Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - SLK-class - convertible range
Superb retractable roof, great styling, calmness of open-top cockpit
Room for improvement
Numb steering, soul-less V6 exhaust noise
7 Sep 2004
By BRUCE NEWTON
MAYBE it’s because the SLK 350 makes such a positive impact when you first see it that the driving experience seems a little dull by comparison.
Gee, it’s a good looking thing, wedgey body sitting on those 17-inch alloys. Top-on it looks mean and aggro, as a roadster it’s so sexy that Elle herself wouldn’t outshine it. Well… anyway you get the drift.
And the nose? Hmmm. As you acclimatise you get less picky (so to speak!).
Snuggle down in the larger, yet still cosy cockpit and you enjoy the sporty design, the touch of the materials and fabrics and even the lovely weighting of the various switches, dials and stalks.
So far, so very good.
Fire it up, give the throttle a blip and the first touch of – not disappointment – doubt crosses your mind as the V6’s rather flat exhaust note warbles its way into your eardrums. It’s just not as charismatic as it could be.
And why couldn’t the stylist at Benz who did such a good and/or interesting job with the rest of the car do something a bit more assertive with those two exhaust pipes that poke obscurely out either side at the rear?
And not only aren’t they sexy, they drag on sloping driveways, as does the front bumper. Doh!
It might not make the greatest noise but activate the heavy throttle pedal and there’s no doubt the new engine has plenty of go, really ripping up through the rev range in linear fashion with no sign of any harshness or breathlessness.
It melds wonderfully well with the seven-speed auto, so much so that except for the tightest of twisties there’s no use to activate the tipshift or steering wheel buttons for manual control.
When you do, however, it’s noticeable that third gear in this ’box is very much at the low end of the scale where tradition has taught us in five and six-speed gearboxes that it tends to be the best compromise when the bends arrive. Not in this case, third for the tight stuff and fourth when it opens out a little.
While your enjoying the 350’s go and transmission’s elasticity in the corners, at the same time there’s not the same degree of enjoyment being transferred from the chassis.
The steering feel isn’t all that it could be and it’s pretty heavy too, although accurate enough and certainly an improvement over the old recirculating ball system. And yet, there is still a feeling of an invisible barrier between the driver and the road, a sensation not uncommon in Benzes.
But it’s a feeling that isn’t known in the Porsche Boxster, the BMW Z4 or even – dare we say it – the Crossfire Roadster (wash my mouth out with soap!).
Maybe it’s because the set-up of the forward mounted steering rack favours understeer, or that in isolating the steering so well from road shock there’s also been a quelling of the sort of feedback sporting drivers would appreciate.
There’s also a tad more bodyroll than expected. Again nothing to get alarmed about, just dulling the edge of the experience. The good news is the body is immensely strong, even with the roof down there is no suggestion of scuttle shake or weakness.
And it’s also the most amazingly calm place sans roof as well. That’s as long as you have the fabric draught stopper in place between the headrests/roll-over hoops. Without it, there’s still not a lot of turbulence, but it does become noticeable.
So transfer to the SLK 200 really expecting 350 ‘Lite’ and a couple of things immediately become apparent. Most noticeably the lighter overall weight and the smaller engine mass deliver a keener, more alert driving experience,
The barrier to the road has been disassembled at least partially and the steering is more alive and more communicative.
Add in a manual gearchange that is crisp and positive, allied to an engine that does its best work above 3500rpm and you suddenly have an urgent little hunter of a car that likes getting pushed along on the open road. Nimble is the word that springs to mind.
And that applies in town to where the tight turning circle and small size makes it an easy parking proposition. Having said that the added squirt of the 350 makes it a pretty decent weapon in traffic grands prix, so the argument goes both ways.
The differences in the two SLKs make them an interesting contrast and one that means buying the cheaper car isn’t necessarily a dud choice in this case. Somewhere betwixt and between lies a great car we fancy.
It’s easy to suspect that buyers of either will be happy anyway. No, SLK doesn’t eclipse the finest of its rivals as a scalpel sharp sports car but it is a significant improvement over its predecessor and its looks are stunning.
Now if we could just organise Elle as part of the options list…
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