Review: Mercedes-Benz SLK

A stylish car meant to be driven with the roof down

04 Jul 16 Tim Barnes-Clay

Pros

  • Lavish cabin

  • Very comfortable

  • Good load space

Cons

  • Handling

  • Not fuel efficient

  • Pricey

Our expert rating

Luxury German manufacturer Mercedes-Benz introduced its little ‘SLK’ roadster way back in 1996. The third generation of the SLK - known as the R172 – has been around since 2011 and is manufactured in Bremen, Germany.

As a roadster it’s primarily designed to be driven with the roof down, and comes with a folding metal top, which is secure and simple to operate.

Performance

The SLK can be found with one of five engines, four of which are petrol. The lone diesel on offer is a 2.1-litre engine and produces a blend of strong performance and efficiency, but a roadster like the SLK really does deserve a petrol heart.

The highlight of the petrol line-up is the 5.5-litre hand built V8 engine from ‘AMG’ - Mercedes’ own high performance department. It’s a very powerful engine and while it produces a wonderful growly soundtrack, it may be just a little too much for some.

If the V8 represents too much, the smaller 1.8-litre engines represent too little, and so eyes are naturally drawn to the 3.5-litre V6 engine. It feels special without feeling over the top, and provides a crisp soundtrack alongside just about a perfect amount of power for road use.

Running costs for the V6 are not too bad either, with an efficiency figure of 39mpg quoted. Road tax meanwhile will set you back £205 a year. The only downside to selecting the 3.5-litre engine is that you don’t get a choice of transmission.

Choose a V6 and you’ll only be able to have the seven-speed automatic gearbox. It suits the character of the car well enough, but drivers looking for a more involving experience may be disappointed.

Mercedes-Benz SLK engine

Ride and handling

Historically the SLK has struggled against its rivals when it comes to offering superb handling. It goes about things in a different way by not really trying to be razor sharp in the corners.

Despite being small it’s a very comfortable car to travel in, with excellent seating and a calm, poised ride. The steering itself is fairly light for a car with sporty ambitions, with little feel to boot. You have to draw the conclusion that this car was set up more to cruise along than it was to go on the attack against twisty roads.

While it’s still quite clearly a nimble car with bags of grip on offer, it never really feels totally engaging and is far more satisfying to drive at a more restful pace. At a slightly slower speed you can enjoy the comfort of the cabin and the sensations of open air motoring.

Mercedes-Benz SLK interior

Interior space

Mercedes-Benz is famous for well-built and luxurious interiors, and the SLK gets the treatment you would expect from a manufacturer with such a reputation. The cabin is a beautiful design, with lavish leather, smooth and well positioned aluminium switches, and a number of clever touches.

In the back of the seats is a vent that blows warm air onto your neck if you have the roof down, and the clear glass panel in the roof can be turned opaque using a feature oddly called ‘magic sky control’.

There’s plenty of room in the cabin and as roadsters go it’s one of the more comfortable out there. Speaking of room, it also has some of the largest load space found in the sector. With the roof up it has 335-litres of space, but 100-litres gets taken away from you when the roof is folded down.

While any roadster loses boot space to swallow the folding roof, the SLK manages to retain just about enough space for a small shop or bags for a short trip away.

Mercedes-Benz SLK side

What to know before you buy

Mercedes-Benz once again has a strong reputation for building reliable cars after a few years where they let their standards drop. No major issues were reported but owners have reported fuel efficiency returns in the smaller 4-cylinder petrol engines to be particularly disappointing.

When looking at a used SLK, make sure the folding hardtop operates smoothly and without any shudders or vibrations.

Alternative cars

For maximum sporting performance, the Porsche Boxster has the Mercedes-Benz SLK well and truly beaten. It has some of the finest engines ever to be put into a sports car and handles just about as well as any car ever made.

In older models its interior isn’t as luxurious or as comfortable as the SLK’s - it also doesn’t feature a folding metal roof - but it provides a much purer driving experience.

BMW’s Z4 is another roadster that only comes with a metal roof, and it offers strong competition to the SLK, being far sharper in the corners and often being available for a lower price. Its interior isn’t quite as special as the SLK’s, but it’s still a lovely place to spend time driving.

Mercedes-Benz SLK BMW Z4 alternative

Overall verdict

The SLK is quite unusual in that it sits somewhere in between a sporty roadster and a Grand Tourer. A beautifully designed interior and smooth ride means it makes for a lovely cruiser, but the disappointing handling prevents it from coming close to rivalling the Porsche Boxster as a driver’s car.

For this reason, the Mercedes-Benz SLK is perhaps better suited to those who like to enjoy life and driving at a slightly slower pace.

Expert review

Performance

Reliability

Space & comfort

Running costs

Value for money

Overall