The Verdict: Sportster gets grunt – and good looks
The cheapest Mercedes sports car finally has the power to shake off its 'girlie' reputation, says David Wilkins
Model: Mercedes-Benz SLK200 Kompressor
Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder supercharged petrol
Performance: 147mph, 0-62 mph in 7.6 seconds, 36.2mpg, CO2: 184g/km
Worth considering: Audi TT TFSI Roadster, BMW Z4 2.0i SE, Honda S2000
How much do you think a car tells us about the character of the person who owns it? I used to subscribe firmly to the "you are what you drive" school of thinking, but years of organising The Verdict have taught me to give up pigeonholing cars and their owners.
I've found that many of the readers who take part in the test-drive cars and find that they aren't really "them" – do so usually for practical reasons such as their employers' company car policies, or the need to transport large families.
I have even suggested to psychologists who have participated in The Verdict that there may be a link between the personalities of drivers and the cars that they own. The response is scepticism. In any case, it seems so old-fashioned, even offensive, to say that certain cars are, say, "masculine" or "feminine". Better to ignore these asinine associations and judge a car on its merits.
But I have to admit that the prospect of testing the SLK200 brought to mind the term "ladies' car", a tag that has stuck to Mercedes' small four-cylinder-engined sports cars since the 190SL was introduced to complement the mighty 300SL in 1955. So how did the 190SL become associated with women drivers? First, I think, because the most famous owner of a 190SL was a woman, the well-connected prostitute Rosemarie Nitribitt, whose unexplained murder in 1957 scandalised post-war Germany. The 190SL is still often referred to in Germany as the "Nitribitt Mercedes". Second, the 190SL was a pretty car that offered a lot more show than go, just like early versions of its eventual successor, the first-generation SLK of 1997.
Now the second-generation SLK has had a mid-life update and Mercedes has turned up the wick on the supercharger of this, the smallest-engined version; that may not seem like a dramatic move, but it means that for the first time in half a century, Mercedes' cheapest sports car has the power to match its looks. In short, the SLK 200 is no longer just for the ladies – although I'm sure they'll like it, too.
Mick Horler, 56
Technical trainer, Wiltshire
Usual cars: Jaguar E Type, Jaguar XJ, Land Rover Discovery
Having only driven a "C" Class Merc previously, it was interesting to compare the SLK. The "facelift" version looks more purposeful than its predecessor, and it felt well put together, as you normally find with German engineering. The car felt taut, and the leather seats were very comfortable, with a good driving position. I found the rear-view mirror vision was limited, only being able to see cars directly behind, with blind spots on either side. Operation of the hood was quick and painless, and when driving with the hood down the car still experienced little in the the way of "scuttle shake". Although only a 1.8 engine, the supercharger gave it a respectable performance. I think I could live with it!
Jonathan Slayton, 41
Usual cars: Kia Cee'd 1.6LS, Land Rover Defender/Discovery
After years of being a designer accessory for women who spend way too long parked near high-concept wine bars, the SLK Mercedes has advanced to being a wholly acceptable compact sporting convertible, rapid, well-built and yet more stylish. Its mid-life facelift – how very appropriate in this market – attempts to put clear water between the reality and the much-mocked past. Has it done enough to make this non-female dig out his cheque book? Not at this level, £32K for any 1.8 litre, four-cylinder is a big ask. Fine, it looks just like a shrunken big sister SL and yes, the supercharger does deliver surprising torque. But, it lacks that crisp, sporting edge that makes Porsche the class definer with its expensive Boxster.
Edward Bradley-Norman, 25
Hedge fund analyst, Oxford
Usual car: Mk4 Golf 4Motion
If you believe that first impressions count then the new SLK makes a good start; folding hardtop up or down it looks fantastic, if a little petite. The interior is equally impressive; sporty but comfy bucket seats and plenty of headroom. That said, the cockpit can at times seem cramped, especially when selecting higher gears with the awkwardly placed lever. The ride is smooth, the handling light and responsive while engine noise is kept at reasonable levels. Disappointingly, despite the recent power boost, the 200SLK doesn't have the pace to match its looks, and the whole experience lacks edge. The SLK is an enjoyable sports car that can be driven daily, although its styling might prove more appealing to the fairer sex.
If you would like to take part in The Verdict, email email@example.com or write to The Verdict, Save & Spend, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, giving your address, phone number and details of the car, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26 and have a clean licence.