Fresh Air Blower

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Mercedes’ new supercharged SLK roadster with its unique folding metal roof is even better to look at than drive reports Andrew Frankel

Stirling Moss is annoyed and given that it’s cold, wet, dark and six o’clock in the morning, maybe it’s not too surprising. But it’s neither the hour nor the weather that is furrowing those famous features. It’s the car.

The car is the new Mercedes-Benz SLK and it’s coping with the conditions well. It looks better than its SL big brother and it’s more fun to drive hence Moss’s annoyance. His everyday car is an SL.

The SLK is one of those infinitely rare cars that’s in danger of being too good. Don’t laugh, the worldwide public response to the SLK is causing family-sized headaches in Stuttgart right now. Despite putting on an unprecedented third 7.5-hour shift to build them (upping production from the presumed maximum of 40,000 cars a year to an absolute, non-negotiable ceiling of 50,000), demand for SLKs far outstrips Mercedes’ ability to supply them.

Getting carried away with its specification or looks right now is inadvisable. Even if you slapped down your deposit cheque today, you could not realistically expect to be borne stylishly toward the setting sun in your SLK until sometime in 1999.

So why are so many people prepared to pledge £29,500 for a car that they haven’t sat in, let alone driven, and won’t be able to own for more than two years? It seems the SLK is one book the public has deemed safe to judge almost entirely by its cover, for its basic specification seems ill-equipped to fight the perennial challenge from its rivals down the road in Munich. Compared to the BMW Z3 2.8, the SLK not only costs around

£3000 more, it is propelled down the road by a 2.3-litre, four cylinder motor, not the peerless 2.8-litre straight six powerhouse lurking under the BMW’s shark-styled nose.

No, what has hooked the buying public, enough to lend credibility to stories of new right-hand drive cars changing hands for £45,000, is its styling.

Not only will you find in its lines the definitive template for the 21st century roadster, its shape is also remarkably faithful to the abiding traditions of its marque. And be it by luck or design, the timing of the SLK’s appearance could hardly have worked better. At once it makes the MGF seem a little bland, the Z3 a touch contrived and the Porsche Boxster even a little ugly.

The SLK’s proportions work in any light, from any angle, on the page and in the flesh. The cabin is as stylish as its exterior, taking extant Mercedes cues with its switchgear, ergonomics and driving position and then adding its own touches: chromed surrounds for the instruments, unique dials and even a handbrake.

In the light of this, it is perhaps disappointing to learn that the driving experience can’t quite cash the cheque written by such an attractive and sporting body. By the time you have approached the SLK from afar, settled down into the seat, flipped the roof back into the boot and reached for the key, you feel ready for the drive of your life.

It doesn’t quite deliver. First, and most critically, there is that engine which, combined with Mercedes’ refusal to offer the car in the UK with manual transmission, soon damps down your expectations. There are many, much cheaper small hatchbacks with four cylinder engines that are also quieter, smoother and easier on the car. The 2295cc unit’s output of 193bhp comes courtesy of two camshafts, 16 valves and, significantly, a supercharger. Mercedes has reverted to the old fashioned method of forced induction and, feeling the effects of a 206Ib ft torque peak as it runs without measurable interruption from 2500-4800rpm, you’d be hard pressed to argue against it.

Instantaneous throttle response has always been the supercharger’s most alluring asset; the way the merest squeeze of the throttle hauls the SLK away from every apex without the gearbox needing to go through the tiresome motions of kickdown is an integral part of its appeal and relaxed nature.

Yet it remains an engine at its best when left swimming in the sea of torque found in the middle of its rev-range. Banging the throttle to the floor produces not only appreciable forward motion (enough says Mercedes to hit 62mph in 7.5sec and a top speed of 142mph) but also a harsh exhaust note that introduces boom periods into the cabin when the hood is raised. It’s not enough to poison the SLK’s many remaining charms, but you won’t complete a single spirited journey without wishing for a straight six under the bonnet. The knowledge that Mercedes has such an engine (identically powered and capable of fitting under the SLK’s bonnet) is not helpful.

Even so, while the four cylinder engine has failed to escape its inherent vibration problem, the supercharger has done rather better at dismissing its traditional bugbear, excessive fuel consumption, to the history books. Official figures suggest 40mpg is within reach of the unnaturally light-footed while it would take an unusually hostile urban existence to make consumption dip into the teens. This would be fine if the size of the fuel tank had not been restricted by the hood mechanism. The SLK carries only 53 litres, meaning visits to petrol stations will rarely be more than 300 miles apart.

If the nature of the SLK’s performance implies a tourer rather than a sports car, then the handling only reinforces the impression. A hard drive along a good road will raise your pulse, not wet your palms. It steers faithfully, thanks to a rack and pinion helm of typical precision and weight, and turns reliably into the tightest bends with no more than a suggestion of a pause between instructions being issued and executed. Any sharper response would introduce an element of nervous agility to the SLK which, while essential in some sportsters, has no place in one so urbane as the SLK.

The chassis is pure Benz. The wheelbase is a fraction shorter than that of the C-class upon which it is based and tied down by double wishbones at the front and a multilink rear axle. Only in the specification of its wheels and tyres does the SLK divert from this well trodden path. The SLK not only has fatter tyres at the back than front (an unusual but by no means unprecedented move for a front-engined car), but also taller rims at the rear, with the front 205/60 tyres running on 15in wheels, while the rear 225/50’s cover 16in rims.

Grip is predictably impressive, particularly on challenging surfaces, while the SLK’s inherent urge to understeer can be swiftly stifled by a prod of the throttle in a slow corner or a gentle lift in faster curves. Traction control is standard but can be switched off. Without it, the Benz can be persuaded to perform all the usual tricks exclusively preserved for powerful cars with engines up front and driven wheels behind, but it’s clear both from the faithful but hardly electrifying response to such treatment and the angrily flashing exclamation mark in the centre of the speedometer that its heart is indeed far from such churlish behaviour.

The SLK’s dreams are of the open road, tackled at speed but with maximum relaxation and economy of effort. Drive like this and it is truly captivating. Ride quality is unreasonably good, failing only to disassociate its frequencies from those of the seats which, because they move in rather than out of phase with the suspension, mean you are always subjected to a little too much vertical movement, particularly over crests. Wind management, for the under six foot is impressive, too. You hear a surprising amount of wind disturbance but feel practically none with the roof down.

Roof up and the integrity of the SLK’s cabin is akin to that of a bank vault. For the price of an undeniably limited luggage and fuel carrying capacity, Mercedes has designed a roof system that genuinely turns the SLK into two cars. With the magnesium roof in position you can drive at 120mph with no more wind noise than a similarly priced Mercedes saloon. Then, as the sun comes out, you’re just 25sec from driving a roadster.

You need not know the length of the waiting list to see what a winner Mercedes has produced in the SLK. Some may see its list price of £29,500 as a little steep compared to that of its rival at BMW: look at it instead as a car that’s faster, more capable, prettier and better than the cheapest SL and then its price, little more than half of that commanded by its big sister suddenly seems very far from steep.

Indeed, Mercedes has already been forced to tighten the rein on its precocious new prodigy. Ask about a six cylinder SLK and you will be told, categorically, that such a car does not exist nor are there plans to make it exist. If this sounds odd given that it would be a simple and easy fix to SLK’s one identifiable, card-carrying fault then bear in mind that, for many, the big smooth engines are now the one convincing reason to buy an SL, a car from which Mercedes creams off a considerably healthier profit. Their abscence and, for the likes of Stirling Moss, the lack of rear seats remain the only active reasons not to join the queue.

Regardless of the official line, the six cylinder SLK is, in fact, a cast iron certainty. Whether any of us will live long enough to reach the front of the queue that will form within seconds of its announcement, seems rather less sure.