Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG roadster
"It's not a hairdressers car is it?" the man from Mercedes said as we got out of the SLK 55 AMG roadster. His question probably came from two things, the first being the reputation that the original SLK garnered back when it launched. A reputation we've always thought as incredibly unfair. The second, coming from the expression plastered over our face.
The SLK is a smaller car than the SL, but they both do roughly the same job. They're both convertibles with a lot of engine strapped to not much car. They have a very specific look to them, and that's the look of a roadster. But in the same way the Boxster is considered by some to be the car for people who can't afford a 911 - most of us can't - the SLK, it could be argued, is for people who can't afford the SL. To give some indication, the car we drive was thousands cheaper than the starting price of an SL.
But the 55 AMG is, without doubt, one of the most impressive and instantly likeable cars we've ever driven. Compared to a Porsche there's somehow more personality. We'd never accuse a Porsche of being a bad car, far from it, they're amazing, but they're also built to be a perfect, everyday ride, and that can leave you feeling a little cold and detached. No doubt Mercedes would tell you that the SLK is a perfect everyday car too, and that might be true, but it would drive you crazy as your work commute car.
That's not because it's not driveable a low speed, because it is, to some extent. Of course, it wants to be fully unleashed, but you can hang back at 30 with few problems. But, with that massive V8 engine and a noise to die for just waiting to burble out when you give the command, it's hard not to want to drive this car hard all the time. For that, you need a track, because it will simply get you into trouble on the open road. But there's some fun to be had within the law too. At motorway speeds, drop it a couple of gears and overtaking at 70 is exhilarating and noisy.
Around town, you just need to get it slip it into neutral, and give it some revs when you're in a tunnel to get a sound that would make even the most hardened driver crack a smile. And let's be honest, driving in this country these days is hardly a laugh a minute with deteriorating roads and people crippled by high petrol prices who evenÂ can't afford to drive at the speed limit.
For the day-to-day drives, there's lots to love here. The SLK is safe, there are plenty of warnings about getting too close to the car in front, and the current speed limit that you'd have to be doing something very stupid indeed to get into real trouble. But what's interesting is that the back end snakes around like a really cross python when you accelerate quickly. It's never out of control - the car has too much traction control for that - but it means that everyone who drives it gets to feel the excitement of rear wheel drive, without actually having any of the near death experiences that have traditionally come with that kind of motoring.
There's also good satnav and the car is full of gadgets. The main issue we had on our drive was that it's all controlled from a twisty stick thing. It works well, but it's not totally idea for driving. There are lots of menus, and while we're sure you'd learn them after a week with the car, we had a matter of hours and it was a lot to work through. But there are some buttons too, and the integration of Bluetooth audio and calling is a massive help.
It's comfortable too. And we mean really comfortable. The seats are firm and supportive, and we fell in love with the steering wheel, although its leather finish is part of the Â£4,000 AMG performance option pack. There's lots of electrical seat adjustment, and there's Mercedes's famous airscarf too, to keep you warm around the neck when the roof is down. It's also amazing how quiet it is when you're driving. Things get a bit louder on the motorway, but out on the road you can forget it's missing a roof.
The base model SLK 55 AMG is about Â£55,000 but the car we drove had options that took it up to Â£68,000. That's a lot of money, and we think Mercedes should just offer a car that doesn't have a radio or satnav for a bit less. After all, getting lost is a pleasure and no one needs a CD player when they've got a V8 waiting under the bonnet to sing. And it's that noise is the reason we arrived back at Mercedes with a big smile plastered across our face.