From the outset, a roadster promises a fast and fun drive in the open air -- their compact and light build allowing for the agility needed to wiz in and out of sharp corners and accelerate in a matter of seconds. This is the marketing proposition. Thankfully, the new, third generation version of the Mercedes-Benz SLK does exactly that. It is fast -- reaching 62mph in just 5.6 seconds -- and extremely fun to drive.
The SLK was first introduced in 1996 as a smaller, sportier sibling to the SL, pitched at a slightly younger audience. From the outset, its size and style attracted female buyers, perhaps also drawn by the less than aggressive styling. The larger SL has always oozed elegance with its sharp, chic design, but the SLK began by looking a little overworked, exhibiting far too many character lines and excessive surface treatment for a small compact car.
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Mercedes' designers seem to have addressed these issues with the latest reincarnation of the SLK, creating a car that is far more confident in terms of design and a clear extension of the current brand aesthetic. The exterior is dominated by the company's 'new family face', as introduced by design director Gorden Wagener on the SLS AMG. Now the famous grille is the centre of attention with everything else is composed around it. On the SLK, visual emphasis is placed on the sculptural upright grille with its three-pointed star. This is framed by the prominent jewel-like headlamps (utilising LED technology for the first time on this model).
The SLK also features what Mercedes calls the 'magic sky control' -- a fancy name for a tinted panoramic glass roof panel that can become transparent at a touch of a button in order to control the amount of light that streams through the cabin.
The interior clearly references the design of the SLS AMG supercar. The sporty cabin features four round, galvanised air outlets that are integrated in the dashboard and a flat-bottomed fat leather steering wheel that is almost the perfect fit for this little car.
Material offerings remain rather on the conventional side - the usual swathe of leather trims, double-stitching door gussets, optional two-tone seats and soft leather upper dashboard. The centre console and other trim parts come in brushed aluminium and wood is available in high-gloss dark brown walnut or black ash. The SLK also comes with the excellent second generation 'Airscarf', neck-level heaters that keep you snug during out of season open-air driving (useful in convertible-obsessed markets like the UK).
With the company's new 4 and 6-cylinder engines under the bonnet and all the usual low-emissions tricks like a start/stop function, the car promises to be 25 per cent more economical than its predecessor.
Wagener has been on a mission to bring some of the lost sparkle back to Mercedes ever since he was promoted to vice president of design in 2008. He's previously noted that the marque had lost its sporty design heritage, pointing out that in today's car market, customers, no matter what their age, desire a younger, sportier model.
Wagener and his design team are certainly heading in the right direction with new SLK. It's an altogether more mature car than the two previous models. These great strides are much needed as it will have to compete with some pretty desirable contenders on the market, including the Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4 and Audi TT. Right now, however, the SLK is the most modern roadster on the market, and for many of those in the market, that's its most appealing quality.