First drive: Mercedes SLK

Despite being with us for the past 15 years, the Mercedes SLK is not a car which has forced itself onto the shortlist of the average UK enthusiast. The roadster is more likely to be found languishing in a long term airport car park or on Chelsea's King's Road than it is being unceremoniously nailed on the nearest B road.

Its reputation as a mobile make-up mirror for air stewardesses is a tribute to Mercedes' brand strength, the practical all-weather appeal of its pioneering folding tin top and a refined reputation. The reason for a lack of love amongst the nation's (largely male) sports car customer base was a shortfall in power combined with the SLK's lacklustre handling and the original model's slightly cutesy styling.
Now on its third generation, Mercedes claims it has cracked the naysayers' issues with an approach to development it describes as 'refined sportiness'. The new SLK is slightly larger than its predecessor, but retains the classic roaster big-bonnet-small-bum profile. The styling has been given a muscular makeover, too - although the car does look better from the back than from the 190 SL-inspired front.

The SLK retains its folding steel roof, but has added the new Magic Sky Control system to the options list. The panoramic sunroof changes from light to dark at the touch of a button, offering light or shade depending on driver preference. It's hardly essential kit, but it's hard not to instantly appreciate the appeal of a car with removable sunglasses.

Constantly flicking the roof-mounted switch is also neat way of distracting yourself from the rest of interior, which although well laid out and classily finished, is about as visually appealing as an ATM machine. Mercedes has scattered a few propeller-shaped air vents around the place, but the dashboard is kicked firmly into touch by the BMW Z4's elegant cabin.

Still, there's no shortage of standard equipment - including the brilliant Airscarf system, which send pushes a warm draft around your neck and shoulders - and the Mercedes has even added Attention Assist to ensure the driver isn't getting too comfortable.

Automatic start stop is also included on the SLK for the first time and helps a new engine range to significantly better economy returns than the previous model managed. Three petrol lumps will be available from launch with a diesel alternative to follow before the end of the year.

The SLK 200 and SLK 250 get 182bhp and 202bhp versions of the same 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine and are good for 40-plus mpg, while the top-spec SLK 350 gets the 303bhp 3.5-litre, six-cylinder unit. The 200 comes as standard with a heavy-handed six-speed manual, but the 250 and 350 get Mercedes smooth, but ponderous 7G-Tronic Plus automatic transmission.

The 350 provides the SLK with burbling, propulsive pace, but it's the base-spec 200 which feels like a good fit for the roadster's likeable character. The four-cylinder engine will only manage 0-62mph in around 7.6 seconds (compared to 5.6 for the six-cylinder) but the lighter powerplant offers just enough speed to take advantage of Mercedes' improved dynamics.

In keeping with that 'refined sportiness' ethos, the engineers have nudged the car towards a more rewarding drive without blunting its deeply impressive ride quality. The SLK hasn't closed the gap much on the sharper, spikier Z4, but the standard suspension (avoid the sports springs) it is a laudable mix of comfort and control.

Its rear-wheel happy setup is also incredibly forgiving, which makes poking the tail out on sharper bends an easy and addictive affair. An admirable lack of understeer and taut steering add to a conservative sense of fun.

But it's the SLK's ability to turn the entertainment into smooth, unruffled progress which is likely to remain its biggest selling feature. Transfer the Mercedes roadster to the motorway, and aside from a bit of wind noise and seat creak, it isn't hard to imagine comfortably crossing continents behind the wheel.

That balance is likely to suit the SLK's established clientele down to the ground, and combined with a better-honed look, it might just be enough to persuade a few more roadster fans into Mercedes dealerships.
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