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FACE TO THE FUTURE

The third generation Mercedes SLK offers slick detailing, some incredible technology and distinctive styling. Still want that Boxster? Andy Enright reports.

Ten Second Review

The Mercedes SLK, now in its third generation, offers a tall stack of technology, amazingly economical engines (given their hefty power outputs), and an interior that's a whole lot smarter. The exterior styling may divide opinion but it won't put a significant brake on sales.

Background

Read most car magazines and they'd have you believe that the Mercedes-Benz SLK is a car playing perpetual catch up with its key rival, Porsche's Boxster. Playing and not succeeding. Away from the world of manufacturer press launches and free lunches, the reality is somewhat different. Since it was launched in 1996, the SLK has outsold the Boxster by more than two to one in terms of worldwide sales, which paints a rather different picture of how the general public views the head to head.
The first generation car established the SLK template of long bonnet, compact cockpit and folding hard top roof that has proven such a success. It was replaced in 2004 by a more aggressively-styled car that was a good deal better to drive. The latest model looks to reprise the success of its predecessors, but put a more environmentally responsible slant on two-seater roadster ownership.

Driving Experience

Generation on generation, the SLK has been gaining ground as a rewarding driver's car. The latest car moves the game on in several key regards. Rather than try to be all things to all people, the SLK offers buyers the choice between a conventional steel suspension as standard, a sports suspension with stiffer springs and dampers for those looking for a more focused package while for those who wish to throw a few more pounds at the SLK, there's the Dynamic Handling package which features continuous adjustable automatic damping.
Also included in the Dynamic Handling package are a Direct-Steer system which increasing agility at speed while retaining plenty of assistance at parking speeds. Torque Vectoring Brakes apply minute braking forces to the inside rear wheels through a corner to cut understeer at the front. All very clever.
Prospective customers get to choose between a trio of petrol engines, all running under Mercedes' BlueEFFICIENCY eco banner. The four-cylinder engines in the SLK 200 BlueEFFICIENCY and SLK 250 BlueEFFICIENCY develop 184 bhp and 204 bhp respectively from a displacement of just 1796 cubic centimetres. Even the SLK200 manages 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and a 150mph top speed, so entry-level customers certainly aren't being short changed. The SLK 250 gets the 7G-Tronic Plus automatic gearbox as standard and notches 60mph off in just 6.3 seconds. The 3.5-litre V6 engine in the SLK 350 delivers 306 bhp and detains you for just 5.3 seconds to 60mph on its way to 155mph. Heavily revised from the 3.5 V6 that powered the last SLK, the engine now features direct injection and is far more efficient as a result.

Design and Build

You'll probably have your own views on how well the SLS/CLS-style front end integrates with the rest of the SLK's lines. It's certainly big. The rear end looks a little more pert and the overall silhouette looks as neat, well-resolved and resistant to ageing as that of each of its predecessors. The cabin has been given a thorough reworking too, with cool contrasting colours and finishes that are a world away from the once typical coal hole German interior.
The centre console and other trim parts gleam in brushed aluminium. Wood can be selected as an option in high-gloss dark brown walnut or high-gloss black ash. Four round, galvanised air outlets, integrated in the dashboard, emphasise that this model well and truly belongs to the Mercedes-Benz sports car family, their shape being a nod to those in the SLS.
The folding hard top roof is offered in three guises. The standard version is a roof painted in the vehicle colour. Alternatively, you can opt for a dark tinted glass panoramic vario-roof. But the third variant is the real show stopper: the panoramic vario-roof with Magic Sky Control. This glass roof switches to light or dark as you wish at the touch of a button. At it's most transparent, the roof virtually disappears, offering an open-air ambience whatever the weather. In its dark state, the roof provides welcome shade and prevents the interior from heating up when the sun's rays are at their fiercest.

Market and Model

Standard equipment on the SLK includes smart features such as Airguide. Rather than the clumsy mesh draught stoppers that some convertibles opt for, Mercedes-Benz aerodynamics engineers have developed a pair of pivoting transparent plastic 'petals' which are attached to the reverse of the roll-over bars. The driver or passenger can rotate them from their stowed position behind the head rest to their 'active' position and cut draughts in a flash.
Amid its sea of standard safety features are two of particular note. The drowsiness detection system Attention Assist warns the driver to take a break when they have been driving too long or their driving patterns change. Pre-Safe uses radar to detect an impending collision and primes the brakes, seatbelts and airbags. The optional Pre-Safe Brake system takes things one step further and automatically applies the brakes if the car detects that its' about to run into the back of something.

Cost of Ownership

The SLK has always done well here thanks to its beefy residual values propping up what was often a not inconsequential price tag. In latter years, fuel and emissions taxation have become a far bigger part of the annual financial equation for most owners, so with this generation, Mercedes has rolled out the BlueEFFICIENCY banner and driven down the costs of SLK day to day ownership. Take the entry-level SLK 200. Even when paired with an automatic gearbox it will still return a combined fuel economy figure of 46.3mpg.
Step up to the SLK 250 and you'll hardly be penalised for the power advantage, this model eking an impressive 45.5 miles per gallon of unleaded. As you might well expect from a car with more than 300bhp at its disposal, the SLK 350 isn't quite so parsimonious, but its 39.7mpg wouldn't have disgraced a shopping hatch not so very long ago.

Summary

Mercedes-Benz is a company that is often underestimated. It understands its audience and knows how to develop cars that tap into their needs and aspirations with laser-guided accuracy. The latest SLK is no different. The road tests virtually write themselves but magazine writers don't have the same forensic grasp of what sells. Expect this car to continue the SLK's record of solid achievement.
If anything, it's a car that's become more finely attuned to market conditions than ever before. The efficiency of the engines and the increasingly impressive technology integration mean that the SLK slides effortlessly into a position that makes many of its rivals seem from a prior generation. If you believed that the two-seat roadster was becoming a selfish and irresponsible indulgence, Mercedes clearly thinks it can persuade you otherwise.

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