By TONIO DARMANIN
I hate it, I absolutely hate it. The minute I start warming up to a car and getting the best out of it, it is time to return it to the showroom, this has become the story of my life. The only consolation is that normally, within hours, I would be jumping into the driver’s seat of the next model to test drive and starting the process all over again. It does so happen, however, that occasionally, I do come across the occasional car that leaves a mark, sows a seed, lingers in my mind even after I’ve handed back the keys. A machine that seems to hit all the right buttons, that makes me feel like I could spend more and more time driving it, possibly spend money buying it.
The Mercedes SLK is one such car. This stems from the fact that it is a cool roadster doubling up as a stunning coupé, delivers awesome amounts of power to the rear wheels, handles brilliantly, is beautifully finished and offers an endless list of tempting options. What more can a man (or a woman for that matter) want?
I first drove the model that is today being face lifted in 2004 and – like the 185,000 owners who bought the second generation SLK, as well as the 335,000 who bought the previous edition – I immediately took a liking to the car.
The facelift, thankfully, only brought about minor cosmetic changes which include an F1 inspired facia incorporating chisel-designed bumpers that look subtly aggressive and now accommodate aero diffusers, darkened tail lenses, trapezoid exhausts, a discreet AMG spoiler and larger rear-view mirrors incorporating led indicators. The in-colour at the moment is white, which is actually being referred to as ‘the new black’, however I was blown away by the particular silver, new to the model, with which the SLK was decorated.
The test car had been ordered with the optional sports package meaning exclusive 18 inch, six double-spoke alloys to die for, the new three-spoke steering wheel and gear leaver are covered in leather and this, together with the rest of the interior, is finished with red top stitching. Black roof lining, red seatbelts and trim elements in carbon look make the new SLK look distinctive, adding to the luxury feel. I found the standard sound system lacking, particularly when driving at speed with the roof down so the Harman Kardon surround sound system and the media interface enabling the connectivity with an MP3 player and USB stick would
top my accessory shopping list.
The roof opens elegantly and effortlessly in 22 seconds impinging quite seriously, as these roofs normally do, on the luggage space. Access to the vehicle with the ceiling up would be, I presume, quite tight for a tall driver but I did not get to test this. The car was open when I picked it up at the showroom and it remained so throughout the entire test-drive.
I only operated the closing mechanism to get a couple of photos and a look at the nicely finished interior but I much preferred the unlimited headroom option. Seating is low and the driving position uncompromisingly sporty; great ergonomics put all the knobs and switches in just the right places and within easy reach of the driver and the multi-function steering wheel helps. I consider the SLK a comfortable two-seater with enough cubbyholes in which to store your keys, mobile phone, sunglasses, wallet, MP3 player, etc.
One option that was originally introduced on the previous model
is the Airscarf which diffuses warm air in the neck area to make open-air driving more comfortable in colder climates. This option would make sense here in Malta if – as happened with heated seats that can now also cool – the system can diffuse chilled air making top-down driving in hot weather literally cooler.
Safety is obviously a prime consideration, particularly in this type of vehicle, however Mercedes have developed possibly the most advanced active and passive systems that focus on avoiding an accident in the first place, however should this occur anyway, then passengers are afforded the highest levels of protection to avoid or at least minimise injury.
By far the most popular model is the SLK200 that I drove, equipped with a 1.8 litre supercharged, 4-cylinder in-line petrol engine developing a respectable 184bhp and 250Nm of torque. The five-speed automatic version accelerates from 0-100km/hr in 7.9 seconds with the manual version doing this in just 7.6 seconds, and reaches a top speed of 232 km/hr. Average consumption is quoted at a respectable 36 miles per gallon and emitting 182 grams of CO2 per kilometre.
Other versions that can be considered are the SLK280 with a 3 litre V6 engine developing 228bhp, the SLK350 at 301bhp and the ultimate SLK55 AMG, powered by a 5.5 litre V8 and producing 355bhp.
I was honestly impressed with the punch of this relatively small engine giving the car a genuinely sporty feel whilst attaining sensible consumption levels. The SLK is a pleasure to drive, following the steering with pinpoint precision through corners and offering plenty of grip and stability. Body control is brilliant, even at elevated speeds and although I noticed a slight tendency to understeer when taking a sharp corner at speed, the stability control is quick to intervene to keep the situation under control. This is probably due to the light set-up of the car that in turn contributes to a truly sporty driving experience.
The sport package also includes the sport suspension which lowers the car, making it more stable and improves adherence to the road, however this could cause some discomfort on the less even surfaces of some of our roads.
Transmission is near perfect via the five-speed automatic gearbox, an option I would not order the car without and the engine intonation as the car accelerates through the gears is music to the enthusiast ears.
The SLK has a number of valid rivals in the premium roadster segment namely the Z4, the Boxster, the Audi TT and the Alfa Spyder. On the other hand, it is endowed with a classy elegance combined with subtly aggressive looks and brilliant performance and handling, making it a truly valid contender.