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Click for pictures“Mercedes’ SLK 350.
  It’s cool. It’s dynamite:
  Now, Gentlemen,
  start your engines...”

NO MATTER HOW GOOD they can make a 'sports saloon' — and these days there is some pretty awesome four-door machinery around — if you really enjoy driving there is nothing quite as exhilarating as a genuine sports car. That's two seats, a roof that lets you see as much of the sky as you wish and a chassis that lets you enjoy the road.

In the event of you being lucky enough to have around £40K to spend on a new car, you'll be spoilt for choice. After a week bombing around in Mercedes' latest SLK, my advice would be to ditch the shortlist. Take your chequebook along to the nearest Mercedes dealer and buy yourself an SLK.

Nothing in life is ever that simple. You still have to decide upon the model. If true supercar-rivalling performance is what does it for you then the SLK of your choice will be the range-topping 55 AMG which — thanks to a 360bhp 5.5-litre V8 — rockets to the benchmark 62mph from standstill in 4.8 seconds and tops out at 155mph. That's a lot of performance-per-pound even for the £49,460 price tag. At the other end of the SLK range is the supercharged 161bhp 200 Kompressor and that can be on your drive for under £28K. Later this year a fourth model, the 280, joins the SLK line-up equipped with a new 231bhp V6.

Our own choice — which, fortuitously, also happens to be the model we tested — would be the silky-smooth 272bhp V6 350. For an enticing £35K it delivers storming performance (155mph and 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds), top-drawer driving entertainment and a very classy ride. An excellent new six-speed manual 'box is standard on the 200 and 350, while Mercedes new seven-speed auto — the first of its type in the world — is a £1,770 option on the 350 but standard on the 55 AMG.

One obvious and unbeatable advantage the SLK enjoys over its rivals is Mercedes' superb Vario folding metal roof. Top up or down, the SLK feels rock solid. Roof raised, it's as secure and virtually as quiet as a fixed-head coupé. But the desirable roof is just one facet of the SLK's appeal. In fact, no other sports car manages to cover as many bases quite as comprehensively as this new SLK.

Judging by the number of long, appraising glances we attracted during our week-long test, the SLK's elegantly compact body is a big vote-winner. From the tip of the sportily aggressive nose fronting an instantly recognizable contoured bonnet, all the way back along the upwardly-arched waistline to the smartly integrated roof-swallowing bootlid, there's not a line out of place. But the new SLK's appeal doesn't stop at the showroom. Because beneath the visual sophistication there's indisputable driver appeal — and it's ready and willing to actively live up to the promises made by its body. Whenever you want.

Once inside, you'll find a spacious and tasteful cabin that is definitely one of the most inviting, at any price. It's well-designed and well put together from an attractive mix of quality materials complemented by metallic-look trim strips, satin silver detailing and instrument surrounds and expensive-feeling switchgear.

Tall drivers will immediately appreciate the leg room, while everybody will appreciate the low-slung, sculpted and extensively-adjustable electric sports seats that offer a well-judged blend of comfort and support. The seat heaters are some of the best it's been our pleasure to enjoy, warming your body from under the knees and up your back all the way to your neck — heavenly! The purposeful three-spoke leather-rimmed steering wheel adjusts electrically four ways, so the often elusive perfect driving position is at your fingertips. The best news is that you only have to find it once, because both the driver and the passenger have a three-setting seat memory. The driver's also stores the steering column and external mirror positions.

Two large, deeply-cowled dials — speedometer and rev-counter — fill the space between the boss and upper rim of the steering wheel. Two small circular analogue gauges, one inset in each of the major dials, cater for time and fuel. Graphics are crisply legible white on black. Between them are two neat mini-screens, one for the multifunction display data, the other for the outside temperature/stored cruise control limit.

The dashboard layout is clean, simple and driver-focussed, and supplemented by a crystal clear cockpit management-cum-SatNav screen. Eight foolproof-to-use multifunction buttons on the steering wheel spokes help keep your hands where they belong = on the wheel. Also making life easy is the Mercedes' trademark sturdy single stalk for dip/main/flash, washers and wipers and indicators. A traditional handbrake lever of an elegant swan-neck design saves space while at the same time appealing to those who aren't wholly convinced by push-button electronic handbrakes.

All SLKs are equipped with automatic climate control, power steering, cruise control and speed limiter, multifunction wheel with trip computer, electric front windows, electrically operated and heated door mirrors, tinted glass, 5-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels (shod with Pirelli P Zeros: 225/40 front; 245/40 rear), a radio/CD with 9 speakers and a wind deflector.

There are lots of well-sited cubbyholes and numerous neat touches, such as ample well-sited interior lights, electric window switches flush-fitted into the leading edge of the door-pulls and a good-sized left foot rest. Also likeable are the perfectly positioned thumb pads on the wheel — at 10 and 2 o'clock — and central locking that in addition to securing the doors, boot and fuel flap, also locks the glovebox and two centre console stowage compartments. Drive-away auto-locking is another, though now not so unusual, safety and convenience feature.

Our test car was fitted with a number of options which lifted the on-the-road price to £39,805 — comfortably under our target £40K 'budget'.

These included the Airscarf neck level heating system (£340), auto-dimming rearview and driver's door mirror (£250), Bi-Xenon headlamps with cornering light (£710), 6-disc CD changer in the glove compartment (£350), folding exterior mirrors (£190), headlamp wash (£190), heated multifunction steering wheel (£200), heated seats (£300), heated windscreen washer system (£150), luxury climate control (£425), leather upholstery (£900), metallic paint — we had a superb silver-blue called Tellurite Silver (£600), speed-sensitive power steering (£200), rain-sensing wipers (£90), remote control for roof operation integrated into key (£90), telephone pre-wiring with hands-free facility and roof aerial (£420) and a tyre pressure warning system (£50).

And while you could live without them you'd only be short-changing yourself if you didn't tick the boxes on the options list, as they further enhance the already exhilarating driving experience that comes as standard with the SLK 350.

Driving the SLK as a coupé is perfect. Driving it as a convertible is infinitely better. Getting the metal top down takes just 22 seconds at the flick of a switch and can, should the mood take you, be done as you approach the car by a laid-back press on the remote. No matter how many times you watch the clever robotic dance as the top unpeels from the header rail before folding away into the bootlid, it remains mesmerising. In addition to comfortably accommodating two large adults, there's also reasonable space for their luggage even when the roof is down, thanks to the neat way it flat-packs into the smallest possible area.

As if owning an SLK wasn't reward enough, Mercedes have added icing to the cake. This particular icing is called 'Airscarf' and consists of hot-air blowers in the base of the headrests which generate a wave of heated air that warmly embraces your neck to keep you cosy when going alfresco on colder days. A brilliant idea. And it works a treat. Not that there's any buffeting to speak of with the roof down, especially with all four side windows raised and the mesh-net 'windblocker' in place behind the headrests. Unless it was raining heavily, the roof of our test car remained stowed away in the boot. And even when it did drizzle unexpectedly at 70mph, not one drop penetrated the cabin. And if you think for a moment that a heated steering wheel is a heating element too far you're wrong — the one fitted to our test car proved to be a real boon on chilly mornings and late night drives.

Cruising refinement is first class, courtesy of an amazingly supple ride and low noise levels. Ninety miles per hour requires just 3,400rpm in sixth and, given our test car's average fuel consumption of 26mpg (just .6 under the official combined figure), forecourt stops should be reasonably infrequent thanks also to the large 70-litre fuel tank.

When the metal top's neatly out of sight, it's reassuring to know that behind the seats are two substantial roll-over hoops. Combined with four airbags (including head-thorax sidebags) plus a full set of electronic active safety aids (ABS with brake assist, an Electronic Stability Programme and ASR), everything is designed to keep you safely out of harm's way.

Visually there's much to savour with the top down, but there are also aural delights too. It's worth working the eager quad-cam V6 engine for no other reason than to hear the throaty burble from the exhaust as the SLK zips through the gears. As you approach the red-line, the purposeful purr hardens to a sonorous tuned growl from the twin elliptical chrome tail pipes as 272 horses punch an SLK-shaped hole through the air.

Make no mistake, this SLK 350 is rapid. Hitting 62mph in just 5.6 seconds from standstill is pretty damn fast in anybody's book. But it's the sheer nonchalance with which it romps right on into three-figure speeds that really takes your breath away.

The revelation is that inside the SLK's luxury velvetiness is an iron fist — well, aluminium actually. A fire-breathing powerplant allied to a very competent chassis with crisp roadholding that makes for an addictive driving experience that fires up your enthusiasm every time you fire up the eager-to-rev V6. Until you drive one yourself, you'll just have to trust us on this — you will be very impressed.

The SLK rides extremely well on all road surfaces thanks to a taut, well-balanced chassis and swift throttle response, delivering a sharp yet lithe drive. At high speed the SLK feels unflappable. The steering is accurate with fluent turn-in and there's decent feel through the rack-and-pinion set-up — sufficient to keep pace with the SLK's nimble roadholding.

Push the SLK hard and all that will happen is that it will flatter you into pushing harder still. And this is a sports car that you really can sling around. So bankable are the SLK's stability and predictability — and the bite of its extremely assured and reassuring brakes — that it imbues the driver with confidence. Confidence, that is. Not recklessness. You know you can do it. More importantly, you feel deep inside that the SLK will do it. And there's no catch because, unless you really are being incredibly foolish, the SLK's engineered-in competence will keep you safe.

The 3.5 V6 engine is as sweet as it is sassy, with one of the widest and flattest torque curves of any V6 available today. Although the muscular quad-cam V6 will happily play the luxury sports car all day, burbling along at next-to-no revs in fourth, its 258lb ft of torque between 2,400 and 5,000rpm makes gear changing almost optional. Factor in a perfectly-weighted clutch action and a fast, precise gearchange that's a pleasure to use and you have an open invitation — one that's almost impossible to refuse — to pick the best gear, point the nose and floor the accelerator at every opportunity. Every time you drive this SLK you can't help yourself!

Driving the SLK, every section of road — straight, winding or twisty — is an opportunity for this sporty Mercedes-Benz to show its abilities. To be driven and enjoyed. And what a spread of abilities. Not only is the SLK reassuringly grippy but the suspension keeps it all together superbly, hugging the tarmac and keeping body movements in check. Not once, in over 500 miles of hard driving in mixed weather conditions, did our SLK 350 ever put a foot wrong.

They say that it's impossible to love two people at the same time. Well, it's impossible not to love both sides of the SLK's character. It excels at being a refined, well-mannered and comfortable touring roadster with a sense of occasion but it will transform at the drop of a hat into a highly-accomplished, full-blooded and dynamic sports machine that can, quite literally, go like blazes. And still deliver you and your passenger to your destination as fresh as when you set out.

It's this seamlessly integrated duality that makes the SLK 350 such
an immensely appealing and exciting sports car. One for all weathers, all seasons and all drivers. Our verdict? Definitely one of the most rewarding sports cars we've ever driven.

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Mercedes-Benz SLK 350 | £34,340
Maximum speed: 155mph | 0-62mph: 5.6 seconds
Overall test MPG: 26mpg | Power: 272bhp | Torque: 258lb ft

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------------------------------------------------------ Mercedes-Benz SLK 350