It has been more than two years since the current generation Mercedes-Benz SLK Roadster arrived in Australia, so we thought it was time to see whether the German brand's most affordable convertible is still worthy of consideration.
Since the SLK's launch in 2012, little has changed for this niche two-door hard-top convertible, and, luckily for Mercedes, little has changed in the market in which it plays. Well, aside from the fact that the car we tested has gone up in price.
The SLK250 model was previously a $90,010 (plus on-road costs) proposition, opening the range for the two-door hardtop convertible line. However, Mercedes-Benz has since added a budget-friendly SLK200 variant as the base model car (priced at $86,450), pushing the SLK250 up to start at $95,700.
Both the SLK200 and SLK250 are powered by a 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine. The SLK200 has less power than the 250 (135kW/270Nm compared to 150kW/310Nm), though the fuel consumption claim for both models is identical at 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres.
The SLK250 can sprint from 0-100km/h in 6.6 seconds compared with the more affordable car’s 7.0sec claim.
The SLK200 isn't scant on equipment, with 18-inch alloys, leather trim, heated seats, driver's seat with memory settings and satellite navigation. The SLK250 gains sports suspension, an upgraded media unit with a larger screen and internet connectivity, bi-xenon headlights and LED daytime running lights and auto-dimming mirrors.
Our car also had an AMG Line pack with unique wheels, multifunction sports steering wheel with perforated leather grip, paddleshifters and a nappa leather gear shifter among other extras. That box costs $5650 to tick.
Other SLK variants include the SLK350 (with a 3.5-litre V6 engine producing 225kW/370Nm, priced at $124,300), up to the range-topping SLK 55 AMG at $161,130, which uses a 5.5-litre V8 engine producing 310kW and 540Nm.
That price range pits the sporty drop-top Benz among fellow Germans such as the BMW Z4 (from $79,900) and Audi TT Roadster (from $72,800). Then there’s the best car in the class, the Porsche Boxster (from $102,800).
With an all-new Audi TT Roadster is on its way in 2015, along with a facelifted Boxster and a brand new Z4 is also expected in 2016, we figured it was a good time to get reacquainted with Benz's offering. And that’s exactly what we did just behind the wheel of an SLK250 on a recent weekend away to Melbourne’s leafy outskirts.
The first thing we noticed when we picked the car up was the limited boot space available. There is 335 litres of cargo capacity with the roof up, but should you wish to hit the road with the roof down, the folding metal turret eats into the boot space, limiting capacity to just 225L – enough for a picnic basket and maybe another small bag, but less than rivals offer (the rear-engined Porsche Boxster has 150L of space in its front-end boot and 130L in the rear hold).
The roof is also a bit of a pain to use. The car must be at a standstill for it to operate, and it takes about half a minute from the time you hit the switch until the final chime tells you the operation has been completed. In the scheme of things it’s not a massive issue, though a sudden downpour could leave you – and the interior of the car – very wet indeed.
Inside, the SLK has been aimed more at being sporty than luxurious. The dashboard features a quartet of large, bold turbine-style air vents across the top of the fascia, with chrome trimmings on the instruments, steering wheel, controls and doors.
Taller drivers will struggle for space, as the roofline is low and the seat only has so far it can slide (electronically) before hitting the rear wall of the cabin.
Our car also had a keyless entry system with push button start, which is a cheeky optional extra priced at $1850. It should be standard – it is on some $15,000 cars. Another option on our car is black ash wood trim ($1100), which counteracts the boy racer chrome, looking classy and complementing the standard black leather nicely.
Thankfully, satellite navigation is standard, but the system is out of date when compared with any of Benz’s latest offerings, such as the new-generation C-Class. The graphics are low resolution, with maps that look 10 years old rather than two or three. The menu system is reasonably easy to peruse, though the Comand system remains less intuitive than BMW’s iDrive system.
On the road, the SLK250’s 1.8-litre engine offers enough punch to feel willing but never potently fast. It is refined and responds quickly to throttle inputs, and offers a nice engine note as engine speeds rise. Despite its modest power outputs, the engine never felt breathless – indeed, we found ourselves monitoring the speedo more than expected (it was a Victorian weekend away, after all).
Its power goes to the rear wheels via a standard seven-speed automatic transmission – no manual SLK models are available in Australia, meaning buyers who prefer to take control on their convertible’s shifts will need to opt for a competitor, namely a Porsche as all the others only come with autos, too.
For the most part the auto’s shifts are smooth and compliant, particularly on the open road. In town – and in the default Eco mode – the ‘box does tend to slur its shifts, opting for smooth changes rather than lightning-fast swaps between cogs.
There are paddleshifters on the steering wheel, but the transmission will overrule the driver when pushing hard – a shame, as the exhaust note encourages more enthusiastic drivers with its pops and puffs on shifts.
One of the most impressive aspects of the SLK has to be its ride quality, with is more like a luxury car than a hellbent sports machine. Over rough country back roads the Merc never loses its composure, settling quickly after big bumps and riding over small ones smoothly. It can be a little pitchy around town, though.
Despite its heavy metal roof and slightly tubby 1500-kilogram kerb weight, the SLK250 is balanced and grippy through tighter bends, and its steering offers a nice amount of directness and quick turn-in complemented by a meaningful on-centre action. It lacks the sporty directness and feel of the Porsche, but that benchmark steering system can’t even be bettered by some cars triple the price.
We dropped the top for more than 100km of our spirited 250km round trip in the SLK – braving the chilly Victorian morning air – and found the car’s standard neck-warming Airscarf heater system a welcome companion, not to mention the heated seats.
The cabin remains reasonably well insulated from the elements at speed, though taller occupants will have the wind in their hair. Quite a lot of wind.
At the conclusion of our drive we saw average consumption displayed at 9.2L/100km – over the claim, but not too bad given the number of corners, climbs and amount of throttle pressure given to the SLK.
We had previously found the SLK to be a good, but not great, convertible sports car – and, once again, little has changed.
There are no major flaws to be found in the way the car works, but nor does it ever manage to excel beyond its rivals.
It’s no Porsche Boxster – despite its price suggesting it is a close competitor – but remains a good second option for those who prefer a little more value for money and who aren’t as focused on dynamic driving or outright performance.