After 185,000 sales of the second-generation SLK (and 310,000 of the first), Mercedes-Benz has given its little sportster a raft of enhancements, improvements and other things ending in ‘ments’ .
It has even fatter styling, even more performance and more gadgets than you can throw a Bluetooth enabled headset at. There are over 650 revised or new components, a new-look front and rear styling treatment, a tweaked interior and telematics, a new direct-steering system and more power for the SLK 350 and 200 models.
The new SLK's front bumper looks a bit odd?
Yes. It would be cruel to suggest that the revised SLK looks like its missing a tooth but…
The front-end treatment is certainly, erm, controversial. The nose positively screams ‘WE HAVE AN F1 TEAM, DONCHA KNOW!’ and for some that’ll be just a little too shouty.
Other more successful styling revisions include the LED ‘tuning fork’ mirrors, the darkened rear lamps and the trapezoidal tailpipe. There’s also a neat piece of surfacing above the front number plate that gives the revised SLK a nice darty profile. So all-in-all a strange juxtaposition of some sweet detailing and some rather clumsy (and impotent – the rear diffuser offers no aerodynamic benefit) styling features.
OK – but looks are subjective. What about the new SLK's mechanicals?
The SLK 350 gains the most revisions so that’s the car we’re driving. Its 3498cc now produces 305bhp – some 33bhp more than its predecessor. In this techno-zeitgeist age it’s nice to see some good ol’ fashioned engine tuning at work here; the compression ratio is up, the valves are lighter, the pistons are new, the valve seats are deeper and the rev limit has been raised to 7200rpm. Torque is also up – by 7lb ft – and Mercedes claims an improvement in fuel consumption and a cut in emissions too.
Over 300bhp is pretty serious. How does the SLK feel on the road?
Very quick. If a hot-hatch owner accuses you of driving a girl's car you can make them eat your smoke with a 5.4 second 0-62mph time – six-speed manual or seven-speed auto.
Mercedes would like you to believe that the revised V6 engine is revvy and ultra-sporty – it’s not. Despite its raised 7200rpm rev limit, peak power arrives at 6500rpm and the torque curve is flatter than the Fens making the V6 a meaty, muscly and extremely driveable motor. In other words this is a very fine engine for a sports car. Sounds great too – hollow and musical thanks to a revised intake system.
What about the bits between the straights? Does the SLK 350 handle?
Yes. All the right ingredients are there; good weight distribution, front-engine/rear-wheel drive, consistent grip – but the SLK has never handled or steered with the precision or fluidity of a Boxster.
Mercedes has tried to address this with a new Direct-Steer option – although vario-steer would be a more appropriate term. The new steering is an exceptional piece of old-school mechanical engineering; simply put the steering ratio changes in line with the steering input via some clever gear reprofiling within the rack. It works well – although it takes a few turns to learn not to oversteer the wheel. The system delivers a noticeable increase in steering attack when the wheel is twirled more than 90 degrees and parking is also easier. Mercedes claims that 22 percent less steering input is required in an emergency manoeuvre too.
Direct steer doesn’t offer improved feel (a steering wheel the size of a Sumo’s waistband doesn’t help) and the variable ratio feels odd at first, but it sharpens front-end response and increases agility.
I’m stuck in traffic. Will the revised SLK entertain me?
Very much so, and once you’ve tossed the epic instruction manual aside and dived into the menu screen you’ll find it’s an intuitive device.
The SLK now has Mercedes’ NTG 2.5 generation system, featuring Linguatronic voice recognition for the sat-nav (a brilliant option), standard Bluetooth hands-free, an optional iPod interface and a slot above the screen for a memory card loaded with MP3s. A Harmon Kardon Logic7 option is also available, delivering dizzying 5.1 surround sound regardless of the roof position. It’s one of the best audio and telematics systems available.
The SLK 350 is a very good car. Its mechanical integrity, build quality, performance and folding hard-top roof are all top drawer. Nope, the SLK’s problem has always been its image; no matter how fat (with a ‘ph’) the styling is, no matter how fast and no matter how many gadgets it has got it’ll always face that accusation that it’s a ‘girl’s car’. And that’s a pity, because with powerful engines and trick gadgets it’s a really rather fine 21st century metrosexual cross gender device… darling.
The SLK 350 in particular feels like a proper beefy sports car, the SLK 55 AMG gloriously unhinged and the supercharged 182bhp SLK 200 a sweet-handling delight. The SLK doesn’t offer the pure driving pleasure of a Porsche but it is by far the better all-rounder.