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Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG First Drive
FIRST THOUGHTS: When AMG waves its wand over any Mercedes-Benz product, us mere mortals are forced to sit up and take notice. In theory, the SLK doesn't quite have the chops to be considered a ballistic performance missile based on appearances alone. It doesn't quite pan out that way in reality though.
The early iterations of the SLK were unfairly criticised in motoring circles. A retractable steel roof that was as good as a hardtop when closed, lively handling and an enjoyable ‘wind in the hair' driving experience meant that it was always a bit more than a drop top poser's car. Along came the 2012 model with more aggressive styling and a more purposeful appearance from any angle. Even in standard trim, the new model was looking the goods.
Add the AMG touch to the new model though, and you have every right to expect a more capable chassis, and more precise handling to deal with all that extra power and torque. The question is whether an AMG tuned V8 can really work in a small roadster? It's poignant to remember that this is in fact; the most powerful SLK Mercedes Benz has ever built.
What's it like?
At the original launch of the new SLK, we weren't entirely convinced by the new front end styling, which from side on can look a little strange. Everywhere else, there was a lot to like though. However, in AMG guise, the new styling seems to come together nicely and delivers serious street impact. Without doubt, this is the most aggressively styled and muscular SLK yet. Even in standard trim, there's a lot more purpose about the body lines and stance. Add the AMG touch to the bodywork though, and it gets even better.
The frontal visage has changed significantly, with a wider grille, gloss black lower lip centre, protruding nose, deep apron face and huge centrally mounted three pointed star all pointing to genuine performance potential. Front and rear, there's a wider track underneath the new SLK, meaning there's a completely different hunkered down look to the roadster than ever before. From any angle, the AMG version looks chunky, aggressive, and ready to spring into action. At the rear, signature AMG quad exhaust pipes, an F1 inspired diffuser and a tidy boot lip spoiler ensures that this AMG roadster is unmistakable as anything but an exclusive model.
Australia has a genuine love affair with the AMG product, so there's little doubt that Mercedes Benz should expect to sell plenty of these roadsters. We're more interested in driving appeal and performance though than simply looks so it will need to work hard to impress. Looks aren't everything after all.
The first SLK AMG had a supercharged V6 under the bonnet, while the second version lost the blower and gained two cylinders. While the displacement remains the same for this, the third iteration, the end result is somewhat different. The previous 5.5-litre V8 churned out 265kW and 510Nm. For 2012, those numbers are upped to 310kW and 540Nm. Both engines were robust in their power delivery, the new engine even more so, but it's important to note that at no time does the little roadster ever feel overpowered or likely to bite nastily. In the right hands, this is a mightily rapid drop top. The hike in power and torque over the previous model isn't enormous, but this new car deals with said power and torque a whole lot more competently than the old model.
Prestige convertibles have a tendency to be shrinking violets. Quiet, refined, luxurious. Those words may also be true of the SLK, but thumb the starter button with the top down and there's a raucous rumble as the V8 clears its throat and thunders into life. Even once it's settled into a deep idle, bystanders will know that a special engine has just been awakened. It doesn't have the same deep menace as the C63 powerplant we tested recently, but the SLK has its own unique and alluring V8 note.
There's more to the under bonnet appeal than simply a tough engine note though. It's here where some of the clever new Mercedes Benz technology comes into play. Cruise along without overloading the engine and 4 cylinders are deactivated, thus halving the running of the engine. The system will keep things that way too if you continue to use mild throttle applications, thereby delivering increased fuel efficiency. This system works in the controlled efficiency ‘C' mode.
Punch the throttle though and seamlessly, and very rapidly the AMG reverts back to all eight cylinders to get on with whatever task you have in mind. Especially when it comes to overtaking for example, the imperceptible nature of the shift from four to eight is a godsend. In fact, we had to watch the central display – it switches from ECO 4 to ECO 8 – to find out exactly when each mode was working in normal traffic.
Despite it's large chunks of power and torque, the 5.5-litre V8 is capable of genuinely impressive fuel consumption if you're judicious with your right foot. 8.5L/100km is the official ADR combined claim and for an engine capable of this level of performance, that is something to be genuinely excited by. In fact, Mercedes claims that this is the most efficient production V8 engine in the world.
Our one main criticism of the C63 – Coupe and Sedan – on NSW's awful roads was a ride that was a little too stiff even in comfort mode. So we were concerned with what that might mean for the SLK given the propensity of manufacturers to chase rigidity through the chassis in any modern roadster. However, and this had us surprised over choppy back roads, the SLK seems to do a remarkable job of soaking up wicked ruts, bumps and washouts, without ever feeling sloppy or dull. Clever damping and spring rates keep things neat and tidy when you want it, but accommodate the daily grind when you need it. The ride is still firm as you'd expect of an AMG vehicle but it is by no means uncomfortable. Perhaps adding to the quality of the ride is the fact that our test vehicle was fitted with the AMG handling package, which adds sports suspension, larger diameter wheels, and a locking rear diff as well as composite front brake rotors.
Now, you might expect given the more supple than we expected suspension that the driving experience on twisty roads has been somewhat detracted from. Not the case.
The SLK is seriously agile in AMG guise, no matter how hard you push on tight, demanding roads. The steering in particular has beautiful weight and feel at any speed. Rapid changes of direction are dispatched with ease and the chassis never feels squirmy or uncomfortable.
The roadster will skip around over really nasty mid corner bumps, but it's never unnerving or uncomfortable. That is the case with the roof up or down too. There's no scuttle shake with the top down but there is a little squeak occasionally from some of the plastic trim that covers the top when it's retracted.
Out of the city limits or around town, the 7-speed auto is excellent and shifts up or down through the ratios quickly and smoothly. Opt for sport mode for even more rapid shifting and an alluring blip of the throttle on down shifts, or you can shift gears via the steering wheel mounted paddles. We found the ‘Sport' setting the most enjoyable with the gearbox doing its work automatically.
Inside, there's more than enough legroom and plenty of seat adjustment for driver and passenger. The cabin has that signature Mercedes Benz solidity to every surface, while the switchgear is right where you need it. With the top down there's almost no buffeting even at freeway speed and the standard audio system – by Harman Kardon – is exceptional even with the roof down.
As you'd expect of an AMG product, the feel of the touch surfaces, the stitching, the fit and finish and the general execution in the cabin is of the highest order. Everything has a look of quality about it, and the standard, specially coated sun reflecting Napa leather seats are both supportive and comfortable even after a few hours in the saddle.
We managed to squeeze two cabin sized suitcases under the retractable roof when it was down, so there's enough luggage space for two adults even with the roof down. With the roof up, you get quite a large boot, certainly more than you would normally expect of a sports car.
A full raft of safety inclusions in the standard package are also expected of a Mercedes Benz product so there are no surprises there. Ownership doesn't come cheap at $155 grand, but there are few direct competitors for this vehicle. As with their coupes and sedans, it seems that even in the drop top world Mercedes Benz is building the closest thing to a modern muscle car.
VERDICT: Convertibles pose an interesting equation in the motoring world, but rarely will you find one as aggressive, muscular and purposeful as the new SLK55 AMG. It's capable of performance that far overshoots the average lifestyle buyer. That said, the new SLK is certainly a stylish way to enjoy open top cruising with a serious performance edge. And it comes into the equation at a massive 25 grand cheaper than the old model.
|Country of manufacture||Germany|
|Number of cylinders||8|
|Engine size||5.5 L|
|Claimed fuel consumption||8.5 L/100km|
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