Mercedes SLK driven
* Third generation hard-top convertible * New Dynmanic handling package * Price from £31,500...
Sexual stereotyping is alive and well, even in these supposedly enlightened times, if the recent Sky Sports Offside-gate furore is anything to go by.
It isn't just confined to the world of football either, because certain cars are also looked upon as girlies trying to muscle in on a man's world, particularly if they happen to be sports cars in touch with their feminine side.
The Mercedes SLK, now appearing in its third guise, is one. Some knuckle-draggers would have you believe it's just a car for ladies who lunch: fine outside the tanning centre or shopping mall, but not the sort of thing a bloke would drive. It doesn't help that 61% of SLK buyers in the UK are women who need to be reasonably well-heeled to afford one. Their average age is 50.
Mercedes is defiant about all this, though. It says the SLK was always conceived with 'refined sportiness' in mind, and that in its own way it is fun to drive. What constitutes driving fun varies from person to person, of course. For every buyer who wants the more overt sportiness of a BMW Z4 or a Porsche Boxster, there's another who would much prefer something a little more genteel.
Anyway, Mercedes reckons it has all the bases covered with the new SLK, and with the right spec we'd be inclined to agree.
In place of the standard or lower sports suspension you can opt for the new Dynamic Handling package: electronically controlled continuously adjustable damping; slightly more direct steering; and a torque-vectoring system that helps the car tuck into corners by braking the inside wheels as you approach the limits of grip.
It works, too. While we're not saying the SLK is the sharpest tool in the shed, body roll is nicely controlled with the system in its sportiest setting. On the kind of road where you need to know that the car is going to go exactly where you point it, it feels more nimble; more agile. What's the SLK like without the dynamic package? We can't tell you, sadly, since all the cars at the launch had it, but given their more cushy nature in the Comfort setting, we'd say it's a must-have option if you're going to do more than cruise.
As for the ride, it largely depends on the road and whether the top is up or down. At times it's exemplary; at others there's a whole lotta shakin' going on as well as some kickback through the steering wheel.
Three new direct-injection engines
There's more to the new SLK's sportier side than the dynamic package, though. Take the three new direct-injection engines: turbocharged four-cylinder 1.8s for the SLK 200 (182bhp/200lb ft of torque) and SLK 250 (201bhp/ 229lb ft) and a 3.5-litre V6 for the SLK 350 (302bhp/274lb ft). They're not only more powerful than those they replace, but they've also got a much broader spread of torque, particularly the 1.8 turbos.
This gives you livelier pick-up out of corners and more thrust when overtaking or hill-climbing, especially with the new seven-speed automatic gearbox that will be the default option at launch (there will be a manual 'box for the 200 and 250 later).
The engines sound pretty good, too, and they're up to 25% more economical than those they've replaced, helped by the engine stop-start system.
You take as you find, but we reckon the latest car looks less effete, especially the new front end that's inspired by Merc's gull-wing SLS. The new SLK is longer and wider than the old one, so it appears better-proportioned. From some angles it still comes across as a bit dainty, but Mercedes has to be careful not to alienate all those female fans. The swish new soft furnishings inside the cabin should win universal approval.
Likewise, the company's latest safety technologies and telematics system are now available to SLK buyers.
There's one other thing we must tell you about, though: a third variation on the folding metal roof on top of the body-colour and smoked-glass options. This one rejoices in the fanciful title of Magic Sky Control, and consists of little particles in the glass that can be shuffled around by switching an electric current on or off, allowing you to vary the amount of light and radiated heat entering the cabin.