Mercedes SLK vs rivals

Can the new Mercedes SLK return to top of class? We test it against quality drop-top rivals from BMW and Audi.

Mercedes SLK vs rivals

The original Mercedes SLK was the king of the roadster castle. When it arrived in 1996, it turned the market on its head with its ability to transform from a metal-roofed coupé to a glamorous drop-top at the touch of a button.

But the car that started the coupé-cabriolet craze didn’t enjoy long at the top, as it was overrun by younger rivals. The all-new third generation is designed to return Mercedes to the top of the class.

Video: watch CarBuyer's video review of the Mercedes SLK

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It sticks to the same formula as the original, and promises to be cleaner, sportier and more refined than ever. Even though the SLK has been a sales success, it never led the way in terms of driver involvement. Can the newcomer add this to its repertoire?

To find out, we took the entry-level 1.8-litre SLK 200 to Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire, home to next week’s thrilling Pageant of Power. Waiting on the lawn were two key rivals. The BMW Z4 sets the handling benchmark here and while its rivals get four-cylinder power, the Z4 features a tuneful six-cylinder unit.

But the BMW isn’t the most potent car in our trio; that honour goes to the Audi TT Roadster. Its turbocharged 2.0-litre unit packs a mighty punch, and comes with the added benefit of the company’s quattro all-wheel-drive hardware.

The TT is also the only car here to feature a traditional fabric hood, although it reaps the rewards when it comes to style, making use of this compact design to deliver head-turning looks. So which combination is the best for roof-down summer roadster fun.

Verdict

Roadsters are some of the most desirable cars around, but which of our trio takes the drop-top crown? The SLK is a head turner once again, thanks to its new SLS-inspired face, while the stylish and high-quality cabin represents a significant improvement. Plus, the turbocharged 1.8-litre engine in the SLK 200 is clean and frugal. Trouble is, the unit becomes strained at high revs, and lacks character. As an overall package, the SLK simply doesn’t have the fun factor needed to win in this class. Numb handling and a rigid ride take the edge off the driving experience. The new car finishes at the bottom of the pile here.

Picking a winner from the other two models is a tough task. With its silky-smooth six-cylinder engine, sharp handling and classy cabin, the Z4 is a very desirable sports car. It’s rewarding to drive and refined in equal measure, so if you value driver engagement above all else, look no further. That’s not enough to take the honours here, though. The TT’s 2.0-litre turbo is really punchy, while the handling is surefooted. Add excellent residuals and smart styling, and the Audi secures a narrow and unexpected victory.

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