feels familiar – very upright centre console, flared dials for rpm and mph – the quality is in another league: the dials, heater vents and centre console buttons look like straight lifts from the SLS, while the brushed aluminium trim is standard. It takes a bit of cash to make a BMW Z4 dash look as good as a standard SLK. Impressive considering how off the pace the last car was. You’ll still have to spend extra on the Comand multi-media system, but it now moves in line with the excellent kit in the rest of the range.
WHICH ENGINES CAN I SPEC?
At launch there are three SLKs: both the 200 and 250 use a 1.8-litre turbo four – no Kompressor supercharger this time – in either 181bhp/199lb ft or 201bhp/229lb ft tune, while the 350 gets a naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V6.
Later, we’ll see a four-cylinder diesel, which sounds a bit pointless – most SLK owners do around 6000 miles a year, so Merc is banking on the smaller proportion of owners who do more miles going for an engine that doesn’t really suit the car, when they could choose a very efficient small petrol instead.
A naturally aspirated 5.5-litre AMG version – using the same engine that will appear in the C63 coupe – is also on the cards.
WHY HAVEN’T THEY SWITCHED TO A FABRIC ROOF?
Yes, folding hardtops are getting some flak right now, and Mercedes has proved a fabric roof can be incredibly refined and quiet with the E-class cabriolet. Plus fabric hoods save a lot of weight and don’t eat into boot space like folding hardtops do. But… ‘People expect the SLK to be a folding hardtop,’ says Heiko Schmidt. ‘There was never any question that the new car wouldn’t have a folding hardtop.’
It works pretty well: wind noise is subdued, it drops in 20sec at the push of a button and it’s well integrated into the overall design. Plus, thanks to a magnesium frame, it weighs a few kilos less than before too. But there are flaws: you can’t drop it at speeds over 2mph, and it eats away at boot space. Fill the boot with luggage and you can’t drop the roof.
Three roofs are available: the standard one, a panoramic roof, plus a second panoramic roof with Magic Sky Control – press a button and an electric charge runs through the glass, changing it from clear to a dark purple-blue tint. Works well, but adds 4-5kg.
HOW DOES IT DRIVE?
The SLK 250 is good fun, especially with the optional Handling Pack that brings adaptive dampers and variable rate steering. The dampers offer both compliance and good body control, while the variable rate helm means you rarely need to move your hands from the quarter-to-three position – it really speeds up after the first 5% of movement, and you’ll really notice it as fire through hairpins. Best of all, it works mechanically so it’s totally intuitive and predictable. We also tried the fixed sports dampers – the deterioration in ride quality was more noticeable than any dynamic transformation. We didn’t try the standard suspension, but we suspect the adaptive set-up is the best bet – especially as it also brings the quicker steering.
Elsewhere there’s strong front end grip, and really perky performance from the blown four-pot – far from being a letdown, it actually feels and sounds quite rorty and exciting.
The SLK 350 is still pretty dynamic, but there’s more roll on turn in, a bit more understeer and the ride’s a little worse. Plus, while the engine is more powerful, its character is more laid back.
In both versions, the optional seven-speed transmission can’t compete with BMW’s dual-clutch DCT – the mapping is a bit suspect and never quite intuitive enough to seamlessly match your mood.
As for rivals? The Porsche Boxster is still far sharper to drive and more practical – the roof opens at over 30mph, and there’s luggage space up front and out the back – but you pay the price for its dynamism in terms of extra wind- and road noise. Yet these two cars from Stuttgart are so different that they’re not really competing for the same customers. The Z4 is a different matter: it’s much more similar, yet judged in terms of base models – SLK 250 versus Z423i/25i – I’d certainly take the Merc. It has the better ride quality, agility, refinement, boot space and fuel economy. I’d need a twin test to be sure, but I suspect the tables turn for the six-cylinder models, and the BM’s better powertrain still pull it clear.
Really though it’s mission accomplished for the SLK: both chassis dynamics and refinement have improved. The target female demographic won’t be offended, but men who enjoy driving fast for fun will find something to like to. Whether they’ll buy into the SLK image remains to be seen.