The UK Mercedes-Benz operation is likely to sell around 3,100 of the new SLK-class roadster each year from launch in mid-summer.
A spokesman said the company doesn’t discuss sales targets, but then added that a sales volume similar to the previous model is likely. “Our volume is determined more by production restraints than demand,” he said.
The new model, more aggressively styled (especially in front), 72mm longer and 65mm wider, is just going on sale now in Europe, priced from €33,524 to €63,974. The UK, the most significant right hand drive market and third largest overall, sees the newcomer in July with a price range of £27,470 to £49,750 and the United States gets a single model in September at a price estimated in the mid $40,000s.
Mercedes-Benz sold some 308,000 of the old SLK from its launch in 1997 to early 2004. Of those, Germany took the lion’s share with 122,300, followed by the US (69,000), the UK (23,100), rest of Europe (86,270) and Japan (13,600). Other markets accounted for 17,700.
The car was launched with a 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine but gained additional four-cylinder and V6 options with 2000’s mid-life facelift.
The old model came in for some criticism for being a bit ‘girly’ or too softly styled with some UK commentators describing it as ideal for hairdressers or footballers’ wives. There were also gripes about a lack of steering feel and steering column adjustment, a harsh ride and relatively anaemic performance from the 2.3-litre four.
At first sight the fully redesigned SLK looks rather familiar until you twig that the new nose strongly resembles the snout of the new McLaren-built SLR. The tail looks like a blend of the old model with the current E-class rump and features a clever two-piece boot lid skin, whose laser-brazed joint forms the sharp trailing edge, and prominent twin exhaust pipes.
Inside, the instruments are now in two individual hooded binnacles and all the latest Mercedes electronic kit, such as COMAND radio, CD, DVD, TV, phone and sat-nav, is available at least as optional equipment.
But Mercedes is most proud of Airscarf, an idea seemingly so simple you wonder why no other maker thought of it first. A £340 option in the UK, this combines a blower and an ingenious new type of heating element in the seatback to funnel warm air out through the base of the headrest. Combined with some clever management of airflow over the car when the roof is lowered, this is intended to extend comfortable open top motoring a bit longer into autumn and a encourage owners to start outing the roof down earlier in spring.
Maybe it’s just psychological, but the swathe of warm air – “like a fine Cashmere scarf” as one Mercedes PR put it – really does make you feel that much warmer and we were quite comfy trundling around downtown Palma on a cool evening during the international press launch on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
The previous SLK re-introduced the folding metal roof to the masses for the first time in decades. The one on the latest car folds even faster – in 22 seconds – and packs more compactly into the boot on account of the rear window flipping through 180 degrees, SL style, to nestle more tightly inside the roof. The luggage cover, which reserves a share of boot space for the folded roof, is now a rigid plastic moulding instead of a piece of roll-out fabric so boot space is up a little.
Engines are mostly new. The updated 1,796cc, 16-valve, supercharged four in the misleadingly-named 200K develops 163bhp, is 8% more fuel efficient than the motor in the old 200K and comes with either six-speed manual or five-speed automatic gearboxes.
Despite an 8.3-second time for the 0-62mph sprint, the automatic version feels rather underpowered at times, such as when joining motorways or overtaking on uphill stretches; the manual will probably be the preferred option with this engine which will account for about two thirds of UK sales and 50% worldwide.
The all-new 3,498cc, 24-valve, 272bhp engine is the first Merc V6 to get four valves and variable intake and exhaust valve timing and is 25% more powerful than the old 18-valve 3.2 yet 3% more fuel-efficient. It comes with either a six-speed manual or a new seven-speed automatic Mercedes calls 7-G Tronic and gets to 62mph in 5.5 seconds in manual form with the auto just 0.1 sec behind. This motor, the only one available initially in the US, has a gorgeous exhaust note (much nicer than the four’s) and is most fun with the manual though the new seven-speed auto is very smooth and responsive.
Not yet sampled is the barking mad SLK55 AMG with 5,439cc, 24-valve 360bhp V8 and standard seven-speed auto which has more aerodynamic body trimmings, huge 18-inch alloy wheels and sub-five second 0-62mph performance, but is not due out until early next year. Mercedes thinks this version will account for 10% of worldwide sales and “a handful” here in the UK.
There is something of a gap between the 1.8-litre four and 3.5-litre V6 and Mercedes officials hinted a three-litre V6 will arrive in about a year’s time to plug the hole. While BMW and Audi’s convertible lines, and even Mercedes’ own CLK range, come with diesel engine options, no oil burners are planned for the SLK.
“We never considered it. A vehicle positioned as sporty as this needs an engine with a wider torque range than a diesel. Once the diesel engine’s torque range is wider and its acoustics better we may reconsider,” an insider said.