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Mercedes-Benz SLK

Driven May 2011

Mercedes-Benz SLK

Gentlemen readers of TopGear, we know you've not been interested in them in the past (over 60 per cent of buyers have been female, as opposed to 30 per cent of BMW Z4 buyers), but this one is different. Trust us.

For starters, it's better-looking. There's now enough of a mini-SLS feel about the nose and rear to make this the most masculine SLK yet. It's a bit longer and taller now, but it's also 33mm wider, which gives a sportier stance. It also manages to hide the fat-backside syndrome that afflicts so many folding hardtops.
Opt for the AMG Sport Pack styling kit, and it's even more aggressive, with edgier and lower sills.

Second, although model-for-model it's initially more expensive than the Z4, the running costs on the SLK should be lower. The economy and emissions figures are impressive for a sports car, helped slightly by the less-than-enormous 13kg weight reduction over the previous-gen SLK. There will be three petrol engines from launch. The range starts with the 200 with 43.5mpg and 151g/km, then comes the 250 with 42.8mpg and 153g/km. The biggest petrol for the moment is the 350 V6 with 39.8mpg and 167g/km. Nigh on 40mpg from a dirty great V6 petrol engine is worth a gold star at the very least - the direct-rival Z4 23i can't better 34.0mpg from its straight six. And the petrol SLK figures will be blown into the weeds when the 250 CDI diesel arrives at the end of the year.

All the cars get stop/start, even when they come with Merc's seven-speed automatic gearbox. This eco-tech works well - it fires up instantly as you lift your foot off the brake, so there are no super-embarrassing delays at traffic lights.

Best of all, there are gadgets galore. The most impressive of which is Magic Sky. This controls the opacity of the glass roof so it can be darkened down in bright sunlight, and it's not just a gimmick - it really did keep the cabin cooler. There's also the Airscarf (£395), still unique to Mercedes, and now there's Airguide as well - a wind deflector that rotates out from behind the roll-over hoops. It's just a pity none of it's standard.

What is standard is that the SLK is now good to drive. The whole thing feels sharper, tauter, and the key aspect is the steering. It's far more precise and has more feel permeating through it. BMW's latest Z4 chased the SLK with the foldinghardtop; now it's Merc's turn tochase the Beemer's traditional driving strengths. The impressive thing is, the SLK manages it.

The chassis is also better than on the previous SLK because the compromise between comfort and sport is a happier one. One is no longer mutually exclusive of the other. You can spec the SLK's suspension in three different ways - Comfort, Sport and the test car's optional Dynamic Handling Package with adjustable dampers. The last of these manages the compromise between pottering along and driving hard pretty well. With the dampers in Comfort, the SLK does roll more into a corner, but the trade-off is that only the most knackered tarmac shakes the car around a lot.

The Sport mode predictably makes the ride worse, but it also helps the SLK turn in more sharply. There's also less understeer than there was, thanksto the Torque Vectoring Brakes that also come as part of the Dynamic Handling pack. This brakes the inside rear wheel in a corner, which helps tuck the nose into the apex - F1 teams used a similar tech a few years ago.

Given all this, the shock horror news is that, of the two cars we tested, the 250 and 350, we'd recommend the former. It's cheaper, sounds better and there's little difference in real world pace. The 250 gives away 101bhp in power (201bhp v 302bhp), but it gets closer in the torque figures because of the 250's turbo - 229lb ft vs 273lb ft. And because that turbo kicks in from a low 2,100rpm, it never slips out of its power band. Throw in the estimated Rs. 10 lakh saving over the V6, and it all starts to make sense.

There is a weak link, though. The downside to the new SLK is the seven-speed automatic gearbox. Almost 90 per cent of SLKs are specced with an auto, and almost 90 per cent of the time it does a fine job - smooth changes, enough ratios to make cruising relaxing. But it falls apartif you want to get a move on, which is disappointing because the rest of the car is now so improved when you're going quicker.

There are three modes to choose from - Eco, Sport and Manual - and none of them work well if you're driving quickly. Eco doesn't react fast enough, Sport simply holds onto the gears for longer, and Manual isn't truly manual. Head into a corner, try to change down two cogs with the left-hand paddle, and it'll only give you one to start with. The second change happens halfway through the corner, which upsets the balance of the car. Granted, this isn't especially important to most SLK owners most of the time. But Merc promised a better driver's car, and the gearbox stops it being one.

Overall, this doesn't prevent the SLK moving towards the top of the roadster pile, probably second only to the Porsche Boxster. Keener drivers will still head for the Porsche, but the Merc is a far more convincing package now. Form a queue.

Piers Ward

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