Ever since it minced into the marketplace 16 years ago, Mercedes’ little SLK has been the world’s only transgender car. Even though it was born with an Adam’s apple, dressed in shorts and trained to use the urinals, it has always been as girlie as a pink bedroom full of soft toys.
If I’d been running Mercedes-Benz, I’d have been quite pleased about this. I’d have accepted that the car was a ladyboy and changed its name immediately to the Fluffy Rabbit or EL James. I’d have offered it in a range of pastel colours and employed Stella McCartney to design a range of interior fabrics.
But no. Mercedes could not accept that its child was a bit light in its loafers. So as it grew, the company fitted it with a massive V8 engine and changed its exhaust note from Barbra Streisand to Ted Nugent. This was unwise and unfair — like forcing Freddie Mercury to get a job as a scaffolder.
Undaunted, Mercedes called the new car the SLK 55 AMG and sent it out into the world with a simple message. “Now look. We’ve given you an enormous penis. Go and use it.” It certainly wooed me, because I bought one. Of course, my colleagues thought I’d taken leave of my senses and laughed openly in my face. So did all the nation’s van drivers, and in every petrol station people would point and suggest loudly that my salon must be doing well. The codpiece front and the baritone rear fooled nobody.
But I didn’t care because I like small cars. I like convertibles. And I like big engines. And the SLK was the only car on the market that met all three of those requirements — and a few more besides. It had an automatic gearbox, and though it was fast and hard and brutal, it came with all the usual Mercedes refinements including a DVD player, a TV, electric seats, cruise control and so on. It was a doddle in town, brilliant on a sunny day, easy to park, as fast as a comet, good- looking, exciting, noisy and enormous fun. Who cared that it enjoyed musicals and went to bed at night in its sister’s knickers? I even ordered mine in black.
Mercedes, though, was still not satisfied. It knew that when it wasn’t looking, its scaffolder was endlessly watching the shower scene from Top Gun, so with its replacement the company has gone mental. The car has the haunches of a hyena, the snout of a racer, flaps, ducts and claws. It’s a low-profile, full-fat, high-octane he-man. I’m surprised the advertising slogan isn’t: “Are you a woman? Well, you can eff off.”
Let’s start with the engine. In essence, it’s the same 5.5-litre unit that you get in other, bigger AMG cars, only without the turbocharging. Do not think, however, that the lack of forced induction means you will be bouncing up and down in your seat when leaving the lights to try to conjure up some extra wallop. Because of new air-intake ducting, new cylinder heads and a modified valve drive, you are presented with 416 brake horsepower. That is about 60 more than you were given in the old SLK 55, and in a car this size it means the performance is very nearly insane.
However, because the new engine is fitted with a feature that shuts down either two or four of the cylinders when they’re not needed, it produces only 195 carbon dioxides and should be good for more than 33mpg. The Lord giveth and then the Lord giveth even more.
Handling? Well, now, let’s be clear on this: if you want finesse and delicacy, buy a BMW. In a straight line, an AMG car is an easy match for anything made by BMW’s M — or motor sport — division. But through the corners the Mercedes will be left far behind. This is not a criticism. Because although the Merc may not be able to tame the laws of physics quite as well as an M car, it will put a much bigger smile on your face. BMWs reward your skill. Fast Mercs make you laugh.
And so it goes with the SLK. Mercedes may have fiddled with the camber and perforated the brake discs. The little convertible may have all the racing paraphernalia, but it’s still a car you have to wrestle if you want to get the most from it. It’s a car that’s happiest when it’s a little bit sideways.
Inside, however, there’s no evidence of this at all. The gearbox is a proper auto. The radio is digital. The headrests are fitted with ducts that feed warm air to your neck. The car I drove was even equipped with a device that suggested when I might like a cup of coffee. However, while there’s one improvement over the old model — the can-of-pop-holders are no longer located in front of the heater vents — there is one step backwards. If you push the seat all the way back, the leather rubs against the rear bulkhead and squeaks every time you go over a bump. It’s very annoying.
It sounds, then, as if this new car is much the same as the old one, albeit a bit faster and quite a lot more economical. But I’m afraid that’s not strictly accurate. Because where’s the noise? The old car crackled when you started it, roared when it was moving and ticked when it wasn’t.
And without this soundtrack the excitement has gone. It means you never feel inclined to put your foot down. I spent my week just pottering about. At one point I found myself doing 60mph on the motorway. On the Burford road in Oxfordshire the other night I was overtaken by a Fiat 500. Really, it should come with a cattle prod and a device that tells the driver to pull over and get some bloody Red Bull down his neck. Sometimes I’d try to go a bit faster but there seemed to be little reward, and as soon as I stopped concentrating I went back into Peugeot mode.
So we’re left with a big question. At £54,965 the new SLK 55 costs less than I was expecting. But why pay this much for a car that doesn’t raise the hairs on the back of your neck? If you want a pottering-about, top-down cruiser, why not buy one of the much cheaper, smaller-engined versions? Because they’re for girls? Okay, then, why not buy a BMW Z4?
This is a much underrated car. At less than £40,000 for a twin-turbo 3-litre, it has the same hard folding roof as the Mercedes but is better looking and much less of a handful. Oh, and there’s one more thing. It’s the only car in the world that was designed by women. I like it very much.