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Mercedes SLK Roadster convertible (2011 – ) expert review

By Jon Quirk, 16th March 2011

The verdict

The third generation Mercedes-Benz SLK Roadster is the sportiest and most engaging version yet. All those inherent SLK values of comfort, refinement and luxury are still there, but it now feels even more like a junior Mercedes-Benz SL.

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Expert rating:

3.9

Pros

  • Upgraded interior now worthy of the badge
  • Impressive ride and refinement for a sports car
  • Folding metal roof still oozes quality

Cons

  • Other rivals offer sportier intent
  • Auto gearbox can be slow witted
  • Pricey

Full Review

1. Exterior

The current trend for strong geometric lines has made this the most slab sided and aggressive-looking Mercedes-Benz SLK so far. Traditionally, the Mercedes-Benz SLK has appealed more to the female customer so the emphasis with the third generation Mercedes-Benz SLK was to broaden appeal by ‘manning-up’ the visual stance. The quietly assured aesthetic of old Mercedes-Benz cars appears to be long gone, as does the previous SLK’s Formula One-inspired nose cone. Instead, the new corporate grille has been crowbarred onto the front of the SLK to offer some much needed presence.  Special merit must go to the boot area of the car which requires some double-hinged engineering excellence to house the folding metal roof. Whereas the old car’s design was a bit messy trying to accommodate this bulk, the rear design is now much tidier, the shutlines are much cleaner and the subtle concave surfacing on the boot lid adds a touch of class.

Our rating: 4

2. Interior

The interior of the Mercedes-Benz SLK is much more stylishly appointed than its predecessor. The dashboard architecture has been cleaned up to improve space and boasts large swathes of machined aluminium, from the air vents to the large centre console. It feels reminiscent of the Mercedes-Benz SLS supercar, and there are further brushed aluminium accents on the door handles and roof mechanism toggle.  At the centre of the dash is a large 5.5-inch satellite navigation screen that, for the first time ever, also has the option of offering internet access through a data enabled mobile phone. Further party pieces include Campari red lighting strips along both the door cards and centre console to lift the cabin’s evening ambience while in the day, customers can play with the Magic Sky Control roof. This allows passengers to alter the amount of light that enters the cabin by changing the transparency of the glass roof. Sounds like an expensive, optional gadget we’d see on the Maybach 62 limo (it is and we do) but there’s no glazing over when you first experience and admire the transparency shift in front of your eyes. The overall finish of the Mercedes-Benz SLK feels strong but it falls just short of the BMW Z4 by a couple of instances – the minuscule clock that sits above the dash interrupts the minimalist luxury feel and uses a quite hideous font, while the elasticated door pockets look cheap.

Our rating: 4

3. Practicality

Space and versatility isn’t a Mercedes-Benz SLK strong point, but there is some storage on offer in the central arm rest and behind the seats, as well as noticeably more shoulder room. It seems unbelievable now but back in 1996, the Mercedes-Benz SLK was a true pioneer is the folding metal roof department, offering unprecedented refinement and security at this price. The latest mechanism in this third generation SLK now uses a lighter weight magnesium frame, takes less than than 20 seconds to electrically unfurl and can be operated when moving (albeit at very low speeds). Unfortunately, the retractable show piece still eats into bootspace rather dramatically and is convincingly bettered by the two-boot layout of the Porsche Boxster. When folded, the main issue isn’t so much space but the tight boot aperture, as even conventional shopping bags require a decent push to fit. Roof down, the SLK continues to provide both passengers with Airscarf (the best-selling option that blows hot air onto the occupant’s neck) and Airguide, a new wind deflector that sits in between the two rollover bars and reduces buffeting.

Our rating: 3

4. Ride and handling

The rear-wheel drive chassis is a development of the outgoing Mercedes-Benz SLK. However, the steering rack has been adjusted to offer a more darty and direct response for the driver. Combined with impressive body control, the new SLK feels sportier than ever before and is confidence-inspiring to drive. Despite this, it still rides better than both a BMW Z4 or Audi TT Roadster at motorway speeds. Mercedes says it has tried to deliver what it calls ‘refined sportiness’ and we’d say that’s a pretty good description. Optional variable rate steering and new adjustable dampers are available as part of a Dynamic Handling Package, but the standard spring set-up we tested in the SLK250 felt well resolved.

Our rating: 4

5. Performance

Five versions of the new Mercedes-Benz SLK are currently available. The best-selling SLK 200 develops 184bhp from a turbocharged, 1.8-litre petrol engine. Although it may feel a bit wheezy at higher speeds, it manages to sound fantastic thanks to a module that resonates engine noise into the cabin.  The higher tuned SLK 250 still feels well balanced and light footed, but it now packs 204bhp from the same four-cylinder unit and accelerates from 0-60mph in 6.6secs. The SLK 350 uses Merc’s new normally aspirated 3.5-litre V6 with 306bhp. The 0-60mph sprint time shrinks to 5.6secs and it feels like you could run out of road before it runs out of performance. For the first time in the SLK’s history, a diesel model is also being offered. It develops a not insignificant 204bhp from a twin-turbocharged 2.1-litre engine. While it’s likely to appeal to those looking to keep costs down, we can’t help thinking that a diesel soundtrack is a tad out of place in an elegant, sporty roadster. In Mercedes tradition, the SLK55 AMG is the current range topper, and uses a new 421bhp normally aspirated version of AMG’s new 5.5-litre V8. Only the SLK 200 gets a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, but it can also be specified with the same 7G-Tronic seven-speed auto that features as standard on the rest of the range. Both gearboxes confirm the SLK as a quick cruiser rather than an out-and-out sports car. The manual gearbox feels notchy and a bit vague, while the auto ‘box is luxuriously smooth but a little bit slow witted compared to the double-clutch system used in the Audi TT Roadster. This SLK may be quick, but this is not a car you hustle.

Our rating: 4

6. Running costs

The new Mercedes-Benz SLK 250 BlueEfficiency is actually cheaper to buy than its predecessor, the SLK 200 Kompressor. All versions now also come with engine stop/start, brake energy recuperation and a disengaging alternator as standard, though an Eco button on the dash allows you to nullify its inputs. The SLK 200 automatic and SLK 250 return 43.5mpg and 42.8mpg, respectively. However, the top spec 301bhp SLK 350 returns a barely believable 39.8mpg and 167g/km of CO2. Unsurprisingly it is the diesel that offers the best economy, managing 56.5mpg and emitting 132g/km.

Our rating: 4

7. Reliabilty

Mercedes-Benz is known for its robust build quality and long-lasting designs, but because the SLK is new, there’s very little information available. However, the third generation SLK is a development of the previous model which, after a limited recall for incorrect control unit software, has fared well in later life.

Our rating: 4

8. Safety

Mercedes’ devotion to self-improvement is probably evidenced best with the vast array of safety equipment now on offer in the SLK. Standard features now include PreSafe and Active Bonnet, both designed to improve passenger and pedestrian safety respectively, in the event of an impact. There’s also AttentionAssist, a system that constantly monitors 70 parameters to ensure driver alertness, and Brake Assist Plus with optional Distronic Plus, a form of radar cruise control. We also tested (and liked) the Intelligent Light System, which managed the main beam in low light conditions, and Speed Limit Assist. The new Mercedes-Benz SLK is still to be Euro NCAP tested, but the 2002 model scored four stars.

Our rating: 4

9. Equipment

Standard specification includes 17-inch five-spoke alloys, 5.5-inch colour screen, LED daytime running headlamps, Bluetooth connectivity, climate control, six-disc CD player and the standard electric-hydraulic Vario roof without glass. The Mercedes-Benz SLK Sport adds leather upholstery, AMG bodystyling,18-inch AMG alloys, sports suspension, AMG floor mats.

Our rating: 4

10. Why buy?

If you want a two-seater sports car that puts more emphasis on refinement, luxury and comfort than ultimate performance, the new Mercedes-Benz SLK is it.

Our rating: 4

Expert review 3.9stars

  • Exterior4
  • Interior4
  • Practicality3
  • Ride and handling4
  • Performance4
  • Running costs4
  • Reliability4
  • Safety4
  • Equipment4
  • Why buy?4

Our recommendations

Best on a budget:

SLK 200 BlueEfficiency (manual)

The best performance and prestige for your pound.

Best-seller:

SLK 200 BlueEfficiency

Entry-level SLK is also predicted to be best seller.

Blow the budget:

SLK 350 BueEfficiency

V6 engine sounds superb and has pace to match Boxster.

The emphasis with the third generation SLK was to broaden appeal by ‘manning-up’ the visual stance