In the competitive world of luxury roadsters the SLK is a standout performer thanks to its good looks, high-end technology and starting price
The new third-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK is anything but a ‘chick’s car’. Prices start from $82,900 for the SLK 200 and that’s an $8500 reduction on the previous model.
Having been on the market for 15 years, the SLK badge has generally been associated with female buyers. The new one however, is about as feminine as Julia Gillard.
Mercedes-Benz is in a great position; it has launched its halo car (the SLS AMG) and is now leveraging the model’s enormous credibility with cars like the SLK. The use of harder lines and more aggressive styling has really helped bring the SLK into a whole new category. I suspect it now appeals equally to both men and women.
From the outside the SLK’s long contoured bonnet shares an uncanny family resemblance with the SL. Furthermore, the proportion of headlights to the grille are modelled on the original 190 SL, so it looks the business.
In true two-seater sports car fashion, the SLK sports a long bonnet with a short rear end. Photos don’t do the SLK justice, but it’s undoubtedly a head-turner as it screams past you. The Germans have moved its side mirrors from the corners of its doors down further along to give it a more aerodynamic shape and help it look like it’s moving even when standing still.
The rear lights are more stretched along the curvy rear end and V-shaped boot lid. Each light assembly comprises 60 LEDs, so it’s bound to catch your attention at night. The new R172 model is 33mm wider, 33mm longer and 5mm taller than the R171 SLK it replaces.
To start the range, Mercedes-Benz Australia will bring the SLK 200 and SLK 350 ($118,900) to market, while the range-topping SLK 55 AMG and mid-spec SLK 250 won’t be here until early next year.
Some of the new interesting features include Magic Sky Control ($4550 option), which despite sounding like something the Japanese would’ve come up with, is actually a useful system.
Using a suspended particle device layer, the press of a button sends electric charge to make the glass roof go instantly clear, another press will have it gradually darken. When light, it’s pretty much transparent (even when cold), but when dark, it can help keep the car cool in those hot summer days. This is the sort of stuff you’d expect to get in a $1 million-plus Maybach (which is also engineered by Mercedes).
Being a roadster, the roof operation is paramount to the everyday running of the SLK. The all-new 'vario-roof' is constructed from a magnesium frame (saving 6kg as a result) and is now much quieter but also two seconds faster to operate (20 seconds to open/close). Its clever design allows for another 35L of boot space as well, unfortunately it doesn’t operate when the vehicle is moving (even at slow speeds). This can be frustrating if you’re planning on opening or closing the roof in slow traffic.
At $82,900, the entry price of the seven-speed automatic SLK 200 is a healthy $3300 cheaper than the entry model BMW Z4 manual (sDrive23i) but still about $2000 more than the AUDI TT 2.0 TFSI roadster.
In saying that, it’s rather hard to compare the base model SLK to the TT, as the TT is all-wheel drive and the SLK and Z4 are driven via the rear wheels. Year to date, the TT (coupe/roadster) has outsold the SLK and Z4 combined.
In which case it’s best to compare the SLK with the Z4 roadster, its closest rival. Last year the Z4 and SLK were pretty much equal in sales volume (188 and 181 respectively), however the Z has slowed down a little this year and the introduction of the new SLK is not going to help its cause.
The SLK and Z4 do tend to target a different demographic, you just have to stare at them to realise. Mercedes-Benz is pitching the updated and more aggressive SLK at both females and males and it’s likely that the new design will allow the company to do that successfully. Meanwhile, the Z4’s peculiar styling tends to draw more attention from the gentlemen.
To begin the launch program, Mercedes-Benz Australia handed over keys to an SLK 350 for a drive out of Torquay (south of Melbourne) through parts of the Great Ocean Road and heading inland on a series of twisty mountain roads on our way back to Melbourne.
Powered by a 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V6 petrol that pumps out 225kW and 370Nm of torque, the SLK 350 is anything but slow. It rushes from 0-100km/h in just 5.6 seconds. In comparison, the similarly priced ($120,400) turbocharged Z4 sDrive35i has an extra 30Nm of torque, weighs 15kg less and does the same 0-100km/h dash 0.5 seconds quicker. Its metal roof also operates while the Z4 is moving (up to 7km/h). The SLK does use 0.7L/100km less fuel though, with official combined cycle coming in at 8.3L/100km. So should you buy a Z4 instead? Not necessarily.
The BMW Z4 sDrive35i is a great car, but it’s not for everyone. Much like the comparison between C-Class Coupe and BMW 3 Series Coupe, the SLK outdoes its German rival on the interior. Mercedes-Benz says the SLK’s interior is similar in design to the SLS AMG and when you sit inside, it shows.
Despite a plastic surround for the central instrument cluster, the SLK provides a nicer and more uplifting cabin ambience than the Z4. It’s subtle yet elegant and has a classier feel to it.
The SLK 200 gets a 14.7cm display with full Bluetooth and multimedia support and the SLK 350 gets Mercedes-Benz's COMAND system, displayed in a 17.8cm screen with navigation and Internet. It can do some really fancy things (read more about it: C Class Review).
Driving the SLK 350 is akin to being in a proper sports coupe; it’s edgy and full of character. Having no turbochargers means power delivery is smooth and without hesitation. The V6 emits a meaty bark that is much louder than in the C 350 Coupe. The seven-speed automatic transmission can be smooth in economy mode or provide rapid gear changes when sports mode is selected. The steering wheel mounted paddle-shifters are also implemented more intuitively (left is down, right is up) than the Z4’s.
Around the twisty mountain roads, I found the rear end more than willing to come unstuck, but in a controlled and predictable manner. It doesn’t ride the poor conditions of Australian roads all that well but that’s because its hard suspension setup allows for improved cornering feel.
It weighs a good 70kg more than the SLK 200 and most of that weight is concentrated in the front part of the car, so it’s more likely to misbehave when pushed to its limits.
The real surprise in the lineup is indeed the entry model. The Mercedes-Benz SLK 200 is powered by a 1.8-litre direct injection turbo four-cylinder that is good for 135kW and 270Nm (same engine found in C 200). It’s not as quick as an SLK 350, with a 0-100km/h time of 7.3 seconds (consuming 6.9L/100kms), but it feels just as fun.
Best of all, its weight advantage in the front helps for a smoother entry into corners and it feels far more balanced when driven on the edge. So if you can spare an extra 1.7 seconds in acceleration, the SLK 200 is a pretty good choice. That’s not to take anything away from the SLK 350, as that’s going for an entirely different buyer. If you want something in the middle or just the absolute best, the wait is on for SLK 250 and SLK 55 AMG.
For those who demand more from the driving experience, Mercedes-Benz offers a dynamic handling package as an option with electronically adjustable dampers and torque vectoring brake ($3000, or $1500 if you’ve already ticked the AMG sports pack). This was not tested.
Steering feel is superb with heaps of feedback and since both models use a variable-ratio steering system, turning at low speed is much easier than before (hence parking is simple).
One of the rather interesting standard features in the new SLK is attention assist. The system engages from 80-180km/h and monitors around 70 inputs from the driver. From that it can work out if you’re paying attention and suggest you take a break if it thinks you’re getting tired. I did notice that it was suggesting I take a break when driving flat-out across the mountainous roads.
The bonnet is equipped with pyrotechnic actuators in the hinges, so it can pop up by 85mm in the unlikely event you hit a pedestrian (helps stop them being thrown over the car). The SLK carries six airbags and, being a Mercedes-Benz, is built to the highest safety standards.
Overall, the Mercedes-Benz SLK is a huge step forward for the German brand. In the competitive world of luxury roadsters, the SLK is a standout performer thanks to its good looks, high-end technology and low starting price. Test drive against BMW Z4 and Audi TT.