It’s pelting down in Majorca, the roads are desperately slippery and our SLK 350 treats the conditions with disdain. In terms of refinement, ride quality, engine flexibility and comfort, we might as well be driving an E-class. Mostly, however, I’m taken by the breadth of change to the interior. This is the best-finished Mercedes cabin in a decade.
Best news is that the extra 30mm of wheelbase has greatly enlarged the cabin. Tall-driver comfort is no longer compromised. My 6ft 4in frame demands moving the seat forward a notch in order to fully depress the clutch. Add a steering wheel that’s now four-way adjustable and multi-adjustment for the seats, and it’s easy to find exactly the right driving position.
My senses are being attacked from every direction. I can’t quite believe the ride quality. The C-class-derived suspension is soaking up the bumps, completely filtering out small irregularities. It feels too soft, too supple for a sports car. I begin to suspect the SLK could come over as a boulevard cruiser.
The new engine is gutsy down low, with vastly better flexibility than the Z4 3.0. My delight at finding a new V6 that’s silky smooth and powerful, with a sonorous exhaust note, is tempered by the low-for-a-sports-car 6200rpm red line. Just as the engine is hitting the high notes, pulling ever faster, it runs into the gentle 6400rpm cut-out. And forces a gearchange.
At last, a Mercedes manual gearbox that encourages the driver to shift gears. First to second and return is still a bit baulky, but between the other ratios the little lever’s swift, mechanical movement is a vast improvement. Not as short or light of travel as an MX-5’s, but pleasurable. Point is, it’s now good enough to offer an alternative to the terrific new seven-speed auto.
The SLK is the last current-model Mercedes to adopt rack-and-pinion steering and the advantages over the old recirculating-ball system are immediately obvious. The fuzzy on-centre feel has disappeared. The steering’s not super-sharp or extra quick around the straight-ahead, but the weighting is just right: there’s no friction and it’s utterly consistent and linear in its reactions.
You quickly take the new agility for granted. Even on Majorca’s notoriously slippery roads, grip is impressive, the ESP warning light only rarely cutting in, and then without abruptly spoiling the fun. And it is fun – far more satisfying to drive than the old car.
Day two. The sun is shining, the mountain roads are tight, and the SLK is flowing from corner to corner, never pushing the nose wide, but also, and even when provoked, refusing all attempts to kick the tail out into power oversteer. It won’t budge, even at full noise in second-gear corners. Steering turn-in that is honestly fluent rather than instantly eager perfectly suits the SLK.
What really works is the ride produced by the front strut/rear multi-link suspension. The chassis ignores mid-corner bumps and settles the body quickly, so although roll is evident from outside the car, the driver remains unconcerned. If your definition of a sports car includes a taut ride you’ll likely dismiss the SLK. The rest of us will relish its ability to disregard nasty surfaces – which surely helps in eliminating scuttle shake, as the thing always feel rock solid – and just get on with the task of travelling quickly. Which, as a result, comes naturally and without upsetting your passenger.
All this means exploiting the V6’s 268bhp and 258lb ft of torque – from 2400rpm to 5000rpm – couldn’t be easier. Play lazy, short-shift and draw on the mid-range and the SLK is spirited, utterly effortless. Press harder and it lunges at the horizon.