Thomas Falkiner tames the mighty Merc SLK 55 AMG
What is it?
An SLK, with a massive set of cojones, that's what. Armed with a special 5.5-litre V8 engine (this powerplant doesn't make an appearance in other Mercedes-Benz models), the SLK 55 AMG combines the grace of a boulevard roadster with all the heart and soul of a big American muscle car.
It's normally aspirated too, which means that there are no silly turbochargers to sap the sound of those eight thumping great pistons. Other notable enhancements include numerous styling tweaks, a sportier suspension set-up and a much-needed AMG Direct-Steer power-steering system that does wonders for driver feedback - an area in which the regular SLK 200 and 350 models fall short.
Way better to drive than its lowly brethren, the mean ol' 55 guarantees even sharper cornering reflexes thanks to the firm's new-fangled Torque Vectoring Brakes - a system that selectively brakes the inside rear wheel to ensure more bite on turn in.
How does it look?
Large and very much in charge. Throwing all subtlety to the wind, the AMG boys have bolted on an aggressive body kit to give this SLK an extra shot of menace.
Starting at the nose, you get a revised front apron that grafts in larger air inlets and a pair of AMG-specific LED daytime running lights.
Other distinguishable differences include a gloss black lip spoiler and standard Bi-xenon headlamps set either side of the radiator grille.
Want more? Well besides the more aggressive side skirts, the SLK 55 AMG also gets a more authoritative rump that's home to a finned rear air-diffuser flanked by a set of twin, chrome-tipped exhaust tailpipes.
Unfortunately the standard 18-inch alloy wheels are on the small side, so it would be worth shelling out extra for the optional 19-inchers. Why Mercedes didn't make these standard, lord alone knows.
The cramped, but ergonomic, cabin is well laid out and comes fitted with AMG nice-to-haves - like a flat-bottomed steering wheel and lots of brushed aluminium inserts.
There's even a suave IWC analogue clock sitting proudly atop the leather-wrapped dashboard.
Electronically adjustable sports seats come standard - something that makes it both quick and easy to find your ideal driving position.
Top wise you can choose from no less than three flavours of the Mercedes-Benz Vario-Roof: standard metal, optional polycarbonate panoramic or panoramic with Magic Sky Control. Made from glass, the latter switches from light to dark tint at a push of the button.
What's it like to drive?
Surprisingly good because, unlike the SLK 200 and 350 variants I drove last year, the 55 has a better weighted steering set-up that responds to your inputs in a much more linear fashion. What this means is that you get a superior sense of the asphalt passing beneath you and how the two front wheels are interacting with it - qualities that inspire a great deal more confidence when it comes time to unleashing every one of those 310 kilowatts.
Adding to this improved driver feedback, is the firmer, steel-sprung suspension set-up that makes high-speed cornering a flatter and more sure-footed affair.
But having said all this, however, the most powerful SLK is still no match for the dynamically superior offerings from both Porsche and BMW.
Sure, the new Boxster and current Z4 might not be able to quite top the power woofled out by that enormous V8, but at the end of the day both are considerably more rewarding and, indeed, involving to drive on a really challenging stretch of blacktop.
So the real strength of the SLK 55 AMG lies in its brutal straight-line acceleration and its ability to devour long distances at maximum speed and with minimum fuss.
Like I hinted before, this Mercedes is more tyre-shredding muscle car than razor-sharp sportster.
Any special features?
Yes, quite a few actually; and the most noteworthy has to be that new V8 engine that automatically shuts down four of its eight cylinders - when possible between the 800 to 3000rpm range - to significantly reduce both CO2 emissions and fuel consumption.
In fact, this bit of technology makes the SLK 55 AMG the most efficient V8-powered vehicle in the world at the moment. It's also mated to an AMG Speedshift Plus 7G-Tronic automatic transmission that offers three distinct modes: Controlled Efficiency (C), Sport (S) and Manual (M).
To be honest, it isn't as rapid as Porsche's PDK or BMW's M-DCT, but it does a good enough job at handling all that multi-cylinder torque.
Finally, you can order the optional AMG Performance package. Retailing for R35k, it throws in stiffer suspension, a limited-slip differential and a composite brake system. An extra R25k will buy you the AMG Drivers package that turns maximum speed up to 280km/h. In this era of the Nanny State, the latter is pretty pointless if you ask me.
Should you buy one?
If it were my money I would still plumb for the cheaper and more dynamic Porsche Boxster.
But if you dig the visceral fury of V8 engines and the twinkle of the Mercedes-Benz Tri-Star badge, then the SLK 55 AMG is definitely worth a test drive.
Engine: 5461cc V8
Power: 310kW at 6800rpm
Torque: 540Nm at 4500rpm
0-100km/h: 4.6-seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 250km/h (electronically limited)
Fuel consumption: 8.4l/100km (claimed combined)
CO2: 195g/km (claimed)
Price: From R975000
Awesome V8 engine
Now a sharper driving tool
Outrageous AMG looks
We don't like:
Not as sharp as Porsche's Boxster