Friday 9 December 2016

Not much room - or vroom

Published 13/08/2011 | 05:00

MERCEDES SLK200CGI RATING 83/100
MERCEDES SLK200CGI RATING 83/100

T he brother must have seen it coming. He told me, in no uncertain terms, I needed to lose half a stone and get a haircut. His words reverberated through this empty old head of mine when I found myself squeezing into this latest sparkling example of Mercedes two-seat sportscar-manship.

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Luckily I had the hair just cut as a token gesture. In fairness, it did create the perception of a little more vertical space. Sadly, the half stone is going to take a lot longer -- especially as I've just sipped a lovely cup of tea and three milk-choc biscuits. Is there anything more soothing on a lonely, wet August afternoon?

Still, even in the gloom and downpours the Mercedes SLK is the sort of car you can just look out at and enjoy. It is beautifully sculpted; really nicely done with a classic long snout and a short rear that provides it with the basis for its stunning looks.

It has a solid, rather than soft, roof that swings swiftly into the boot -- when you get five minutes between showers.

Of course, no one expects a car like this to be anything other than generous with technology and comfort -- albeit sparing with space for the two well-toned passengers it purports to ferry. There really is little space to manoeuvre for somebody of my size even though this attempts to attract more men to help gender balance its traditionally strong female interest.

Luckily there was enough room for me to get comfortable, though my old legs suffered most as I could not get enough of a stretch back from the steering wheel.

Under that long, broad bonnet was a 1.8-litre petrol engine. I spent a fair bit of time, the equivalent of half a pack of milk chocs and four or five cups of tea, over the duration of my test trying to decide if this 'fits' the car or doesn't. I've decided it does. I could easily knock it. So easily. Because while it extracts an impressive 181bhp, it could not (nor would you really expect it to) deliver the sizzling drive you'd expect from a sports car. And the SLK is supposed to be a prime exponent of the art.

No, I eventually came down in neutral on the 1.8-litre petrol at this juncture, for three reasons.

Firstly, there is a reality out there that high fuel consumption ratchets up road tax and Vehicle Registration Tax so that the ultimate contradiction emerges: a fast, powerful car with few to buy it. The BMW Z4 is punished for its brilliant, larger but heavily taxed petrol power sources.

Secondly, there is no scope for driving fast nowadays. It invokes the virtual certainty of a fine and penalty points. There is no doubt about that.

Thirdly, there will be a diesel version -- a first in the SLK -- here in December (for 2012 registration of course) and I have a gut feeling it will win over the majority of buyers.

So in that benign mood I can reflect on a series of drives in this that made me feel good and not so good.

They have wrought the changes alright. The ones you'll notice most are the new fascia, wider grille, reshaped headlamps and LED daytime running lights. There are new intake vents while the boot-lid and tail light clusters really lift the back now.

When I got in and settled, I was fine. Indeed, the cabin is rather nice with sumptuous dark red-leather upholstery appealing to my sense of how a car of this stature should be presented.

There was a quality feel to all the materials (the new dash is a lesson in cohesion while aluminium highlights for the likes of the central console brighten up the interior).

I could detect no rattles or hums as I traversed the roads. The suspension might not suit everyone but you have to remember this is a roadster/sports car and central to its appeal, apart from those stunning looks, is the immediacy of propulsion and primacy of feedback from the road.

I enjoyed that but I would have loved more 'burble' from the twin tailpipes even if only to make believe I was going faster or digging deeper into the 181bhp than I was.

I thought the handling was excellent, with a lovely balanced feel to the car on bends, sharp corners and over those bumpy roads that can catch out even the best set-ups.

The roof? Nearly forgot. Would you blame me? It rained every single time I sat in and drove. I had it down -- it electronically stows away into the boot in no time -- for about one hour all told. It said everything about this summer that the sound of the hard-top roof drumming to the beat of heavy rain made me feel quite cosy really.

If I had been able to keep the roof down long enough I could have availed of a stream of warm air pumped from just under the head rests to keep my old neck nice and warm (optional equipment).

I have no doubt either that I missed out on a lot of enjoyment by simply not being able to drive this with -- cliche alert -- the wind in what's left of my hair after that close shave at the barber's.

The SLK is a little classic with some gorgeous touches and lovely looks. Yes, it lacks the gilt edge of pace for those seeking a purer driving sports car. But you know what? I'd settle for just a little more space in the cabin. And I do look forward to the diesel.

Think I'll have another cup of tea. There's a biscuit here somewhere, and it's pouring outside.

ecunningham@independent.ie

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