Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Driven #3:- SLK Rediscovered

Sports cars are everywhere. They are synonymous with the open road, being in touch with your surroundings, driving according to your instincts and not just your reactions. To drive a sports car is to be utterly in control, to have conquered the machine. The greatest sports cars enable every driving cliché to be lived, allowing you to attack every sinewy curve, clipping apexes to be set up perfectly for the next bend in the road.

It takes effort, though - to get the most out of driving a sports car can be hard work. But does it really have to be? 

Get your hands on one of the original SLKs and you can relax your way to a good time. 

In recent decades, bowing to popular demand, roadsters have become steadily more hardcore. The renaissance began with the original Mazda MX5, seen by most as a reincarnation of the first Lotus Elan. A simple, light machine, the MX5 gave many people their first taste of what a proper sports-car should feel like.

A few years later, with the launch of the Lotus Elise, people were given the choice of traditional sports car, or semi track-day special. Although opposite ends of the roadster scale, the English car and the Japanese one found themselves in direct competition.

The Germans were quite late to join the fray. BMW's Z3, cobbled together out of old E30 and E36 3-Series components but wearing a suggestively long-bonneted clothes, was first out of the stable. A year later, it was joined by the Mercedes-Benz R170 SLK, arriving as if spun from the SLK concept car. It soon became a familiar sight on Britain's roads, much prized among badge-worshipping yuppies and well-heeled sun-worshippers. It was never particularly adored by a handling-obsessed automotive media, though - it became fashionable for scribblers to moan about the SLK's less than sparkling driving experience.

What had Mercedes done? It's true to say that Mercedes-Benz in the late '90s was suffering a slight image crisis. Yes, their cars were respected by a certain, more mature market demographic, but they offered little or nothing to appeal to a new generation of upwardly mobile consumers. In the very buoyant Sports Roadster theatre, Porsche were riding high with the Boxster and Merc's Munich based arch rivals were eating their own delicious slice of the pie.

When Mercedes gave us the SLK. In direct comparison to the others, the Merc felt way off the pace. It was heavy and suffered from inert steering. It felt soft and stodgy, particularly when compared to the razor sharp Boxster. It was also very expensive. Yes, true to form, it felt like Mercedes had launched very nice sporty convertible for old people.

And now, thirteen years later, I'm starting to see the public perception of the SLK as something of a travesty of justice. I have just spent a day in the SLK 230 in these photos, a manual model in fairly basic trim, and it's time to admit that they may well have been right all along. I finally get the R170 SLK. It's a great car, we've just been using it wrong.

You don't throw the SLK into corners like you do a Boxster or Z3, you caress it through them. Maybe drop ten mph from your entrance speed. If you don't treat it like a sports car it will reward you most satisfactorily. The clue is in the name; SLK. It drives exactly like a scaled down late '90s SL, which was never a razor-sharp sports car in the first place, rather a touring thoroughbred, a monumentally capably machine in which to blast from St Albans to St Tropez, roof down, without car or driver breaking into a sweat.

The point was totally lost on those salivating fans of hardcore machines and their track-honed, knife-edge histrionics. But on those cars, the rewards only really come when you're driving at ten tenths. The rest of the time you have to suffer an unyielding ride and a generally uncompromising demeanour, and you have to be in the mood to appreciate the adrenaline that's constantly being pumped into your veins. 

By contrast, with the old SLK you're always in the mood, because the demands it makes of you are much lower. The well insulated and beautifully engineered folding hard-top, unique in the sector at the time, gives you the best of both worlds; refined coupé when it drizzles, fresh air tourer when the sun comes out to play.

Even though I spent much of my time in the SLK stuck in traffic on the M25, it still put a smile on my face, particularly, and I really wasn't expecting this in light of experience, the gearbox. It's a six speed affair with nicely chosen ratios and, while not the quickest shift I've found, it's delightfully short of throw with an almost switch-like precision. All this praise comes despite a clutch which I suspect was on its way out, the biting point seemed to be way up under the dash somewhere.

Mercedes reacted to criticism that the SLK wasn't sporty enough by introducing the 2005 R171 as a much harder, sharper driving implement, depending on your viewpoint this either transformed or ruined it. Personally, I'm inclined to take the latter view. By removing the relaxed demeanour of the previous car they got rid of its USP. It became just another sports car and, as we know, the market isn't short of those. Yes, the later car is a great drive, grippy, communicative and rewarding, and so therefore a much closer rival to the Z4, Boxster et al. But it's only fun when you drive it hard. Try to chill out and it responds by egging you on, shaking you around as if to say "get a move on". I just want to sit comfortably and listen to Radio 6 with the roof down.

Now discontinued for over five years, the slightly iffy, non sports car image of the original SLK has largely abated. It looks less fussy, has those two gorgeous bonnet bulges that echo Mercedes racing cars of the fifties and has a dashboard redolent of previous generations of SL. It was old-school Mercedes distilled into a compact, advanced package. 

It's guaranteed to put a smile on the face of undemanding drivers. It's easy-listening on wheels, and sometimes I'm more in the mood for The Carpenters than The Clash. 

(Copyright Chris Haining. Follow me on @RoadworkUK)