Road Test: Third time's the charm for Mercedes-Benz SLK 350

The next generation Mercedes SLK has shaken off its ladies image and, as Kevin Hackett feels, has manned up for the challenge.

According to the marketing nonsense from Mercedes, its SLK roadster is "one of the most exciting and successful sports cars ever built". Really? While I can understand the statement about it being successful, is it really exciting? Errm, no. Especially when you look at its competitors, Porsche's sublime Boxster and Nissan's excellent 370Z. But the SLK really did change the way car manufacturers built open-top cars because, when the original was launched in 1996, it set the trend for folding metal roofs.

With the benefits of electrical technology, the SLK's roof could retract at the touch of a button, transforming it from a closed coupe into a sleek roadster. It was, it seemed, the best of both worlds, offering increased rigidity and security, and plenty of other manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon. But the original SLK, despite its sharp looks, was definitely not exciting. Neither was the second generation. They were all a bit, well, girlie.

But you can't say that about the all-new, third-generation SLK. It really has moved the game on in every respect and, while the ladies may still take a shine to it, there will be plenty of blokes taken in by its new-found attitude.

Gone is the femininity, replaced by a healthy dollop of machismo. The front end, in particular, features a wider, more prominent grille complete with the big Merc star that has always been the preserve of its more sporting models. The headlamps are much more clearly defined, too, and they create the impression that you're looking at an SLS AMG that's been shrunk in the wash. It really does look startlingly good.

The bonnet is long while the rear end is short, and both ends look good - in fact, with the roof down at least, there's nothing to complain about whatsoever. As if to confirm this opinion, my driving partner sent a photograph of "our" car to a friend back home in the UK and he took some convincing that we weren't testing an SLS. And that is high praise indeed.

So, with the exterior styling having been given a much-needed kick up the derrière, what about the cabin? Previous SLKs have disappointed here, too, with a fairly cheap look and feel that did nothing to bolster Mercedes's reputation as a purveyor of prestige automobiles. Again, the designers have come up trumps, with an interior that's stylishly executed and put together using wonderfully high-quality materials. Space is still very much at a premium and on first acquaintance it does feel a bit cramped. There's precious little storage capacity, which isn't helped by the folding roof taking up so much space in the boot when it's retracted - something that blights any car with this kind of roof.

Despite the vastly improved design both inside and out, Mercedes is understandably keen to home in on one particular innovation. The car is available with three different roof options: the standard steel "vario-roof", a panoramic glass panel version and a new Magic Sky version, which really is a very clever piece of engineering normally only found on gratuitously expensive Maybachs.

It's basically a glass roof section containing particles that turn dark or clear when a switch is pressed near the driver's mirror. These particles position themselves in such a way as to let light through when a current is passed through the glass section; when this current is switched off, they assume random positions that turn the glass an almost opaque blue. Having it so the roof is dark when it's switched off means the car's interior won't overheat when it's parked in direct sunlight, and leaving it darkened while using the car reduces dependency on air conditioning, meaning lower fuel consumption and fewer CO2 emissions. It's brilliant, entirely practical and is bound to find its way onto plenty of other sports cars.

Mercedes is touting the new SLK as a sports car, so unless the driving experience is up to scratch it will simply be dismissed by enthusiastic drivers as just another irrelevant poseur's machine. Fortunately, the new SLK delivers in a way its predecessors could only dream of doing. And while it's still ultimately less thrilling than a Boxster S, it's now up there with the BMW Z4 and easily betters the Audi TT Roadster for driving pleasure, at least in 350 specification.

The 1.8L turbocharged four-cylinder engines are a bit asthmatic when conditions get tough on the lush mountain roads in Tenerife, the Canary Islands, the location Mercedes has chosen to launch the car. The 350's creamy V6, though, is a gorgeous power plant. Smooth in delivery, like pouring honey, it's muscular yet refined while the noises coming from the exhaust and within the cabin are really something to show off. The 350 only comes with a seven-speed automatic with paddle shift, but lots of lowdown torque means you don't need to keep yanking at the paddles all the time. But, if you really want to, you can take the 350 by the scruff of the neck and drive it like you stole it.

However, while the new SLK willingly responds to a thrashing, it's not a driving style that really suits the car; despite its many advancements, it's still not a purist's sports machine. That's not to detract from its many obvious charms, though, more a case of not believing everything a marketing department tells you about its products. Its chassis is very compliant, especially with the optional Dynamic Handling Pack, which adds adaptive damping and a torque vectoring system, but it still doesn't possess the tightness you feel beneath a Boxster. Throw it into a sharp corner and it will hunker down and get around it without any histrionics, but it doesn't feel like that's the SLK's natural style.

With 306hp at 6,500rpm on tap as well as 370Nm of twist at 3,500rpm, it's not exactly lazy. One hundred kilometres per hour from rest is despatched in 5.6 seconds and top speed is electronically limited to 250kph. What this means is that, while the 350 is undoubtedly a capable performer, we should have a barnstormer on our hands when the SLK55 AMG comes along with a 5.5L V8.

In the meantime, we should enjoy and appreciate the SLK for what it is. Mercedes, seemingly contradicting its claims about it being a pure sports car, also refers to what it offers as "refined sportiness". That just about sums up the new SLK. It's a wonderful cruiser that, if you can cope with the lack of interior space, should put a smile on your face every time you drive it. The previous generations have sold to more women than men, but I have a feeling that might balance out in the near future. The SLK has just manned itself up.

The SLK will be available in the UAE from September, but no price has been set.

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