Despite the 250 badging, this version of the SLK actually houses Mercedes’ 1.8 litre turbo 4 under the bonnet. With a power output of 201 bhp, though, it promised to be at least moderately brisk, so my hopes were high for a day of fun. Besides which, I had experienced this engine in the same tune in the C250 saloon only a matter of weeks prior, and there it had done a sterling job. So I got in the SLK, and turned the key and was shocked. Truly this car must be blessed with one of the most disappointing, and indeed unpleasant engine notes of recent times. Indeed, I think my washing machine sounds better. And this was with the roof still up, so I did wonder what it was going to be like with it down! The worst of the sound, which is hard to describe, seems to come at idle and when the engine is cold. Once it warms up, the noise lessens somewhat, and on the move, most of the unpleasantness of it diminishes to an extent that it will not actively impair your enjoyment of the car, but for those who revel in the rasp of a nice Alfa engine, or even the smoothness of a BMW six, this one is going to come as a huge disappointment. That said, the engine goes about its business quite well. It is smooth, and revs willingly, and the SLK250 is indeed pleasingly brisk. Although the standard transmission in this model is a 6 speed manual, as it was a rental car it featured Mercedes’ 7 speed automatic. Unlike the saloons, the gearlever is a conventional lever on the centre console, augmented with paddle shifters on the steering wheel, and it proved very easy to use. There seem to be plenty who complain about this gearbox, castigating it for being dull-witted and slow to react. In everyday motoring, I did not find this to be the case, and it was certainly very smooth in shifting almost imperceptibly between the gears. Whilst the engine may have disappointed aurally, the payback would seem to come at the fuel pump. I recorded a scarcely believable 31.6 mpg US, which is 37.75mpg Imperial in my 278 mile test. Considering that this was done with the roof down, and mostly on the freeway, admittedly at legal speeds, with some stop/start for photos, this is extremely impressive.
In addition to going well, which the SLK250 kind of does, and sounding good, which it does not, a sports car needs to be fun to drive, which means good feel to the steering, nimble handling and secure roadholding. And here the SLK250 scores quite well. The steering is well judged, with apposite weighting and a clear link between your instructions from the wheel to what happens to the direction of travel. There is no body roll to speak of, and the SLK darted around the corners at the sort of speeds that you would want and expect on public roads. So, whilst your ears might not derive too much fun from some of the twistier roads that you take this car on, the rest of you will enjoy the experience. And when it comes to time to stop, well the brakes were well up to the task. There is now an electronic handbrake fitted. Unlike saloon models, where there is a foot pedal to set it, and a release lever on the lower left of the dash (in left hand drive cars), in the SLK it is both set and released from the dash lever. With an automatic, it is barely needed anyway, but with a manual, I can see that this would be less than ideal (though this is still better than the foot pedal operation). Getting a car with a short wheelbase and sports suspension to ride well is not that easy. Mercedes have not really succeeded, with a very hard ride indeed, such that far more of the surface imperfections, of which there are plenty in Southern California were transmitted to the car’s occupant. This, coupled with a lot of road noise means that the car is not necessarily the long distance tourer that you might hope for. With the roof down, all around visibility is clearly pretty good, though the door mirrors are quite small and do have a limited field of vision. The ability to glance sideways or over your shoulder and see proved a useful adjunct. Thanks to a generous amount of glass, putting the roof up does not make things much worse.
There is a lot of standard Mercedes componentry in the cabin, but a fair attempt has been made to distinguish this car from its more prosaic relatives. Most obviously this means that as well as a gearlever on the centre console, grey metal effect inlays around the audio unit and in the centre console and the 4 large eyeball style air vents, the dials have a different backing to them, in pale grey with a cogged wheel type set of markings that looks vaguely retro. There are just two of them under the cowled binnacle, with the left hand rev counter containing a small fuel gauge in its lower sector and the right hand speedometer a water temperature gauge. Between the pair is a display area for the on-board computer which can be cycled through using the same combination of buttons on the left spoke of the steering wheel as you find in a C Class or an E Class. Like most Mercedes, there is only one large column stalk, on the left which does indicators, and by twisting it, the wipers. Thankfully, like the C Class, this one is now the dominant stalk and the less often used cruise control is both slimmer and set lower down. Lights operate off a rotary dial to the left of the wheel, and below this is the button to set and release the electronic handbrake. The centre of the dash contains the same Mercedes infotainment display unit that you find in a C or an E Class, and this is operated by the twist and push COMAND control knob located where it falls readily to hand on the centre console. Some of the audio system functions are also selectable from the series of buttons for that unit which are below the colour display screen. It is all pretty easy to use, and having driven a few Mercedes recently, I can see that once familiar with it, you would have none of the problems that people moaned about when these set ups first came in. Climate control switches again will be familiar to those who have driven an E Class, as they are the same here, located at the base of the centre of the dash.
The SLK is a strict two seater, and as it is, by modern standards, quite a small car, you will feel quite cosily installed in the cabin. As you might expect with a relatively low slung sports car, getting in and out requires moderate agility, and the doors are quite long, so you need plenty of space when parked alongside something else. Once in, there is ample adjustment for the seats, which is done by traditional Mercedes switches located on the door, set out in the form of the seat itself. If you sit close to the steering wheel, as I do, then there is enough space behind the seat to squeeze in a small bag, but the longer of leg would have the seat set almost touching the rear bulkhead. There is a small net on the rear bulkhead which joins the very shallow (but long) door pockets, the rather shallow glovebox and a cubby under the central armrest as the place to put things in the cabin. Capacity of the boot will depend on whether the roof is up or not. With it erect, and the separator pushed up and out of the way, there is actually a reasonable amount of space, though a Boxster offers far more, but with that separator in situ, then what is left is very shallow and almost impossible to access and just plain meagre. Small sports cars have always required that the driver and passenger pack modestly when out touring, and this SLK continues that tradition. The test car featured the optional AIRSCARF system. This allows for air to be directed towards you neck, through vents set in the lower part of the headrests. I confess that I did not try it out.
The first SLK is widely credited with starting the recent trend to fit a metal folding roof to your convertible, and was quickly copied first by Peugeot, and then by a whole raft of other marques. Many of them have since reverted to cloth roofs, as the advantages of greater security and the ease of making the cabin quiet, and leakproof are outweighed by the complexity of the roof mechanism, and hence the cost, as well as the significant loss of luggage space. Mercedes have persisted, and the system on the SLK is simplicity itself to operate. There is a separator in the boot which must be in situ, and then all you do is put the key in the ignition, turn it on, and then under the part mobile phone shape on the centre console, you pull the D shaped lever up, and wait and watch as first the windows drop, then the rear cover opens, the roof lifts up and back and folds, goes under the cover and it then shuts. There is a separate switch to raise all the windows if you want. Closing the roof is the same in reverse, except that you press rather than pull the switch. The whole operation takes around 25 seconds. Needless to say, I drove the SLK with the roof down pretty much all day. By raising the side front windows, it is perfectly acceptable even on the freeway with heavy trucks around you, with no buffeting, and provided you turn the radio up a bit, you can even hear that. Of course, with the roof down, boot space is extremely limited, so if you were touring with luggage on board, this may become a limiting factor, but my case was safely in the hotel, so I was free to enjoy that Californian sun.
Unlike the saloon based cars, where there are a variety of different trim options available, things are quite simple with the SLK. In essence, you first need to pick your engine. Whereas in Europe, there is a diesel model available, the SLK250 CDi, in the US there are just three choices available: SLK250 as tested, the 6 cylinder SLK350 and the full-on SLK55AMG. There is a big financial jump between each, though. Starting price for an SLK250 is $42,990, which rises to $55,400 for an SLK350 and a heady $67,990 for the AMG car. Most of your money goes on the mechanicals, with approximately 50 % more power on each step up the range, though the 350 and AMG do get real leather seats and an upgraded sound system with satellite radio as standard. Various option packages are available: Premium ($2590), Sport ($2500), Lighting ($1390) and Multimedia ($2220) as well as an ownership program called M-Brace. The Premium package was fitted to the test car, and this adds heated seats, a media interface, SiriusXM® Radio with 6-month All Access trial (which had run out on the test car), a Harman/Kardon LOGIC7® surround sound system, the AIRSCARF® and Infrared-remote hardtop operation. The Sport package brings you sport body styling, 18″ AMG alloy wheels and direct red ambient lighting. Lighting offers you bi-xenon headlights with active curve illumination and adaptive high-beam assist. Multimedia adds SiriusXM® Traffic and SiriusXM Weather, Navigation with Enhanced Voice Control, a 10GB Music Register, a 6-DVD/CD changer, SD card reader and Gracenote media database with album-cover art. Standard are 17″ alloy 5 spoke wheels, daytime running lights, MB-tex man-made leather upholstery, aluminium effect trim, an 8 way power adjustable seat, the COMAND system with 5.8″ colour display, bluetooth connectivity, and NECK-PRO active headrests. The Premium package comes as standard on the SLK350 and SLk55AMG, but otherwise the specification is the same. On the AMG car, there is a Performance package available, for $7450, which brings with it an AMG performance steering wheel, an increased top speed limiter, an AMG limited-slip differential, AMG performance suspension and 18″ AMG multispoke alloy wheels in silver or black. And if all this not enough, there are also plenty of individual options to add to any of the models.
All the ingredients are there with the SLK, but in this version, it did not quite gel. For sure, I had a fun day, but then give me an open topped car, a lovely sunny day with cloudless blue skies, a camera and some great scenery, and it’s pretty well guaranteed that I will amuse myself from dawn til dusk, almost regardless of the car. Most of the basics are right, as the SLK steers and handles nicely, is beautifully finished, and if you can live with the size of the cabin and the boot, acceptably practical as a two seater. So I think it is the engine that spoils it. Of course, Mercedes have a solution for that, and it is called either SLK350 or SLK55 AMG. But they cost more money. A lot more in the case of the AMG. And here’s the challenge. Even the SLK250 is not particularly cheap. Whilst it is priced to compete with its most obvious German rivals, the BMW Z4 and Audi TT, it’s not a huge financial leap to an entry level Boxster, and I suspect that most people would think that the cost difference was money well spent. Hertz US have these on fleet, so one of my next tasks is to get one, and to see if I agree with my own hypothesis (and that propounded by most of the motoring press) that for a small 2 seater sports car, the Porsche is the one to beat.