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2 September 2014 10:55 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG: A ride on the wild side

  • Deon Schoeman
  • Life, etc
Motoring MAIN

Calling the latest Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG a roadster is a bit like describing a racing yacht as a boat, or referring to a fine Swartland shiraz as red wine: the generic description simply doesn’t do the actual execution justice. Yes, the SLK 55 AMG is compact. It only has two seats. And the roof folds down. But this is not your average, common-or-garden roadster, as DEON SCHOEMAN finds out.

Mention the AMG moniker to anyone with even a smidgen of high-octane unleaded in their veins, and you’ll get an instantly enthusiastic reaction. Based in the German town of Affalterbach, AMG has been creating sledgehammer performance cars based on the Mercedes-Benz range of passenger cars for decades.

Today, it’s a fully-fledged division of the Mercedes-Benz conglomerate, and AMG cars are developed with the same care to engineering detail, and with the same longevity and reliability objectives, as the Three-Pointed Star’s standard production models. 

In fact, we’d wager that the folk at AMG taught Merc’s own experts a thing or two when they got taken over by the Stuttgart automaker.

The SLK 55 AMG is only one of a burgeoning range of AMG products that effectively mirrors its normal passenger car offering. There’s an AMG version for every body shape in the Mercedes portfolio, while the jewel in the AMG crown is the two-seater SLS supercar, complete with its iconic gullwing door.

With the normal SLK as a starting point, the AMG gets more muscular looks via the usual reworking of bumpers, sills and air intakes, together with the addition of splitters and diffusers – all ostensibly in the interests of better airflow and improved downforce.

That said, the SLK 55 AMG is cut from more subtle, sleeker cloth than some of its wilder AMG predecessors. And while it does look more purposeful than a standard SLK, it doesn’t have to suffer the indignity of wild wings or silly spoilers.

Most of all, it’s still a SLK, which meant it gets the latest, bolder Mercedes-Benz face, complete with large, upright grille, emphatically adorned with an equally large Mercedes star.  There’s something mildly retro to this treatment, despite the high-tech xenon headlights on either side.

The front’s hungry air intakes gulp large volumes of cooling air at speed, and also help to keep the temperatures of those hard-working brake discs at manageable levels. There’s even side-mounted cooling aperture, although its purpose is as much aesthetic as it is functional.

The rear view is dominated by the almost rude presence of four large, oval exhaust tailpipes, dominating a deep rear apron. The bootlid is decorated with the slim arc of a lip spoiler, while the tapered tail light clusters create a V-shaped outline that emphasises the car’s muscle-bound rump.

And then there’s the roof. Back in 1996, the SLK was the first modern production roadster to introduce an all-metal folding roof instead of the more common canvas hood. By executing a series of complex, motorised articulations, the SLK could be transformed from coupé to roadster at the push of a button.

Today, metal folding roofs are de rigeur across much of the roadster and cabriolet landscape – and in the SLK’s case, this latest version is lighter and retracts quicker than ever before. 

However, as much as the comfort and convenience of closed-top appeals in winter, a roadster is all about roof-down, wind-in-the-hair driving, and the SLK is no different. It also looks sexier with the metal hood safely stowed away – and your neighbours finally get to see who just won the lotto…

Fortunately, the SLK also caters specifically for those who insist on tackling even the chilliest winter morning with the top down. There are seat heaters and a climate control system with plenty of hot-air capability.

But the trump card is AirScarf – a system that warms the necks of the SLK’s occupants by blowing warm air through an air vent integrated into the head restraint. The result: a toasty cabin, even when the outside temperature is frosty.

Just as well, because it can get blustery in the SLK’s cabin – as, frankly, it should in a roadster. The rear vortex created by the Merc’s slipstream will buffet the occupants, regardless of the protection of those integrated head restraints, while it’s best to keep the windows closed at anything above suburban cruising speeds.

The SLK 55 AMG by have sports car aspirations, but its cabin continues to express the Mercedes-Benz mantra of luxury. It’s an opulent mix of dark Nappa hide and gleaming metal accents – and it’s filled to the brim with every conceivable feature. There’s even an analogue timepiece created by Swiss watchmaker IWC.

Needless to say, there’s only space for driver and passenger, but there’s shoulder and legroom aplenty, while the boot will cater for much more than the dirty weekend bag that used to be the signature of many roadsters – especially with the metal roof raised.

However, for many SLK 55 AMG owners, luxury and space will not be considered key attributes. After all, this is a performance car, and the source of this AMG’s muscle is something special.

The AMG badge is usually a guarantee that engine under the bonnet will have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And indeed, it’s true that this is the most powerful production SLK ever built. A new 5,5-litre V8 engine delivers a massive 310 kW of maximum power, together with 540 Nm of grunt. But there’s more to this V8 than brutal muscle.

In the interests of more eco-friendly fuel consumption and exhaust emission figures, the big V8, hand-crafted by a master engineer in Affalterbach (yes, really!) features the ability to shut off four of those eight cylinders when its full power potential isn’t needed – for instance, when cruising at constant speeds.

It’s a process that happens completely seamlessly, without any change to engine note or throttle response, and you’d never know what was happening under the bonnet unless you’d read the brochure.

But it does have a significant impact on both the SLK 55 AMG’s thirst, and its environmental credentials. The claimed consumption figure is 8.4 litres/100km, while the CO2 emissions rating is an impressive 195g/km.

In the real world, few of us will manage a sub-10 litres/100km consumption in this car, but despite some enthusiastic driving, we still managed to keep the tally at around 12 litres/100km or so, which is miles better than the 20 litres/100km we’d usually associated with anything AMG.

But let’s face it, not too many SLK 55 AMG owners will agonise about the amount of unleaded their steed consumes, nor whether its environmental impact is accelerating the onset of global warming. No, it’s performance that’s top of mind. And indeed, dynamic talent is the roadster’s true raison d’etre.

Forget about all the luxury. Forget about the advanced technology. What the SLK 55 AMG is really all about is raw, naked power. With a muscle-to-weight ratio of 192 kW/ton, it’s no wonder that the roadster wants to burn rubber and wag its tail as soon as you prod the throttle – and that despite the efforts of the stability control system! 

While this super-roadster makes it clear that it has an excess of urge on tap, almost regardless of gear or situation, that’s not always a good thing. Around town, and especially in stop-start conditions, the Merc feels ill at ease and out of sorts, like a thoroughbred chomping at the bit.

It takes some very careful modulation of the accelerator not to punch the car off the line with exaggerated vigour. And those fat tyres will chirp and squirm at the slightest provocation, too, accompanied by steering wheel that writhes in the driver’s hands.

In fact, it’s difficult to find a smooth rhythm with the SLK in town. But tackle a section of open road, and everything falls into place. The road becomes an increasingly narrow ribbon of tar unfurling ahead of the AMG’s snarling nose, while the gear changes, punctuated by an almost anguished grunt, flow with an intuitive ease.

After all, the SLK 55 AMG is car designed for going fast, and that’s what it does best. It’s stable and predictable at speed, while the steering loads up just enough to allow positive, measured input. But beware: if you’re too eager with the throttle coming out of corners, the tail will still want to step out. 

The factory figures prove just how fast this über-SLK really is. The zero-to-100km/h dash requires only 4.6sec to complete, while top speed is zealously limited to 250km/h – although it’s abundantly clear that there’s potential for far higher velocities.

Mercedes allows the electronic stability control system that is the 55 AMG’s nanny to be adjusted in three steps. In normal mode, ESC will intervene as soon as it senses even the slightest wheel spin or directional aberration.

Switch to Sport mode, and the nanny will allow some mild oversteer and wheel spin, but still prevent the unwary from planting the SLK into the nearest barrier. But you can also switch off ESC completely.

Suddenly, it’s car against driver – with the vagaries of Newton’s gravity laws thrown in for good measure. Circumspection, quick reactions, exceptional driving talent (and a healthy dose of fear) will all be required to keep you on the black stuff.

The SLK 55 AMG s a fine sports car – perhaps the finest AMG-adapted SLK to date. It offers class-leading power and torque, clever technology, aspirational styling and all the standard equipment you could wish for. 

It’s neither as agile, nor as fluid, as a true roadster should be. Instead, the SLK 55 AMG is a cruise missile with afterburner engaged, beckoning those with an appetite for adventure to experience life on the wild side.

Best you have the wallet to match that desire, though: at just short of a million rand, this SLK is also the most expensive car in the top-end roadster league. DM

Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG

  • Engine 5,461 cc V8, DOHC per bank
  • Gearbox Seven-speed Speedshift automatic
  • Power 310kW @ 6,800rpm
  • Torque 540Nm @ 4,500rpm
  • 0-100 km/h 4.6sec
  • Top speed 250km/h (governed)
  • Fuel consumption 12.2 litres/100km (tested)
  • CO2 emissions 195g/km
  • Retail price R975 000
  • Deon Schoeman
  • Life, etc


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