Mercedes SLK 200

Latest generation of Mercedes' original folding hard-top promises much, but does it deliver?

With a name derived from the initials of the German words for Sporty, Light and Short, the original SLK had an obvious brief. Predictably, the automated hard-top was what separated Mercedes’ baby sports car from its rivals – although this did affect the styling of the 1996 original, giving it a boxy look. Subsequent generations have refined the design, and the all-new SLK is less compromised by its clever roof arrangement than ever before. The tidy rear and SLS-inspired face give the latest car a more upmarket and aggressive appearance.

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

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Opt for Sport trim, and you also get an AMG bodykit, 18-inch wheels and lowered suspension. It’s still taller and wider than the low-slung BMW, though, so it looks more substantial.

The improvements continue inside, as the interior has been completely reworked. It offers decent space and a wide range of wheel and seat adjustment. The driving position is good, then, while anyone upgrading from the current SLK will immediately notice the cabin’s more modern design and superior quality.

Deep-set dials complement the smart yet simple dashboard, while the turbine-style air vents and aluminium switches on the centre console are lifted straight from the SLS. These give the cockpit a high-class feel. On top of that, the £4,000 premium that the Sport model commands over the standard car buys contrasting red stitching on the upholstery. It also brings racy touches like matching seatbelts and perforated grips on the tactile, flat-bottomed, multifunction steering wheel. Build quality can’t be faulted inside, either.

Buyers can access a host of technology and trim options, but be warned: they don’t come cheap. Even a traditional analogue clock is a £195 extra. More appealing is the clear polycarbonate Panoramic vario-roof (£410), which allows light into the cabin even when the top is closed.

Go for the all-singing, all-dancing Magic Sky Control version, and you can even swap the top from transparent to tinted at the flick of a switch – although this luxury costs a hefty £1,995.

The roof is fully automated – it folds in around 20 seconds – and refinement is excellent with it in place. However, enjoying wind-in-the-air motoring means sacrificing boot space; drop the roof, and luggage capacity falls from 335 litres to 225 litres. Still, the load area is bigger than the Z4’s in either configuration.

That’s good news, but buying a roadster is often a decision made by the heart, not the head. If the SLK is going to beat its rivals here, the driving experience needs to leave a big impression.

On paper, it gets off to a shaky start, as the relatively small engine and four-cylinder layout won’t excite sports car fans. Still, the 1.8 litre’s 181bhp output isn’t far behind its rivals, and standard stop-start helps to make it the cleanest and most efficient choice.

You have to really drive these cars to get under their skin, and it’s then that the Mercedes’ early promise begins to fade. Docile throttle responses mean it lacks the sporty reactions you’d expect from a roadster, and the engine is strained at high revs.

This is a problem, as you have to work it hard to extract its performance. At the track, the SLK did 0-60mph in 7.5 seconds – that’s eight-tenths down on the Z4 and a huge 1.9 seconds behind the TT.

It’s not completely outclassed, however, as the turbo produces peak torque at only 1,800rpm – and that helped the Mercedes beat the Z4 in each of our in-gear tests. It’s worth noting here that our car was equipped with the 7G-Tronic auto box (£1,520), with an extra ratio over the six-speed manual BMW.

Standard SLKs are likely to be closely matched to the Z4. The automatic transmission does have other benefits. Steering-mounted paddles provide manual control, and you get a distinctive warble when you change up at the red line.

But the shifts aren’t as fast as those delivered by Audi’s double-clutch transmission, and the box is often busy hunting for the correct ratio in automatic mode.

The biggest disappointment for keen drivers will be the engine’s lack of character, yet the SLK’s chassis doesn’t engage much, either. Even though our car had sports suspension and Direct Steering (£215), it doesn’t have the Z4’s sporty reactions or the surefooted appeal of the Audi.

Worse still, the Sport model delivers a brittle ride, thanks to its 10mm lower suspension and large wheels, while the rear axle thumps over bumps. We suspect that lesser models would strike a better compromise, but for all its improvements, the SLK has its work cut out here.

Details

Chart position: 3WHY: Third-generation SLK comes with bold new look. SLK 200 gets manual box as standard, but ours has the optional 7G-Tronic auto.

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