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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - SLK-class - convertible range

Our Opinion

We like
7G-tronic gearbox, SLK200 value, SLK350 performance and sounds, worthwhile safety upgrades, handsome styling, high-speed handling, blue-chip cachet
Room for improvement
Hard ride on standard ‘sports’ suspension set-up, steering dull at low speeds, road noise can be intrusive, some quality concerns, expensive options

23 Aug 2011

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, welcome to the third-generation SLK.

Based on the fine C-class chassis, this is a comprehensive redesign inside and out of what has long been the blue-chip compact grand touring convertible – a fact not lost on BMW when it changed direction in 2008 with the latest Z4 to chase the bonzer little Benz.

From its new harder-edged styling, soft plastic nose, aluminium front panels, magnesium framed retractable hardtop, improved cabin materials, better safety, latest technology gains and direct-injection drivetrain upgrade, the R172 series SLK has moved on from its seven-year old predecessor with emphatic intent.

Mercedes is aiming the more ‘masculine’ looks to lure more men and worthwhile comfort and convenience additions like a glass roof option called Magic Sky – which tints from light to dark in seconds – radar-guided cruise control, and driver-alert aids complete a thorough model makeover.

The fact that the base SLK200 is now almost $10,000 cheaper than the outgoing R171 SLK200K manual – auto-for-auto, the divide is even larger – should make it an open-and-shut case for this most appealing luxury droptop.

And we do not doubt more people will flock to the SLK than ever before.

But looking at the swoopy and refined Z4, as well as the sublimely tactile Porsche Boxster, it is clear that competition is fierce and focussed… so much so, that we’re not sure if the Mercedes has what it takes to match their mettle.

We ought to point out firstly that the wheelbase has remained the same at 2430mm, so cabin space is the same as before – which should suit most people, but the very tall or long-legged may have issues. Try before you buy.

However, there’s more too.

Unfortunately an SLK with the Dynamic Handling Package was unavailable at the Australian launch through some of the best roads around southern rural Victoria, showing up ride comfort issues that we frankly did not expect in the standard firm sports suspension setup.

Even Mercedes itself suggests that opting up to the electronic dampers gives the R172 a suppler ride. Our advice is to stump up the extra $3000 and do it!

This marred the 245/35 ZR18 Pirelli P Zero-equipped SLK350 we drove first, as it crashed and bumped and shimmered over typical Australian country roads.

We loved the power and sound of the healthy and strong V6, marvelled at how intuitive and responsive the second-generation 7G-Tronic automatic is and appreciated the myriad new safety and driver-aid technologies that enhance the everyday ownership experience.

Yes, the new variable ratio steering will feel a little dull and slow if you are expecting a sportscar helm but it rises to the occasion when connecting a set of favourite fast bends together.

And from what we have learned from overseas reports, the aforementioned Dynamic Handling Package improves responses even further too.

Yet that stiff ride (and the accompanying drone from the tyres) ruined the SLK350 we tested. Furthermore, it suffered from an annoying wind rustle in the A-pillar and a busted button on the centre console that barred us from properly using the media menu unit.

But we are willing to bet that those may have just been one-off issues because the other car we drove all worked and was much quieter.

The SLK200 opens the range up at an unignorable $82,900 – and that includes the excellent 7G-Tronic automatic transmission. There is no escaping the value in this vehicle, particularly as you won’t find a new convertible with as much cachet for the outlay.

And for most folk, the 135kW/270Nm provided by the new-gen 1.8-litre turbo four-pot belter is more than sufficient, particularly when the engine and blower are on song for some zippy mid-range manoeuvring. Impressive potential fuel economy figures just add to the SLK200’s appeal.

On standard 17-inch alloys, the ride is also better – though still busy with a constant and annoying pitter-patter on all but the smoothest of roads.

But, again, this is no sports car, and the engine is no powerhouse, sounding shrill near the 6250rpm red line that it needs to visit with depressing regularity in order to really hustle along and there is not much road-noise respite either – but then again, for a two-seater convertible, the SLK200 is not too bad compared to say, a Mazda MX-5.

Still, we reckon a base TT and Z4 might just be quieter. A back-to-back test is needed.

So here’s the deal with the R172.

There is much to like about the latest SLK, but it appears that to really shine, you must choose the correct options.

Our advice is to tick the aforementioned Dynamic Handling Pack option, as well as the $990 Air Scarf and $880 Air Guard draught stopper if they’re not already fitted, and probably the $4900 Distronic Plus radar cruise control with Pre-Safe crash-prep tech.

And forgo the superficially impressive but ultimately gimmicky $4550 Magic Sky glass roof, and enjoy a warm, enveloping and softer ride instead.

Or, better still, wait until early next year for the $95K SLK250, with a 150kW/310Nm version of the 1.8-litre engine that has left such an indelible mark in the C200 Coupe we also sampled on the Mercedes launch, for a more powerful and effortless performance package.

The bottom line then: just make sure you spec your SLK up with the aforementioned improvement options and you will probably have no cause for complaint.

Mercedes says more than 50 per cent of volume will probably go the SLK250’s way anyway, so it obviously knows that it represents the sweet spot in the range.

To sum up, yes, the new R172 represents worthwhile steps in all the right directions.

But for the true blue chip roadster experience, you should probably wait just that little bit longer for the right powerplant and essential optional extras.

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