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The Mercedes-Benz SLK has the right image, a posh cabin and it's easy to live with

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The formula is simple, and the Mercedes SLK has been milking it – in sales terms, at least – since it brought a folding hard-top to the class. Start with the right image, add a posh cabin and make it easy to live with.

Being fast helps, too, but these days a fashion-led roadster should arguably be leaning towards economy as well as excitement. By these rules, the new SLK should have about as broad an appeal as a compact roadster can muster, so broad is its range.

A fashion-led roadster should arguably be leaning towards economy as much as excitement

At the bottom end, the 181bhp SLK 200 forms the entry point for the SLK range, at around £30k in its base trim. The SLK 250 gets a 201bhp version of the same engine but adds over £4000 to the price, while the 3.5 V6 SLK 350 is another £10k again.

There's also the first ever diesel to find its way into the baby Mercedes roadster. The SLK 250 CDI gets the company’s twin-turbocharged diesel four-pot and seven-speed torque converter transmission as standard, plus impressive headline figures of 56.5mpg and 132g/km. A naturally aspirated 5.5-litre V8 SLK 55 AMG arrived early in 2012.

But it's the SLK 200 that has the most to prove. In this sub-£35k arena lies the broadest array of tough competition – some cheaper, some greener and some more powerful – and this will be the biggest-selling model.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz SLK side profile

The Mercedes SLK was a ground-up new model when introduced in 2011. Its looks were fairly evolutionary, and very successful if the opinions of all our testers are to be believed. The SLK is well proportioned, particularly given the awkward engineering problems thrown up by folding hard-tops. It’s undoubtedly desirable enough for the image-conscious audience it targets.

Underneath the body of the front-engined, rear-wheel-drive roadster, the SLK gets multi-link suspension all round, with passive dampers and coil springs as standard. Most models can be fitted with a ‘dynamic handling pack’, which brings with it active dampers that can also be adjusted for firmer response via a Sport setting on the dashboard, as well as sharper steering responses and a torque vectoring system that allows the car to activate any of the brakes individually to aid cornering.

The styling is a little fussy, but the SLK is well proportioned

Cars in AMG Sport trim also gets a 10mm suspension drop.

The four-cylinder petrol models are the only ones in the range that come as standard with a six-speed manual ’box, as tested here, although the seven-speed auto that’s a standard fitment on the other models is available as a £1500 or so option.

While not exceptional, the headline claimed figures for both performance and economy are very competitive throughout the range.

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz SLK dashboard

The SLK really excels in this area. Sit in the snug cockpit and you are met with brushed aluminium switches and vents, and leather on every surface that isn’t metal or a colour screen. It’s a cabin that leaves you thoroughly convinced of the Mercedes’ premium status.

The optional ‘vario-roof’, a clear glass panel set into the folding electric roof, sounds like an underwhelming detail but it adds a lot to the ambience of the cabin and is something no other direct rival offers. Opting for the AMG Sport trim (a £4000 leap over the base car) gets you some very decent sports seats. There’s even decent elbow room, although the Mercedes feels a little more pinched for cabin width than some.

The only concern is over refinement

The luggage is likely to be as well accommodated as the occupants in the SLK. With the roof dropped, you retain 225 litres of a 335-litre boot, which looks particularly good next to the BMW Z4’s 180-310 litres. And it is a very usable boot. A safety partition must be in place before the Merc’s roof will fold, and this limits depth (inevitably) and creates a fairly awkward shaped space, but with the tin-top in place, the boot is a practical size and shape by class standards.

Visibility is relatively good, too. You get a good sense of where the bonnet ends, and although the door mirrors can block your forward view on to an angled junction, the SLK generally offers a good forward and rearward view.

The only concern is over refinement. With such a substantial and seemingly well engineered roof, you would imagine that this would be a strong point with the Merc, but there is a significant amount of wind noise, as well as tyre noise at higher speeds. It’s most likely a factor that many buyers will be happy to overlook, given the nature of the car, but there are quieter cabins among the SLK’s rivals.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz SLK 1.8-litre petrol engine

It tells you a lot about the potency of modern forced-induction motors that we managed to get the 1.8-litre SLK to 60mph in 7.5sec when we road tested it in 2011. And if we’d had a long runway to hand, we don't doubt we'd have made it all the way to the 149mph top speed Mercedes claims.

So for all the apparent modesty of its powertrain, the SLK is not short of outright pace. And yet in normal road use the 200 feels merely adequate in its performance rather than brimming with eagerness. Critical as this sounds, the fact that you have to work the six-speed manual gearbox to get the best out of the four-cylinder engine is not a bad thing. In fact, this level of power sent through a six-speed manual ’box in a rear-wheel-drive car is, for many of our testers, a pleasing set-up because you can wring more out of the car on a daily basis and still be at the limits a public road generally allows.

We prefer the diesel SLK250 for general everyday use

But even though this powertrain is objectively pretty good, it’s just not enjoyable enough. Many felt that the oddly gruff engine note was more irritating than encouraging and the motor just doesn’t seem to be as willing or energetic as you might expect. The SLK 250 improves things.

The SLK 250 CDI is pleasing in everyday use. It does seem at odds to have a gravelly diesel motor in a sports roadster, but the impressive mid-range makes fast progress in real world driving seem much more effortless in the diesel than it does in the base petrol. And given the compromises in running costs the V6 SLK 350 asks over the frugal diesel model, we’d live with the engine noise and go for one of the four-pots.

That's not something we'd say about the SLK 55 AMG, mind you, whose naturally-aspirated 5.5-litre V8 is a peach, and offers something unique in the compact roadster segment.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz SLK cornering

There is nothing terribly wrong with the Mercedes SLK in this area, but it remains an uninspiring car to drive. Having experienced SLKs both with and without the optional adaptive dampers and lowered AMG sports suspension, we’d say they’re worth the extra they cost. Regardless of whether you have them, mind you the SLK's ride is nothing to write home about.

More of a disappointment than the underwhelming but acceptable ride quality is the steering’s general lack of precision and feedback. Unfortunately, you can’t specify the adaptive dampers without also getting the ‘Direct Steer’ system, but certainly the variable system could offer better weighting and sharper response. As it stands, it’s a little too desensitised and, at only 2.2 turns lock to lock, can also make the car feel nervous and artificially nimble, without any real communication or progression to the steering to make it more rewarding.

The SLK200 never feels like either a really rewarding sports roadster or a GT

Still, the chassis itself provides plenty of grip and responds well enough to driver input. It performs quite well on track, but if you encounter a broken road surface when there are cornering forces involved, it can cause the car to shimmy or crash a little.

The biggest disappointment here is that, because of the combination the average dynamics, the SLK never feels like either a really rewarding sports roadster or a GT. Rather, it falls somewhere vaguely and disappointingly in the middle. There are no major flaws in the package, but nothing outstanding, either. As one road tester replied when asked what he thought of the car, it’s just “okay”.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz SLK

Both in headline figures and, in our own experience, the Mercedes SLK offers reasonable fuel economy. We returned 30.1mpg overall in the SLK 200, which is a long way off the claimed 41.5mpg, but those spending more time on main arterial roads should creep closer to high 30s than our more taxing, varied test route - we've managed more than 30mpg on a cruise even from the SLK 55 AMG. But clearly, if economy is a priority then the diesel SLK 250 is the best option.

The SLK is priced competitively against its closest rival, the BMW Z4, but it looks distinctly expensive if you’re willing to accept a fabric, rather than metal, folding roof. The front-wheel-drive Audi TT Roadster undercuts it substantially – by up to £6k is some instances, and even offers rather more potent performance in some instances.

Depreciation is set to be substantially better than the obvious rivals'

Crucially, depreciation is set to be substantially better than the obvious rivals’. Overall, and not least because the Merc feels so high class in its finish and appearance, it promises to be a very good ownership proposition.

VERDICT

3 star Mercedes-Benz SLK

The Mercedes SLK is, in most significant respects, a very successful evolution of its predecessor. All the important quantifiable elements — economy, equipment, depreciation and sticker price — have been addressed and should now satisfy the majority of buyers.

And yet if this style-led roadster should do anything, it should make driving an event. That doesn’t require incisive, focused handling in this case. It just needs well judged driver controls, a good degree of communication and a happy compromise between comfort and precise responses.

If this style-led roadster should do anything, it should make driving an event

We say ‘just’, but it is not easy to achieve this, and Mercedes has missed the mark. Yes, objectively, it’s very good. But there’s little sensation or sparkle to be found in driving the SLK, and that is hard to forgive in what should be a car that specialises in the feel good factor.

Mercedes-Benz SLK 2011-2016 First drives