Sunday, 16 October 2011

Once around the block #1:- 2011 Mercedes SLK

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Manufacturers have an accursed time developing their small sports cars to suit everybody's taste, and Mercedes have had it worse than many with their junior sportster, the SLK.

The first issue, launched in 1996, was criticised for being too overtly effeminate, more at home outside a wine bar than slicing through an alpine pass. As if to counter that, the 2004 replacement took styling cues from the McLaren SLR and had a rear suspension that seemed to be directly connected to my spine.

Today, at first glance, we've come full circle. The new car has a squarer silhouette than the outgoing car; three-box like the original was but with far more sculptural shoulders. But for the slightly too generic-Benz nose, it's a looker. Inside though, it's a whole new world. The dash layout is shades of SLS, with chrome eyeball air vents (channelling the “airflow” Cortina?) and extremely tactile surfaces replacing the MFI bonanza that went before. A decent driving position can be had, too, though I would probably fit better if I removed my shins.

The four-cylinder petrol machines are the first to land; my first drive in one of these was an SLK200, the entry level, which felt suspiciously quick after the old model. Next to arrive was the SLK250 which bangs out 204hp and adds extra muscle at high revs to the already impressive low end of the lesser engine. A V6 and AMG (OMG!) Version will turn up soon, and we're promised at least one diesel, too, which will no doubt marry economy and profound bottom-end thump with inevitable agricultural chugging. New, too is an electronic parking brake, a bit of a pain in the six-speed manual car.

I can only assume the development team had me in mind when they created this car, because they seem to have addressed my criticism of both of the old models. The new SLK is not a raw, incisive weapon like it could be, but nor is it a blunt instrument, and for this it's all the better. It's now a car that can be enjoyed regardless of where the speedo needle is pointing and proves that pleasure is possible without pain. As it happens, I'm not convinced it's any slower across country than its forebear, all this with hardly any spinal injury or tense, nervous headache.

Some early cars have arrived with very basic spec; no parking sensors, for example, but I expect most to be kitted with leather, the COMAND sat-nav and the 7-speed Tiptronic gearbox; which has also improved and now doesn't sit a million miles from double-clutch systems in terms of responsiveness. Rather fun, too, is a resonator in the intake system which generates a “sportier engine sound”. It's triggered on the over-run at the top end of the rev-range and delivers an addictive barp on the upchange. I like it, even though it's a bit stupid.

Other SLK staples remain, the hydraulic vario roof is an elegant a Lid Solution as it ever was and is soon available with a Magic Sky Opaque-On-Demand electrochromatic glass panel. 

I think they're onto something, here. Those people who want something fast and punishing would do well to walk straight past their Mercedes dealership, as would any who value style over substance. But those who want a car they can enjoy without any effort whatsoever should add it to their list.

Personally, I think it's more well rounded and a better car than the old one, but I know others will disagree.

This was the first in my new series of shorter, fitter, leaner reviews of cars that take my interest. I'll save the full-length wordathons for those that really take my interest.