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Mercedes-Benz SLK 200K review (2004-2008)
Bodystyle: 2dr coupe-convertible
Engine: 1.8-litre supercharged 4-cylinder
Fuel type: Petrol
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Date of test: March 2004
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What is it?
Mercedes' second-generation SLK is much more than a rework of the original. Certainly the clever folding steel roof remains, now speeded up to a 22-second opening cycle, but the look, feel and driving experience have changed radically. The new car looks like a downsized version of the expensive SL, and not downsized by very much, either. That means a far more aggressive, masculine look, something likely to endear it more to male drivers, though it may be too butch for the many current lady owners. From the front there is a nose that brings some F1 style, from the rear its all Mercedes, substantial and very well planted to the road.
Where does it fit?
Direct competitors are the Alfa Romeo Spider V6, BMW Z4 and Porsche Boxster, with the Chrysler Crossfire coming into the frame with its new convertible roof. The stakes are thus high, and Mercedes has gone to considerable lengths to make this both faster and better to drive than the outgoing SLK. Prices fall midway between the BMW and the Porsche, with 2.2-litre Z4 undercutting the supercharged 1.8-litre SLK 200 by three thousand pounds. But a price in the high £20ks looks good value compared with the original, which cost some £6,000 more when it was launched in 1996.
Is it for you?
Mercedes is sure to tap a much broader vein of buyers with this new model. It not only looks fabulous, there is a genuinely pleasing driving experience to go with it. That will be enough to attracts many new buyers into the SLK experience, while current owners, who love the convenience and security of that folding roof, are likely to be equally taken. For a two-seater sports car the SLK is far from the budget end dominated by the Mazda MX-5 and MG TF, but its massively strong residual value when you come to sell means costs do make some sense.
What does it do well?
The 1.8-litre supercharged engine is a real gem. It may not have quite the power of the original SLK 230, but is far smoother and more refined, which when combined with a meaty burble from the exhaust, provides a very pleasing level of performance, better most of the time than the 2.2-litre Z4. Mercedes makes much of its new six-speed manual gearbox, and while the change is quite acceptable, it's still some way off the best. On the other hand, those buying this entry-level version of the SLK will feel far from short-changed with this specification, particularly bearing in mind the massive amounts of grip usually available in corners that make this such a fun car to drive quickly. The interior is much less fussy than before: classy, cohesive and of high quality.
What doesn't it do well?
The controversial point about the SLK is the level of grip on damp roads. While there are safety systems built in to cut the power if the tyres slip, it is surprisingly just how often this occurs in the 200 K (the far more powerful SLK 350 has the same problem magnified several times). It does take the edge off serious driving at times, though the counter argument is that the electronic stability systems are just doing their job. Other issues include very hard seats which may not suit all occupants. And while boot space is up by around 40% over the old car, space is still an issue with the roof down. Even if all you luggage fits, it can be difficult to get it out without raising the roof.
What's it like to live with?
This has to one of the easiest convertibles in the world to live with. The roof is simplicity itself to open and close, merely the press of a button. Roof down, with the optional wind deflector in place, there is a minimal amout of wind buffeting to occupants. In cold weather the optional 'Airscarf' system blows warm air though vents in the headrests onto your neck. And then roof up it's a different world, with all the security of a coupe. The second-generation SLK is a noticeably bigger car, which has its pros and cons. There's more space inside meaning 6'2'' occupants can now get comfortable. But the bigger dimensions make it a feel far less compact when threading through traffic or parking. There is a good equipment list as standard, including air conditioning and a supply of airbags, although adding a few choice extras - leather and automatic gearbox are almost essential ingredients in an SLK - will push up prices considerably.
Would we buy it?
There are several two-seater sports cars, significantly cheaper than the SLK, that can provide an enormous level of entertainment, but none that can match its blend of attributes. The ability to go from full wind-in-the-hair convertible to a solid-roofed coupe in a moment is a difficult virtue to quantify, but many seem to love it, even if luggage space is compromised over a fabric-roofed car. Throw in a great chassis, some impressive engines and neat styling, inside and out, and Mercedes has a winner on its hands. Yes, we'd even get used to the hard seats to own one of these.
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