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First drive: Benz SLK roadster MkII evolves

Slinky: second-generation SLK's F1-inspired styling and new 3.5-litre V6 have attracted a waiting list that stretches into next year.

Mercedes-Benz releases its second generation SLK roadster Down Under

8 Sep 2004

WITH more than 308,000 sold worldwide since its 1996 debut, the Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster has been an undoubted success.

And not just because of the allure of the famed three-pointed star. No, with its foldable metal ‘Vario-roof’ and good looks, SLK delivered prestige and practicality as well as the all-important pose value.

It received a warm welcome in Australia, where 2885 have been sold since its 1997 introduction, in specification levels that varied from an asthmatic 2.0-litre through to a supercharged AMG hotty.

Now, with the sales peak well and truly past, it’s time for the second generation SLK to grace our shores, following its world debut at the Geneva motor show last March.

Initially we get two versions, the supercharged four-cylinder SLK 200 Kompressor and the SLK350, which is debuting a brand new four-valve-per-cylinder V6.

In the second quarter of 2005 comes the hairy chested SLK 55 AMG, complete with 5.5-litre 265kW V8 engine and a claimed 0-100km/h acceleration time of 4.9 seconds.

Price increases for the 200 and 350 are being kept under $900 and, in accordance with the five per cent tariff cut coming January 1, Benz will eschew its usual new year price rises.

But there was no price announced for the AMG and no V8s to drive at last week’s launch. So tune in around next April for more on that car.

With 350 SLKs available for delivery for the rest of this year, the waiting list already stretches into 2005. All up, Benz hopes to deliver more than 700 examples in 2005.

That would be a record and a commendable one considering the level of competition now in the luxury and prestige roadster market.

For a start, there’s the BMW Z4, Audi TT and Porsche Boxster as obvious German competition. To that lot you can add the likes of Nissan’s impressive 350Z and the Chrysler Crossfire Roadster, a car that’s just gone on sale here based on the underpinnings of the original SLK.

SLK II follows the same fundamental philosophy as its predecessor: Front-engined, rear-wheel drive and with a refined version of vario-roof now taking just 22 seconds to open or close – three seconds quicker than the original.

4 center image This is a bigger car than its predecessor, stretching its W203 C-class-based platform by 30mm in terms of wheelbase and more substantially in track, although that varies from front to rear and model to model.

The body is 72mm longer and 65mm wider and also stronger, with longitudinal rigidity up 19 per cent over the old car and torsional rigidity improved by 46 per cent.

An important if unsexy result of all that added size is a 63-litre increase in boot capacity to 208 litres with the roof down.

But the increase in overall size has come at a cost, with minimum kerb weight climbing to 1390kg for the 200 and 1460kg for the 350. Both figures seem very good considering the hard-top roof and high level of standard equipment (which we’ll get to in a minute).

The SLK’s litheness continues when it comes to the car’s looks. It’s sharper and sleeker than its predecessor, particularly impressive from the rear where its added width gives it a more solid stance.

The front is perhaps more debatable because of the obvious way Benz has attempted to foster a Formula One linkage. The nose, with its huge Benz emblem and the fake wings in the grille openings either side, is a bit take it or leave it.

Not so the roof, which when in position transforms the SLK into a hot little coupe. Hit the button and 22 seconds later you have an equally beguiling roadster. And the process of roof opening and closing is a work of art in itself, incorporating a swivel-mounted rear window just like the SL.

Inside it’s just as bespoke and well executed, with snug semi-sports seats, deep-set instruments that tilt in at the driver and a three-spoke steering wheel that has enough functions on it to keep the most addicted button puncher happy.

The F1 theme continues inside with a racing car-like nose moulded into the top of the dash.

Drill further down and you find plenty more change in the mechanical package.

That V6 engine is a key feature. It signals a change in engine design philosophy by Benz, moving on from the three-valve head modular V6 family that has been a cornerstone of the company’s expanding range since the mid-1990s.

This is the first Benz V6 engine with variable camshaft control on intake and exhaust sides, while Benz also points to a two-stage variable intake manifold, tumble flaps in the intake ducts and "intelligent heat management" as further technical highlights.

The result is 200kW at 6000rpm and 350Nm between 2400 and 5000rpm, up 37kW and 35Nm over the old SLK’s 3.2-litre V6.

Fuel consumption is impressive at a claimed 9.9L/100km (three per cent less than the old car). Acceleration to 100km/h is claimed at 5.5 seconds, compared to the old car’s 6.9 seconds official time.

Those claims are made with the engine mated to the new seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox rather than with the updated six-speed manual, which while $3500 cheaper is officially a slower and more thirsty combination.

7G-Tronic is the world’s first production seven-speed automatic and has been on sale in Australia in some of the most expensive models since early 2004. Appearing in SLK is a classic example of how Benz technology flows down the range.

The supercharged 1.8-litre four-cylinder in 200 produces 120kW and 240Nm. It is a familiar member of the TwinPulse family, replacing a 2.0-litre supercharged unit which was launched in the old SLK in 2000. It shares its manual transmission with the 350, but makes do with a five-speed auto.

The mechanical changes don’t stop there. The old car’s much criticised recirculating ball steering system is replaced by the much more widely used rack and pinion setup. And the old manual transmission’s rickety twin rod shift rail has been ousted, replaced by a one-piece design.

Suspension has also been addressed with a move from double wishbones to MacPherson struts up front, while the multi-link rear end remains fundamentally unchanged.

Braking systems have come in for an overhaul too, the 350 getting four-piston callipers and internally ventilated and perforated 330mm discs up front, while both cars get the usual array of electronic braking and handling acronyms (ABS, BAS, ESP).

SLK simply offers a single level of equipment for both cars and – of course – the usual long list of accessories including the $1350 Airscarf, which blows hot air on the back of your neck so you can keep the top down when the weather gets colder.

Baseline SLK200 equipment includes two-stage front and head/thorax side bags, CD audio, cruise control, leather upholstery and steering wheel, dual zone climate control, trip computer, 16-inch alloy wheels, foglights and twin chrome exhaust pipes.

SLK 350 additions include 17-inch alloys, six-CD changer, the integrated Comand system that incorporates the various, phone, audio and sat-nav functions, powered seats and metallic paint.

SLK pricing:

Mercedes-Benz SLK200 $83,800
Mercedes-Benz SLK200 (a) $86,900
Mercedes-Benz SLK350 $109,400
Mercedes-Benz SLK350 (a) $112,900

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