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If ever there was a poster child for extreme makeover, it has to be the new Mercedes-Benz SLK.
At one time the softest, smoothest and most conservative two-seater in the business, the SLK has now been given fast, contemporary lines grafted from the intoxicating McLaren SLR, thus making it the most aggressive car in the Mercedes stable -- this side of the supercar, of course.
So while the old SLK was even branded as a girl's car, Mercedes has ensured that it doesn't happen again.
The ultimate testament to this is probably the fact that it makes the new Porsche Boxster and the BMW Z4 actually look dull.
The visual appeal is that of a small grand touring roadster rather than a hardcore sports car -- top up or down -- something that the old SLK also did beautifully. If looks mean anything -- which in this sort of car can mean everything -- the SLK is a winner before it's even turned a wheel.
But that's not where the buck stops. Well, DaimlerChrysler are not giving us their new tri-turbo diesel just yet; instead, the four-cylinder 2000cc Kompressor now makes way for a proper V6 and a seven-speed automatic transmission. Something that is enough to haul the roadster along with real authority.
It's also the first time that Mercedes-Benz is using variable intake and exhaust camshaft adjustment in a V6 engine. Which to you and me means better fuel efficiency at lower revs, and of course, the required performance when your right foot starts getting intimate with the floorboard.
To get into the car, some amount of hip-swivelling is required, but once that's done with, the ambience is high-tech and rather inviting, especially with that stunning two-tone theme.
There is no wood, which is nice to see in a Mercedes and a last-forever solidity in every part you touch -- something that can also be appreciated, because you can't say that about every three-pointer these days!
The dials retain the deep dish look of the earlier SLK, but the star of the car is still the roof. Pull back a button, the roof hinges in half, the rear window does a back flip and folds into the boot, which then neatly shuts to hide the evidence. Twenty-two seconds of street theatre later, you've got yourself a gorgeous convertible transformed from a gorgeous coupe.
Keep in mind though that this act is best performed in front of a captive audience, at five-star hotel porches, for instance. You can never tire of watching the roof do its thing, and to be honest, this alone is worth the price tag.
Anyway, time to get on with the driving. The first time you floor the throttle on the 350, what strikes you is not so much how quick this car is, but how good it sounds. It emits a cultured snarl even while cruising around and flooring the throttle gives way to an angry high-pitched bark.
Precisely three minutes later, you are desperately searching for a signboard that reads 'Tunnel Ahead.' And once in there, the pupil-widening bellowing note is enough for you to contemplate if they build tunnels only for listening to some great German soundtrack.
Keep driving it though, and a different story emerges. Acceleration feels brisk rather than explosive, and keeping the throttle pinned to the carpet will bring up 100 kph on the speedo 8.3 secs later.
Compared to the SLK 200 K that went on sale late last year, the 350 offers more than an extra 100 horses and the smooth warbling of a V6. While the 200 K did absolutely nothing to risk offence, the 350 feels like the engine that was meant for this chassis. All right, I know what you're thinking.
The SLK even leads the Formula 1 pack every other Sunday, so doesn't it have enough grunt already? Well, that one has the fire-breathing 5500cc AMG V8 under that flared hood. We however have to do with a 3500cc V6 that develops 268 bhp at 6000 revs and a creamy 35.67 kgm of turning force from 2400 rpm onwards.
You just can't fault it -- thanks to a wide power band and a muscular mid-range, 80 to 120 kph takes just over 5 seconds, while the 100-140 kph dash comes up in 7 seconds flat.
The engine upgrade also means that you can now smile at wiggly shaped road signs. Smile, but not grin. The SLK chassis rides on a three-link front coil and five-link rear coil spring suspension that keeps it stable and planted in corners.
Turn-in is crisp, and though you can carry huge amount of speed through corners, it lacks the nimbleness of a small, light roadster, making it a more of a GT. Which is a far cry from the last generation SLK, which was quite nimble to the point of being skittish -- and if this is what you want from your roadster, then you might be disappointed.
That's because the new SLK feels a bit ponderous and you can't expect it to slither around corners like a go-kart -- it's a new generation, safety-uber-alles Mercedes, after all.
Although it feels bolted to the road, it has the potential to reward those who drive it hard and it won't ask any unnerving questions which your driving style can't answer.
Amazingly, despite the super low Continental 225/45R 17 fronts and 245/40 R17 rears and the suspension's composure in bends, the SLK's ride quality is excellent. It soaks up the bumps without pitching or jiggling, and yet it stays flat through corners with a taut, responsive feel -- though the heavy steering wheel takes the involvement away somewhat.
Those looking for out-and-out performance in the current SLK line-up are not surprisingly going to want the 350 over the 200 K. Until they hear the price.
The car that we had on test came with a lot of equipment in addition to the alphabet soup of electronic lifesavers like ESP with EBD, ABS, the works. But at around Rs 70 lakh, it's still pretty expensive.
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