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Motoring: Mercedes makes real contender in Kompressor

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | September 8th, 2008

When the original Mercedes-Benz SLK went on sale in 1997, I immediately fell in love with both the looks of the car and its clever folding hard-top roof, which back then was not offered by anyone else on the market (nowadays even Pontiac has a folding hard-top roof on the G6).

When I first drove the SLK230 Kompressor model, I was left with an empty feeling inside. The first problem was that the engine was not powerful enough, and only came as an automatic, and the quality of the fit and finish was not what you'd call spectacular.

The biggest problem with the car in was the soft handling that was not made for the enthusiast.

However, since 2006 there has been a new SLK. The base car is the SLK280, in the middle is the SLK350 and the top of the range model is the SLK55 AMG.

I wrote about the SLK55 nearly two years ago and I absolutely loved it. That was a fast, loud and entertaining ride. If you like traveling at rocket speeds, the SLK55 is about as good as fast cars get (if you don't include those ultra money, ultra rare hyper-cars).

However, since I tested the SLK55 there has been one question that had been on my mind, how good is the middle-grade SLK350?

Trust me, there are few joys as good as driving a convertible on a nice sunny day. However, not all convertibles are good but thankfully the SLK350 is.

When I say good that is an understatement because this car is much better than that. Lets take the looks for a start. The SLK was always an eye-catching car, but these new SLK's are just stunning. In fact the new SLK evokes more than just a passing resemblance to the $450,000 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren supercar.

So it looks good from the outside, and you won't be disappointed when you step inside either.

The interior has a quality feel to it, it is decently spacious for a small car and very well equipped (you can get built-in sat-nav, and a clever air-scarf heater system which blows hot air on your neck to keep you warm if you're driving with the top down on a chilly day).

My only criticism is that there isn't ample storage bins in here to put away stuff like cell phones, and the cup-holders are not only useless but also placed stupidly above the sat-nav system, so if you spill something, you might ruin your expensive navi.

Set those issues aside and you will enjoy your time in this car, especially once you start driving it like it should be driven.

On a typical drive this is a nice car to be in, and it certainly is easy to drive. But when you find an interesting piece of road and want to see what this car can do, that is when you will appreciate the engineering that went into this car.

I expected this car to handle well, but it handles even better than that. The chassis is stiff in all the right places and that means the ride is good and comfortable on a normal drive and tight and responsive when the going gets fast. The same goes for the suspension set-up, it is supple and tight. How it manages to do both so well is beyond me.

Like all modern luxury cars, it is equipped with a clever traction and stability control system, but thankfully it doesn't intervene too early (like in the old SLK). The new system allows for a bit more lean, so a bit more fun. Go around a tight corner fast and the tail will drift out, but in a very controllable fashion, just what an enthusiast needs.

Enthusiasts also like power and the SLK350 has ample power. It's 3.5-litre, V6 engine produces a respectable 268hp. That doesn't sound like much in today's ever higher power wars, but trust me, it's enough for this size of a car. Couple that with its brilliant seven-speed automatic gearbox and you have a very quick car (six-speed manual also available). How quick you ask? How about 0-100km/h in 5.5 seconds, and a top-speed limited to 250 km/h.

That is very impressive indeed, but perhaps most impressive was the fact that despite such performance potential, my test car still averaged nine-litres/100km, so it won't even cost you much to run.

Then there is the price. You can get yourself in a brand new SLK350 for about $67,000 (plus freight/PDI, admin, air tax, gas tax + PST/GST). Sure that is not cheap but for those who have the income to afford such toys, this is finally a credible contender to cars like the Porsche Boxster, Audi TT and the BMW Z4.
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