Puts the SLK in slick

What better way of banishing memories of the old SLK’s slightly effete image, stodgy handling and humdrum mechanicals, than unveiling this summer’s all-new model? Pick any criticism levelled at the previous SLK and Mercedes has seemingly rectified it.

Not that the old SLK wasn’t a hit – 308,000 were sold over the years, 23,000 of them in Britain – it just never struck a chord with enthusiasts. This car is tasked with changing all that. So while Mercedes hasn’t rewritten the rulebook in the way Mazda’s MX-5 did back in 1989, it has turned a – whisper it – poseur’s car into something altogether more serious. Here’s why.

Peter Robinson has already been impressed by the V6-powered SLK 350 (16 March 2004) and now we test the bread-and-butter of the range, the 200 Kompressor. It will be the best-seller by some margin, helped by a starting price of £27,470, seven grand below the 350.

Make your own mind up about the looks, but to our eyes the new SLK is a clever remodelling of Merc’s classic roadster shape. Some find the F1-wannabe nose contrived, but from most angles it’s oohs and aahs all round.

Clamber aboard and it’s hard not to notice the increased space in the cabin. Merc claims an extra 13mm of shoulder room and 16mm of headroom – seemingly insignificant numbers, but they contribute towards a more comfortable interior. The seats are supportive, the driving position spot-on and the quality of materials used no longer merits comparison with an early ’90s PC.

So, the new SLK is a comfy place to be, but will you want to drive it? The answer becomes apparent even before you’ve driven the first mile. Steering feel and response provided by the new rack-and-pinion set-up immediately impress, providing the car with a pointy feel and eagerness to change direction that was absent in the old, recirculating ball-steered model.

The second big impression is of a well-sorted chassis. It feels taut and well-planted through the twisties, but the suspension soaks up road corrugations with ease. Relatively modest 16-inch alloys shod with 205/55 rubber help the ride quality and the new SLK mixes a compliant ride with a nimble chassis. Although not foolproof, the standard ESP stability control quells any hooligan antics.

Not that the 200K produces enough grunt to upset the chassis’ natural balance. Its 161bhp/177lb ft feels slow in comparison with the warp-speed 268bhp/258lb ft SLK 350, but it’s still enough for Merc’s entry roadster to tackle the 0-62mph sprint in a respectable 7.9sec. It’s an eager enough engine, but plays an uncharismatic tune typical of supercharged fours, especially when compared with the glorious six-pot woofle of the SLK 350.

The 200 K hides one last trick up its sleeve: it has one of the best manual gearchanges in recent Merc memory. Smooth clutch take-up and a snicky – if long-throw – gearchange are more akin to something with a propeller badge on the bonnet. The stick-shift is, unusually, the box of choice, as the optional five-speed auto adds £1450 to the bill and is surprisingly sluggish for a Merc.

It’s hard not to like the new SLK. It’s pricier than the more powerful 180bhp Audi TT roadster, but adds a 22-second acrobatic show of a hard-top to become a worthy roadster for all seasons.

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Tim Pollard

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