This is sports car country. Smooth as Megan Fox’s thigh and just as curvy, the lonely roads that blast their way out of the Jonkershoek Valley in Stellenbosch are enough to make even the most blasé petrolheads hot under the collar. From swooping mountain passes to arrow-like straights that charge past a never-ending blur of vineyards, few places on earth manage to throw so many tasty ingredients into the driving mixture.
And today we get to gobble them all up behind the wheel of the – cue drumroll and spotlight – brand new Mercedes-Benz SLK. Uh. Right. Now if I sound a little disappointed it’s simply because this baby roadster has always been a bit wet around the ears. You know, more boulevard poser than ballsy performance car. Great if you’re a 50-year women showing off your facelift to Parkhurst bistro society but less than ideal for aspirant Ken Blocks who dig flambéing their tyres across the Wineland’s finest.
Fortunately, or so I’m told, this new third-generation model has been honed to a much sharper dynamic edge. Indeed, thanks to an all-new chassis design and considerable fettling to the steering and suspension setup, SLK version 3.0 finally has what it takes to keep up with the rest of the roadster pack. Good enough to give the BMW Z4 and Audi TT a run for their money? Well if looks are anything to go by, it’s certainly promising.
Yep, where the previous model riffed off the fanciful SLR McLaren, this one apes the delicious form of the SLS AMG. On paper this sounds a little contrived but in the real world it works exceptionally well. Especially up front where it gets that blunted snout characterized by a massive radiator grille and some particularly aggressive headlamps.
Capable of looming large in almost any rearview mirror, this SLK also gets chiseled side strakes à la 300 SL and a heavily revised derriere that backs up the rest of its barroom swagger with angular haunches, V-shaped LED taillights and a pair of double chromed exhaust tailpipes. The latter of which are now standard on both of the SLK 200 and 350.
Inside it’s similarly macho with a sporty dashboard layout refreshingly void from unnecessary clutter. From the passenger seat things are annoyingly cramped but slip in behind that perfectly sculpted multi-function steering wheel and you’ll discover that there’s just enough room to find your ideal driving position. Equipped with electronic seats, this task is made even easier with a rake- and reach-adjustable steering column.
Finished off in (optional) nappa leather and some extremely classy brushed aluminum accents, the new SLK’s interior is fairly well equipped on the gadgets front too. As usual the extras list is pretty extensive but at least every model does ship standard with nice-to-haves like Bluetooth connectivity; heated front seats; a USB compatible audio interface; air-conditioning and Merc’s patented Attention Assist and Adaptive Brake safety systems that are designed to lessen the chances of things go badly pear-shaped.
Of course if you’re looking for more wow factor then you’ll have to specify the fancy new Magic Sky version of the tried and tested Vario-Roof. A slick piece of kit, it basically lets you change the tint of the panoramic glass above your head from dark to crystal clear with just a quick dab of a button. Unfortunately none of our test cars had this fitted but it does seem like the perfect accessory for SA conditions. Similarly trick is the Comand Online navigation system that, by mating wirelessly with your smartphone, allows you to access the Internet whenever you’re stationary.
So it looks impressive and is pretty damn tidy on the inside but what is the new SLK like to drive when you get on the good foot across these wild Western Cape roads? Well the first thing you’ll notice after strapping yourself in is that it feels incredibly polished and grown up – no matter which of the two model variants you might be in.
Most modern Merc’s place an emphasis on cushy ride quality and this roadster is no different. Poised and comfortable, there’s a considered fluency to the way this SLK rolls over the asphalt that makes it come across a bit like a mini GT car – something that conjures up a kind of relaxed confidence within its driver.
Capable of soaking up most scabby tracts of tarmac with ease, it also has just enough sports DNA spliced into its suspension and chassis setup to still be reasonably entertaining. At the end of the day it’s not quite as accomplished as its more hardcore rivals but for the mild-mannered motoring enthusiasts amongst us, there’s enough on the table to keep them satisfied.
Performance wise the range-topping SLK 350 steals the show with its smooth and viciously toned V6 engine that pulls hard right through the rev-range. Shifting its grunt through a reasonably quick 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox, it’s a real honey of a motor and one that packs on a deceptive amount of speed whenever the opportunity presents itself. Unfortunately you’ve got to shell out an inordinate amount of money for the privilege. Seriously, for around R60K less you could garage the ever-brilliant Porsche Boxster S: a car that will trounce this particular Mercedes-Benz on every single level.
So until the hardcore SLK55 AMG arrives sometime next year, I feel that the pick of the range must surely be the entry level SLK200. It’s certainly not massively powerful by modern standards – a Renault Clio RS packs more muscle – but there’s enough turbocharged poke on tap to take advantage of a challenging strip of rural blacktop. Besides being more affordable, the 200 also feels slightly more balanced too; that smaller, lighter four-cylinder engine contributing to noticeably less understeer when things really start getting tight. Best of all, purists rejoice, it still comes standard with a proper six-speed manual transmission to better immerse you in the driving experience.
But no matter which model you take, just be sure to not specify the optional speed-sensitive Direct-Steer system. Lacking progression from heavy to light gearing, it numbs feedback from the tyres and generally feels far too artificial for its own good.
Yep, leave this out and you’ve got a pukka looking roadster that’s chockfull of all the qualities that we love most in a Mercedes-Benz – solidity, build quality and enviable brand kudos. At the moment it’s still not quite the BMW Z4 rival that it could have been but for some (read image-conscious individuals hungering after a more relaxed drop-top driving experience) the all-new SLK will no doubt tick all the right boxes.
Mercedes-Benz SLK Roadster at a Glance:
Engine: 1796cc four-cylinder turbo (SLK 200); 3498cc V6 (SLK 350)
Power: 135kW at 5250rpm (200); 225kW at 6500rpm (350)
Torque: 270Nm from 1800 – 4600rpm (200); 370Nm from 3500 – 5250rpm (350)
Top Speed: 240km/h (200); 250km/h (350)
Fuel Consumption: 6.5l/100km (claimed combined 200), 7.1l/100km (claimed combined 350)
CO2: 151g/km (200); 167g/km (350)
Pricing: From R555 700 (200) to R734 100 (350)
Muscular new looks
Best handling SLK yet
Still not a Z4 beater