Mercedes has shifted an incredible 308,000 SLKs in the seven-and-a-half years since its rapturous 1996 launch, and it predicts its replacement can do even better. Way too ambitious, I thought, when I first saw the new SLK at a sneak preview in December. However, for me, the shift from sceptic to believer required no more than one terrific mountain-road drive.
You see, the new car’s abilities go way beyond the SLK’s Great All-Rounder tag. From secure coupé to open roadster in just 22 effortless seconds, the desirability of the roof concept is truly inspired and remains one of the SLK‘s unbeatable virtues. About here, I can hear you muttering dismissively, ‘so what, doesn’t that make it a hairdresser’s car?’
It’s true the SLK still occupies a unique niche and that no rival attempts to cover as many bases. Thing is, the new car succeeds brilliantly, without any fundamental change in its character or purpose. It’s grown up, more mature, faster, better to drive, roomier, has even better build quality and, probably, the best open-car structural rigidity.
What it doesn’t do is set out to be as sharply focused as, say, a Boxster. Yet think about it: at launch the first SLK’s top engine was a gruff 190bhp supercharged four-cylinder driving an automatic gearbox. The new car stretches to a 355bhp 5.4-litre V8. Today’s entry-level car is a supercharged 161bhp 1.8-litre four, and the mid-range engine is the new 3.5-litre quad cam V6 – the car I drive here. And you have the choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmissions.
It’s pelting down in Majorca, the roads are desperately slippery and our SLK 350 treats the conditions with disdain. In terms of refinement, ride quality, engine flexibility and comfort, we might as well be driving an E-class. Mostly, however, I’m taken by the breadth of change to the interior. This is the best-finished Mercedes cabin in a decade.
Best news is that the extra 30mm of wheelbase has greatly enlarged the cabin. Tall-driver comfort is no longer compromised. My 6ft 4in frame demands moving the seat forward a notch in order to fully depress the clutch. Add a steering wheel that’s now four-way adjustable and multi-adjustment for the seats, and it’s easy to find exactly the right driving position.
My senses are being attacked from every direction. I can’t quite believe the ride quality. The C-class-derived suspension is soaking up the bumps, completely filtering out small irregularities. It feels too soft, too supple for a sports car. I begin to suspect the SLK could come over as a boulevard cruiser.
The new engine is gutsy down low, with vastly better flexibility than the Z4 3.0. My delight at finding a new V6 that’s silky smooth and powerful, with a sonorous exhaust note, is tempered by the low-for-a-sports-car 6200rpm red line. Just as the engine is hitting the high notes, pulling ever faster, it runs into the gentle 6400rpm cut-out. And forces a gearchange.
At last, a Mercedes manual gearbox that encourages the driver to shift gears. First to second and return is still a bit baulky, but between the other ratios the little lever’s swift, mechanical movement is a vast improvement. Not as short or light of travel as an MX-5’s, but pleasurable. Point is, it’s now good enough to offer an alternative to the terrific new seven-speed auto.