Mercedes-Benz has revealed comprehensive details and first 'official' pictures of its much-'scooped' fully redesigned SLK-class two-seat roadster, writes deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

Described as more powerful and sportier than its predecessor, the new model, like its predecessor launched in 1996, has an all-metal, folding drop-top and will be launched in Europe in March 2004, soon after its international press debut around Geneva show time.

The latest version has an initial choice of three new engines developing 120 kW/163 hp (SLK200 Kompressor) to 265 kW/360 hp. The engine line includes - for a claimed class first - a 510Nm-of-torque Mercedes-AMG V8 which accelerates the SLK55 AMG from rest to 100km/h (62mph) in 4.9 seconds. The mid-range SLK350 has a new 200 kW/272 hp V6.

The AMG V8 comes standard with the recently developed 7G-tronic seven-speed automatic transmission controlled by the driver using shift buttons on the steering wheel.

The V6 develops around 25% more power and 13% more torque (350Nm). The four-valve engine is claimed to be one of the most powerful V6 units in its displacement class with claimed acceleration to 100 km/h in 5.6sec when hitched to the standard six-speed manual 'box. The 7G-tronic option slows it by a mere 0.1sec.

This is the first Mercedes V6 engine with variable camshaft control on intake and exhaust sides for enhanced performance and torque and improved fuel economy. A two-stage intake manifold, "tumble" flaps in the intake ducts and an intelligent heat management system are other technical highlights. It is also 5% more fuel-efficient than the previous SLK six-cylinder engine with five-speed automatic transmission.

The 120 kW/163 hp engine is new to the model line; it's one of a new generation of four-cylinder M-B engines with the unique Twinpulse system that combines a compressor, balancer shafts, charge-air cooling, variable camshaft adjustment and four-valve technology into a package 8% more fuel-efficient than its equally powerful predecessor.

With this engine, a six-speed manual gearbox is standard and a five-speed automatic, also with steering wheel controls, is optional.

There's no sign yet of a diesel - before American readers fall about laughing at the suggestion, note ye well that Merc offers its larger four-seat CLK coupe/cabriolet line with oil-burning engines and is about to re-launch the diesel E-class Stateside.

The latest development of the SLK's so-called 'vario-roof' transforms the 2004 roadster into a coupé in just 22 seconds and standard safety equipment includes head-thorax side airbags (dubbed 'sidebags' in M-B-speak), adaptive front air-bags and two-stage belt force limiters. Meantime, the suspension, steering manual transmission and, of course exterior and interior styling, have been thoroughly reworked.

Mercedes-Benz claims a global first for its Airscarf neck-level heating system which delivers a flow of warm air from the headrests at the touch of a button, enabling occupants to keep the roof down even when it's chilly out. This is claimed to extend the top-down driving season to a full calendar year - and that's coming from guys who live through long, dark Stuttgart winters.

Automatic climate control, bi-xenon headlamps with cornering light, Comand and the aforementioned 7G-tronic seven-speed autobox are among newly available SLK line options.

The new roadster succeeds a popular model that has sold over 308,000 copies since it first appeared in autumn 1996. Worldwide, the SLK claims the top slot in its market segment.

The 2004 edition is 72mm (just under three inches) longer and 65 mm (about 2-1/2 in.) wider, with more cabin room. The long bonnet, steeply raked windscreen, wide doors and short boot are typical roadster characteristics more dramatically emphasised on the new car which sits on a wheelbase 30mm (about 1-1/2 in.) longer.

Nice details include a distinctive nose with clear styling similarities to the schnozzles of the larger CLK and CL coupes and the stunning McLaren/SLR super-coupe launched last year at Frankfurt. There are fins on the radiator grille and a twin exhaust system said to be reminiscent of a racing car.

The interior has also been completely redesigned and substantially upgraded with new, higher quality and better looking materials. Perhaps reflecting the restyling of the old SLK's cabin components to create the Chrysler Crossfire interior, the new SLK's switches, pushbuttons and decorative elements have silver surfaces; a nice contrast with the black surfaces of the instrument panel. Customers opting for leather trim can select from the usual generous M-B colour range - six in this case.

Mercedes-Benz claims a class-leading drag co-efficient of 0.32 for the new SLK and the stronger (by up to 40%) body shell conceals a 70-litre fuel tank and 300 litres of luggage compartment space with the roof up.

The latest folding metal/glass roof opens and closes faster than before thanks to the SL roadster-like pivoting rear window and it now also takes up less space in the boot. With the roof down, boot capacity is up to 208 litres (using VDA measurement) - 63 litres more than in the old model. As an option, the roof can also be operated using the keyless entry remote control.

For the first time, Mercedes-Benz is using adaptive airbags in the SLK; these deploy in two stages depending on the severity of the accident. Belt force limiters, now standard, also function in two stages. In side impact crashes, recently developed head-thorax airbags protect the passenger's head and upper body and a sensor also triggers the side airbags and both belt tensioners in the event of the vehicle rolling over. Robust steel tubes in the A-pillars and solid roll-over bars behind the seats offer additional protection. A decent showing in the influential European NCAP tests seems likely.

The revamped driveline includes a new design of three-link front axle, rack-and-pinion steering and more powerful braking than the previous model. The multi-link independent rear suspension has been much modified to suit the wider track.

Depending on model, 16, 17 or 18-inch alloy wheels come standard while lowered sports suspension is optional.

Other options includes various audio and (newly DVD-based) navigation systems, multi-function Comand unit with DVD/CD player and colour display, plus a surround sound unit with 11 speakers and 380 watt amplifier.