Fleet News

Mercedes-Benz SLK

Mercedes-Benz

Review

The new SLK is a much better thought out, better balanced and less compromised than its predecessor, which seemed to have had a lot of time spent on it perfecting the roof and not much else. It rode poorly, the engines were unspectacular and quality was a bit wobbly. Not any more.

For a start, the new SLK is no hairdresser's car with hairdryer engines. You could never accuse Mercedes-Benz of being shy when it comes to bolting great big engines in its cars.

Despite the fact that the SLK is nowhere near as hardcore as the 260bhp Porsche Boxster S or 231bhp BMW Z4 3.0, it has more power than either of them in two of its three engines.

There are two engines available at launch, a 200 Kompressor with 163bhp and a V6 350, with 272bhp. This is the first iteration of a new 350 engine that will eventually make its way into various E, S, CLK and other series and has 25% more power than the outgoing unit, while it is 3% more economical at 28mpg on the combined cycle, when it is combined with the new seven-speed automatic gearbox.

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There will be at least one other engine in the range. In 2005 the SLK will be the first car in this class to get a 5.5-litre V8 engine in the distinctly un-fleety SLK 55 AMG. Mercedes-Benz says there are no plans for a diesel unit at the moment.

For reference's sake, the AMG will have 360bhp and do the 0-62mph sprint in 4.9 seconds, and on paper sounds like it will be fantastic, although it smacks of overkill.

Prices for the range are about where they should be, as it is cheaper than the Boxster and dearer than the less powerful Z4. The range starts at £27,470 on-the-road for the 200K, while the 350 starts at £34,270.

Residual value expert CAP reckons that the manual version will be worth a very good 49% after three years/60,000 miles while the automatics are rated at around 53%.

I can't say I'm a big fan of the looks. Mercedes-Benz is currently involved in a program to try to imbue its sports cars with design cues from its involvement with Formula One cars, especially through the droopy central nose.

It made the SLR look aggressively eye-catching rather than gorgeous and it does the same with the SLK, although it is less extreme than its outrageous brother. The back end is much less hostile than the front and it is a lot less bland than previously.

With the roof up, which is an almost perfect semi-circle, the car looks much longer at the front and well proportioned than the model it replaces. The roof works like the mechanism of a finely-made watch.

First to market among the current generation of hard-topped convertibles, Mercedes-Benz has really cracked it this time. As the whole thing drops back, the glass rear screen swivels in the opposite direction and snuggles up in the lining of the roof before settling into the boot. All this take a little over 20 seconds.

That means there is loads more luggage space in the boot because everything tucks away more compactly. With the vario-roof open, boot capacity is 208 litres, which is a sizeable 63 litres more than the outgoing model.

For those cold but clear days, the SLK comes equipped with a new option called an AIRSCARF, a rather alluring title for what is in fact an air vent in the headrest.

It blows warm air down the occupants' necks to avoid that old 'ice cream headache' syndrome you sometimes get when the roof is down and there's a chill in the air, although AIRSCARF does a better job of keeping your left ear warm than your right.

Safety is a major consideration for any roof-down car, and the SLK has a host of new systems, including adaptive two-stage airbags and new developed head/thorax airbags to protect the occupants in a shunt.

The interior is a big improvement and is evidence of Mercedes-Benz getting back to top form. Admittedly all the cars at launch were high specification with colour satellite navigation screens, but the materials used are of top quality.

The little details such as the metallic cowels for the dials which point in at the driver and the pistol grip handbrake are smart touches. It's easy to get a comfortable seating position as well, and the interior as a whole feels a lot less flimsy and bland than the old SLK.

Behind the wheel

There isn't much argument to the assertion that image-wise, the old SLK was a feminine car and was more popular with the ladies than the gentlemen.

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The new car is much more unisex and depending on the colour, wheels and extras chosen can look manly or pretty as different option boxes get ticked. This can only be good for sales.

So is the fact that the SLK is a major improvement when it comes to driving. Mercedes-Benz is pretty candid in admitting that with this car it is not going for the sort of driver who approaches every roundabout with the late-braking commitment of Michael Schumacher – preferring to leave that to Porsche and BMW – but rather is looking to sell the car to a more sedate driver.

But that doesn't make this car a soft, roly-poly boulevard cruiser. In fact, it's a very nicely balanced mix of relaxed pose-mobile and feisty sports car.

It rides beautifully, particularly on the smaller wheels, thanks to a newly-developed three link front suspension and multi-link independent rear suspension.

The steering is accurate and the car feels very grippy at speed. Using wheelarch and rear spoilers, and underfloor panelling, engineers have managed to cut body lift at speed by 30%, making the car much more stable.

There is the added safety net of ESP with ABS and Brake Assist, which is actually needed on this car, as the tail will step out quite happily if the driver gets too excitable. In a car of this type with rear wheel drive and a short wheelbase, it is a necessary precaution.

It is especially the case when you throw the 3.5-litre V6 into the mix. This is a magnificent engine, and it sounds superb – throaty and powerful. The SLK 350 will do the 0-62mph sprint in only 5.6 seconds and the torque and power transmitted to the rear wheels is instant and spectacular.

However, there isn't half as much difference between the 350 and the 200K as you might expect. Although the smaller-engined car is more than two seconds slower to 62mph, it doesn't feel much slower on the road, mainly because the 350 really does feel like there is a lot of weight over the front, while the 200K feels a lot more nimble and the steering seems more precise.

As a result, and somewhat bizarrely, the 200K feels like a smaller car from behind the steering wheel, but what it does is give drivers a choice of two very different but very similar products. Do they go for the meaty, hefty and straight line brute 350, or for the slighter, light-footed 200K? It's a great choice to have, and I'd be tempted by the 200K.

The one other major aspect of note in the SLK is that finally, Mercedes-Benz has caught up with the modern world when it comes to manual gearboxes. The SLK uses the new box used in the C-class and it's very good: precise, light and quick.

Driving verdict

The SLK is a cracking car, which hits its market exactly with a combination of strong engines, great handling and refined cruising. From a corporate customer's point of view, the 200K does everything that's needed, at lower cost and better economy.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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Fact file
Model: Mercedes-Benz SLK
Engine (cc): 1,796 supercharged 3,498
Max power (bhp/rpm): 163/5,500 272/
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 177/3,000 258/2,400
Max speed (mph): 143 (140) 155 (155)
0-62mph (sec): 7.9 (8.3) 5.6 (5.5)
Fuel consumption (mpg): 32.5 (32.1) 26.6 (28.0)
CO2 emissions (g/km): 209 (211) 255 (238)
Tranmission: 6sp man/5sp man 5sp man/7sp auto
Fuel tank capacity (l): 70 70
Prices (OTR): £27,470-£36,040