We like the Mercedes SLK. Since the original was launched back in 1997 its unique combination of premium image, four-season versatility from its folding metal roof and sheer feel-good factor has elevated it to an unassailable position above its BMW, Porsche and Audi rivals. And if the first generation model felt a little soft and lacked real athleticism, the second iteration came across as a far leaner and more agile drive, particularly the 55 AMG hotshoe.
I’m still not sold on that faux F1 nose on the Mercedes SLK…
Say what you will about the SLK’s recent facelift, which marks the halfway point in the life of the second generation, but there’s no getting away from the 55 AMG’s menacing presence – our glossy black test car looked both intimidating and understated. The intelligently configured and bank-vault solid cabin is still a lesson in ergonomic clarity. And then there’s that massive 5439cc V8 stuffed into the nose…
Big engine, small car – I like it.
Because the 55 was such a hit with buyers in Europe and America, Mercedes decided not to drop the new 6.2-litre V8 into the SLK. Customers like the 5.4-litre – and after just a few miles in the 55, you’ll understand why. It initially doesn't feel that quick - flick the seven-speed automatic transmission into drive, and the SLK wafts along, V8 just ticking over with a lovely liquid burble. Gearshifts are all but imperceptible and with all that torque to draw on, you can make quick and smooth progress without ever going above 3000rpm. And seventh gear is so long legged that 85mph equates to just 2500rpm on the rev counter. But it only takes a quick stab of the throttle to unleash the hand-assembled engine’s massive power.
Click 'Next' below to read more of our Mercedes SLK55 AMG first drive
It’s a bit of a beast, then?
At 1575kg, the flagship SLK is no lissom lightweight, but with 355bhp at a low 5750rpm and plenty of torque - 375lb ft at 4000rpm – performance is never anything less than neck-straining. Gunned from standstill it will smoke its tyres and bellow its way to 60mph in just under five seconds. Mid-range grunt is just as devastating, the SLK rocketing deep into three figures with ease, those four exhausts spitting out a hard-edged serrated wail.
Does the engine work well with the paddleshift gearbox?
Very well in full auto, but it needs finesse in manual mode. Oddly enough the gearbox doesn’t change up automatically for you at the redline in manual – in flat out runs, you have to keep an eye out for the red ‘Change Up!’ signal that flashes up in the instrument panel. But because the big V8 revs so quickly and cleanly you can often be caught out, frantically pulling the alloy up-change paddle while the engine buzzes its rev limiter.
And there’s no automatic throttle blip on down-changes, which means dropping down quickly into the lower gears can be a jerky affair. It only takes a few hours behind the wheel to acclimatise, but it’s well worth it – get the engine and transmission hooked up and the SLK is ferociously quick.
Is the rest of the SLK up to handling that power?
The chassis rarely feels overwhelmed by all that power – even under provocation it feels unflappable and collected. Stiff too – it’s only over the deepest potholes that there’s the smallest hint of shudder in the car’s rearview mirror. The brakes – massive 340mm front and 330mm rear discs – are superb, easily dealing with the car’s speed with plenty of feel and fade-free fuss.
Although the 55 was left largely unchanged bar a few visual tweaks in the latest refresh, it has benefited from a new steering system. Fitted with Mercedes’ new direct steering system, the helm feels pin-sharp and precise. As well as speed-related assistance, the steering features a variable steering ratio that changes depending on the steering angle, significantly reducing inputs and reducing steering lock by a quarter. While the system allows you to scythe cleanly and smoothly through fast bends with just wrist flick inputs, it feels a little inert around the straight ahead and at slow speeds seems reluctant to self centre. But it’s a world away from the vague and dull steering that made the first SLK feel so stodgy.
Click 'Next' below to read our verdict on the Mercedes SLK55 AMG
Does the suspension feel all horribly rock-hard in a bid for what many German carmakers see as ‘Sporty’?
Not a bit of it. For a car of this performance and dynamism, the ride quality is excellent. It may sit at the top the SLK performance ladder, but the 55 rides with a firmly damped compliancy, sponging away intrusions smoothly and quietly and underscoring the Mercedes’ mini GT credentials. You could spear your way from one side of the country to the other in the SLK and feel relaxed on arrival.
There’s something hugely compelling about the SLK55 AMG. Sure, at £51,975 it’s not cheap and making the most of that glorious engine is going to mean regular and expensive stops at the fuel station. But it’s ability to deliver two cars in one – it’s both a laidback and cosseting coupe and a blood-spitting hairy-chested roadster – that makes it such an engaging machine. You’d need to have both a Cayman S and Boxster S in your garage to rival the topdog SLK’s performance and posing attributes. Which makes it a bit of a bargain. Now there’s a word you rarely hear in the same sentence as Mercedes.
Would you have a Cayman and a Boxster over an SLK55 AMG? Click 'Add your comment' below and have your say.