Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - SLK-class - SLK350 convertible
Performance, styling, cabin, refinement, economy, handling, stability, practicality
Room for improvement
Steering dull at low speeds, ‘Sports’ body kit (optional), rear vision with roof up
29 May 2009
PERSPECTIVE can be a useful thing, especially if you’re thinking about expensive two-seater convertibles.
Take the Mercedes-Benz SLK.
The 1997-2004 R170 original was – and still is – a breathtaking beauty, with timeless lines and striking proportions that remain unmatched by its nonetheless pretty R171 successor, now in the autumn of its life at five years old.
Mercedes stayed true to the achingly beautiful SLK concept car that wowed the world back when ‘www’ stood ‘world wide wrestling’ and Charles Windsor was still married to wife #1.
But, relatively speaking, the first SLK was a drag to drive, lumbered with the rather staid and leaden underpinnings of the 1994-2000 W202 C-class sedan – no doubt the Camry of Germany.
Certainly, its high-profile contemporary – the Porsche 986 Boxster – ran rings around the Benz for sheer driving pleasure.
Like the BMW Z3 – also released in 1997 – the Mercedes was more about show than go, except that the SLK’s novel retractable folding hardtop that has since been aped by a huge number of successive convertibles (including the latest BMW Z4) has given it a place in the history books.
Fast-forward to 2004 and the second-generation SLK went all curvy and cuddly visually, but Mercedes had the good sense to sharpen the driving experience by using the oily bits of the 2000-2007 W203 C-class. So out went the old car’s dull recirculating ball steering and wooden handling, and in came a much more complete convertible experience.
It was like Claudia Schiffer swapped heads as well as driving prowess with supermodel-cum-racing car driver Jodie Kidd.
Except ... that was five years ago now.
Since then we’ve had a totally new Boxster (987 from 2005), which has just received a new heart (2009), while the R171 SLK had surgery in the middle of 2008 that saw – among other additions – worthwhile engine upgrades as part of 650 changes.
And now BMW's all-new Z4 that in Australia in June is gunning straight for the SLK’s heartland, with the same sort of folding roof system that the Mercedes has had for a dozen years, and the promise of more refinement and luxury.
The fact is, though, the current SLK has stood the test of time remarkably well.
Our car, the $115,637 SLK350, was fitted with the $3177 Designo bodykit, which detracted rather than added to the Benz’s lines outside, while making the cabin look supremely tacky. Avoid the 1930s wardrobe-style ‘wood’ insert at all costs too.
Otherwise, Mercedes has obviously put in a lot of thought and effort inside this comfortable, accommodating and refined roadster.
The first thing you may notice is how much space there is for two, thanks to a pair of seats that gently cup – yet don’t clamp – you in place. They slide right back for the longest legs to fit, and adjust in all the usual ways so there are simply no comfort or support issues to speak of.
There is plenty of plastic making up the dashboard, but it is of a quality and soft-feel variety that goes some way to erase the memories of cheapo interiors in recent Mercedes models.
Each occupant is well catered for in the ventilation department, with sizeable face outlets on either side, matched by armrests for all elbows, while a myriad of storage options exist in the form of door pockets, two centre console bins (one shallow vertical and one deep horizontal), a footwell net and a rather small glovebox.
Directly ahead of the driver is a hooded binnacle with a pair of dials (for speedo and tacho) bisected by a comprehensive digital readout for water temperature, supplementary speedo, service indicator, odometer and trip meter, trip computer, audio control, compass and telephony displays. Phew!
They’re all controlled via a quartet of buttons on one of the steering wheel spokes, and each is presented in a thorough and informative manner. Metallic surrounds lend a classy touch.
Whether you’re a Harlem Globetrotter or pint-sized, the ideal driving position awaits in the SLK, it is as simple as that.
The wheel is surprisingly large and enjoyably thin-rimmed that feels good to the touch, and – in automatic models – has a set of paddle shifts right behind the T-spokes for manual control. These can override the gearbox even if it is left in the regular ‘-D+’ mode.
Our car featured voice control (useless and utterly infuriating), satellite navigation (equal to most rivals’ efforts), and Bluetooth connectivity (it worked startlingly well, even with the roof down at speed), and all add to that upmarket luxury feel of the SLK.
But the R171 model may well be remembered for pioneering the ‘Airscarf’ option, that blows warm air on to your neck via an incongruous slot set within the height-adjustable headrest. On its maximum setting the whoosh of air is like white noise that may eventually annoy, but on the move, this feature is invaluable in keeping everybody toasty – especially if used in concert with the optional seat warmers. Standard on the 350 and 55 AMG, we recommend that all SLK buyers fork out extra for these essential items, which make convertibles a year-round proposition.
While we’re handing out the praise, let’s mention Mercedes’ superb cruise control function that actually brakes the car a little on steep inclines so it can maintain the set speed. This is also true for the ‘limiter’ function that stops you exceeding a pre-set velocity. Most other car-makers would do well to study how the SLK’s systems work.
With the two-piece folding roof in situ, the ‘ceiling’ is lined in a plastic finish, but it feels sufficiently tight in there for the SLK to pass muster as a tight coupe inside, with adequate insulation from wavering noises and temperatures outside.
Roof-up it’s a cosy if not especially airy feeling, but it is a shame that only the door windows lower and not the glass directly behind them, for that pillarless hardtop experience.
Of a more serious nature, rear vision is not so good (thankfully the mirrors on the SLK350 drip down to help stop you scratching the lovely alloy wheels), while having the metal bit over your head seems to also keep the road noise in too. We expected this car to be somewhat quieter on the open road than it is – but then again, the Mercedes is a much more hushed convertible than, say, a Mazda MX-5.
Lowering the turret takes a somewhat languid 22 seconds at a pull of a toggle switch just ahead of the natty little handbrake lever, and opens you up to the pleasures of open-top motoring.
For such a short car, the boot is reasonably sized once the roof is placed inside it, but accessing items already in there might require it to be raised. Without the roof in there, the load area is agreeably ample, increasing from 208 to 300 litres.
It is important to keep in mind that the SLK350 is not a two-seater sports car convertible in the manner of, say, a Boxster or MX-5, despite its bespoke body and sexy styling.
The steering, for instance, is too low geared at low speeds to get keen drivers’ pulses racing. Yes, it is direct, and there is a fair amount of information passing between rim and fingertips, but you would never call the helm sharp.
This is despite the newly developed inclusion of a variable ratio that, while having the hydraulic rack and pinion set-up in an indirect state in the straight-ahead position, tightens up markedly (and yet quite seamlessly) as the steering angle increases. Despite this, the steering is still too ‘sedan-like’ to be sporty.
On the other hand, there is nothing nervous or arduous about the way the SLK corners as speeds increase, feeling utterly planted to the road. And once you do race through your favourite turns and bends, the Benz responds with more agility and linearity than the dull lower-speed responses would have you believe.
In fact, the SLK’s rear-wheel-drive chassis is much, much more responsive than this car’s rather sleepy low-speed attitude suggests.
A sudden unexpected steering manoeuvre at speed is met with an impressive degree of control and composure, and – in an instant – that formerly staid helm feels perfectly weighted and supremely secure, and you realise that Mercedes’ engineers have created a safe and predictable vehicle.
Throw in beautifully measured braking that is backed up by a slew of electronic safety related controls like ESP and ABS, and it then dawns on you that the SLK behaves much like an open two-seater luxury sedan.
Underlining this is the excellent 3.5-litre V6, allied to Mercedes’ brilliant 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic gearbox, to provide an effortless surge of performance from the word go.
Last year’s upgrade saw the German engineers find an extra 24kW and 10Nm, to up this 3498cc’s power and torque outputs to 224kW at 6500rpm and 360Nm at 4900rpm respectively.
Accompanied by a wonderfully deep and throaty soundtrack, the SLK350’s engine makes absolutely light work of any situation. It works like a giant hand that picks up and places the car to the point you want it to be with virtually no feeling of labour or toil.
Remarkably good fuel economy (ranging from about 8.5 litres per 100km on the open road to around 12.5L/100km around town) is another feather in the V6’s cap, while a massive drop in carbon dioxide emissions underscores the two-pronged prowess of this sweet-revving powerplant.
Indeed, at highway speeds, it is so quiet and refined, you are left to hear the ever-present road rumble of the 17-inch alloy wheels and low-profile rubber droning away.
Ride comfort ranks on the firm side of supple on the Pirelli PZERO 245/40 R17 tyres fitted to our car, with some road irregularities heard more than felt. Bigger speed humps do find the limits of the suspension bump stops, though, but smaller blemishes are sufficiently dealt with.
The SLK, in human years, is now a middle-aged model that has somehow managed to defy age in the way it moves as well as looks.
Last year’s nip and tuck certainly injected fresh vigour, but in reality the ingredients have pretty much all been there and in great working order since 2004.
But fashion is a fiercely cruel mistress, and surely the SLK’s sheer ubiquity will lead many potential buyers into the showrooms of younger competitors such as the Z4.
Yet the Mercedes’ well-rounded capabilities still make it a leading luxury two-seater roadster proposition, and the 350 is probably the best version there has been, even if the Boxster is a significantly sharper sports car.
So, whether being pampered or thrilled is your ultimate priority, the SLK 350 is massively relevant. As we said, it depends on your perspective.
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