Gavin Green test-drives the new Mercedes SLK
There have been better cars launched this year, more practical cars and certainly cheaper ones. But none is more desirable than the Mercedes SLK. It is a delicious mix of jaw-dropping looks, sports car performance, open-top fun and German solidity.

At a shade under pounds 30,000, it's not cheap - but it is cheap for a Mercedes sports car. Until the SLK's arrival, the lowest priced open-top Mercedes was the SL, at pounds 58,000. Past owners have included the Princess of Wales, Jerry Hall plus a bevy of other supermodels, and numerous Hollywood film starlets. And just to prove the car has guts as well as glamour, Stirling Moss and many current Grand Prix stars have them. Mercedes SLs look great, go well and - unlike most sports cars - are built like tanks. That's why they're so practical and so popular.

The SLK follows the same recipe. Despite the daintiness of its lines, there is a chunkiness about the controls and cabin that contrasts with the delicacy still found on many of the best Italian sports cars.

Italian cars can still suffer from moody mechanicals, but on the Mercedes you know that uncomplaining 365-days-a-year service is at your call.

The downside is that the SLK doesn't serenade you: it lacks the music in its exhaust, so crucial to the charms of a Ferrari or an Alfa Romeo. Instead, its supercharged four-cylinder engine sounds flat and agricultural, even if it does parcel out great energy.

Mercedes has never been renowned for its enchanting engines. They simply do the job. Great engines are defined by their power, economy and reliability. This is typically German. The Italians, on the other hand, place as much store on the way their engines look and sound - emotional qualities. It is why, in the main, the Germans have built better sports cars, but the Italians, like the British, have typically built more desirable ones. The engine is allied to a brilliant new five-speed automatic gearbox, which changes gears seamlessly and ensures you're invariably in the right gear at the right time.

In every other way, though, the SLK oozes emotional appeal. It looks great from any angle. Inside, the optional (but at no extra cost) red- and-black upholstery is a must and the instruments are white with old- fashioned chrome-surround bezels - a throwback to the old SL of the Fifties.

Clever engineering abounds - and nowhere more so than in the "vario" electric roof. On the SLK there is no canvas roof with all its security/insulation/styling compromises. When you want the roof up, you get a proper metal one over your head.

Mercedes has developed a complicated but, it claims, perfectly reliable set-up, activated by the push of a button on the centre console. A retractable metal roof lives in the boot. When the rain starts or the temperature drops and you want metal, not sky, over your head, you push the button. The boot opens and the roof emerges, before moving over the cabin and clamping itself down. The boot automatically closes and, presto, you've got a hardtop coupe. When you want fresh air overhead, just stop and push the button again.

Mercedes says that the "vario" retractable roof is actually cheaper to make than the usual twin roof systems (one fabric, one a hardtop that clamps in place, typically for the winter) as used on all other convertibles, including the twice-as-much SL. Plus, you've got a proper glass rear screen with demister, instead of a sheet of clear plastic offering about as much visibility as your granddad's spectacles smeared with Vaseline.

The only downside of the vario is that it steals about half the boot space when retracted, so light packing is a must for those top-down summer vacations. Plus, as the roof retracts and folds over your bags, you've got to raise the roof again to get to your luggage.

Inside, there is room for only two, but they both get generous legroom and comfortable chairs. The steering is a little vague (a typical Mercedes failing) but the handling is superb - safe, assured yet lively.

On broken roads, the car's composure is especially impressive. It rides broken blacktop like a liner sailing majestically over a rocky seabed. It is also very much more rigid than most roadsters, which often tend to quake on bad roads like motorised blancmanges, an upshot of the loss of the rigidity-enhancing roof.

All in all, the SLK is a fabulous car: sexy, solid, sensible. There's only one problem. Your Mercedes dealer won't be able to get you one - at least not for a long time. Even though the SLK has only just gone on sale, there is a waiting list until early 1999.

Specifications

Mercedes SLK, pounds 29,500. Four-cylinder supercharged engine, 2295cc, 193bhp, top speed 142mph, 0-60 in 7.5 seconds, average fuel economy 28mpg

Rivals

BMW Z3 2.8, around pounds 27,000. On sale next year. Goes faster than the SLK, but doesn't look as good. Not as well made, either.

Porsche Boxster, pounds 33,950. Like the SLK, just on sale. Sharper to drive and sportier, but nothing like as pretty or as comfortable.

TVR Chimaera, pounds 29,450. Handsome but crude British bruiser, outclassed by the SLK in every way apart from sheer speed.

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