We drive: Mercedes SLK 55 AMG in SA

By Dave Abrahams Time of article published Apr 12, 2012

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It is, when all is said and done, a thumping great sledgehammer of a car.

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG is all about power, great gobs of it from an intimidatingly noisy 5.5-litre, naturally-aspirated V8 engine that revs to 7000rpm and endows this 1.6-tonne convertible with straight-line performance that would do justice to a superbike: 0-100km/h in 4.6 seconds and an electronically limited top speed of 250km/h - or 280 at the stroke of a pen on the R25 000 cheque for the optional Driver's Package.

Let's put some numbers to that: AMG quotes 310kW at 6800rpm and 540Nm at 4500rpm, fed by direct fuel-injection and breathing out through four 60mm tailpipes - each with a flap that opens progressively as revs and load rise to give it a sound-track that's almost as impressive as its power delivery.

But it's how that power is delivered that makes the SLK 55 such a prime hooligan tool. Hoof it, at almost any speed, with anything more than 4000 revs on the clock and it'll kick you in the kidneys like a Jackie Chan roundhouse: it's immediate, it's accessible and it's addictive. You'll find yourself booting it from robot to robot just for the adrenalin rush.

But be warned, it gets thirsty when you do.

Treat it with a little finesse, however, and it'll power you through corners and over mountain passes like a guided missile; the more precise your right foot on the loud pedal, the more accurately it'll slice through the bends; like a big V-twin motorcycle, it seems to prefer braking early and powering through the apex.

As part of the South African launch drive in the Western Cape this week we ran it over Helshoogte pass near Stellenbosch; its acceleration uphill makes other traffic look like it's standing still, its ability to stand on its nose and turn into fast, tight corners is exemplary and its mid-corner road-holding tenacious enough to induce nosebleeds.

The only quibble I have is that the speed-sensitive, electro-mechanical power steering (which saves fuel by not working when the driver isn't moving the steering wheel) feels a little remote, almost wooden, especially in the straight-ahead position.

It's not quite as scalpel-precise as the best of the Italian jobs; the car always goes exactly where you point it, but you have to concentrate to point it exactly where you want to go.

STRICT TWO-SEATER

The SLK is actually quite a small car, strictly a two-seater without even a parcel shelf behind the multi-adjustable AMG sports seats. It's 1.82 metres wide and just over four metres long, but about half of that is bonnet and the waistline is right up around shoulder level, making it feel bigger than it is.

Be careful parking it until you know exactly where all the corners are, particularly as it has a special AMG front bumper with black inserts and a black splitter blade that's embarrassingly vulnerable to attack by ill-tempered kerbstones, as are the AMG rear diffuser and those four gaping tailpipes.

Yet it is still a Mercedes-Benz, and the iron fist is wrapped in a very sophisticated velvet glove. The AMG Speedshift Plus 7G-tronic transmission has three modes, selected by a simple pushbutton next to the shift lever.

C or 'controlled efficiency' will change gears at the optimum point for cleanest combustion (which is before the power delivery gets totally outrageous!), and it'll stop the engine when the car is standing still and the brakes are on.

Then, when trolling along at weekday-traffic speeds, it'll shut off the fuel feed and spark to cylinders two, three five and eight, so you're actually driving a relatively lazy 2.2-litre V-four - and you can hear the difference. As soon as you ask for more power, however, you'll feel the tiniest jerk and you're back on all eight pots.

8.4 LITRES PER 100KM - MAYBE

AMG claims that all this green gadgetry will allow the SLK 55 to run on 8.4 litres per 100km. Maybe, under ideal circumstances; I averaged about 11.3 and some of the more leadfooted motoring scribes on the launch drive were returning as much as 13.9.

The S or 'sport' setting runs on all eight cylinders all the time, tightens the throttle response and moves the shift points up the rev range for maximum voomah, while the M or 'manual' position is exactly that, operated by either the shift lever or paddles.

Unlike most of its competitors it will let you rev up to the rev-limiter without overruling you, but still occasionally hesitates that heart-stopping split-second before changing down under braking for a corner.

The AMG sports suspension on the 55 has stiffer springs and damping than on standard SLK models, coupled to a three-stage electronic stability programme with built-in torque vectoring, which measures the car's rotation around its vertical axis and gently brakes the inside rear wheel to give you that marvellously taut turn-in. The electronic nanny can be set to 'On', 'Sport' (which allows the car to get a little tail-happy before it steps in) and 'Off' which, quite seriously, is only for use in places where you have lots of run-off.

SURPRISINGLY ROOMY

The interior is divided into two deep wells by a high centre console, providing surprisingly roomy accommodation for two adults - even with the metal roof up - but with little storage space for the gadgets and gizmos that complicate our lives.

It's trimmed throughout in soft, supple nappa leather, with a special AMG steering wheel (flattened at top and bottom), brushed aluminium trim, and beautiful traditional instruments (black faces, white lettering, red needles) either side of a white-on-black trip data computer display.

In the centre of the dashboard there's a special nacelle, housing a stylish analogue clock by international watchmaker IWC, there are two clever plastic shields on the rollover bars to reduce turbulence with the top down and Mercedes' Airscarf to keep your neck warm, along with dual-zone climate control and Harman Kardon sound.

But seriously, the SLK 55 AMG is all about outrageous noises, explosive acceleration and beating the bends into submission. It's Jason Statham in a Savile Row tuxedo and I'm sure salesman and racing driver extraordinary Emil Jellinek, whose 12-year-old daughter Mercedes gave her name to the first true motor car in 1901, would have approved.

PRICES

SLK 55 AMG- R975 000

(Includes six-year or 120 000km maintenance plan)

Driver's Package- R25 000

(Top speed increased to 280km/h)

Performance Package- R35 000

(Uprated suspension and brakes)

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