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Mercedes SLK 200 and SLK 350

Test venue: Cardiif and surrounding area

Daimler-Chrysler chose the fashionable St. David's Hotel and Spa on Cardiff Bay to host the UK launch of their stunning new range of SLK sports cars, which go on sale in the UK this summer as replacements for the rather staid and square-looking roadsters currently available in dealer showrooms.

The diminuitive two-seater sports cars have been one of the most popular prestige sports cars in recent years, but a radical facelift and a brave new design is sure to bolster sales of both the SLK 200 and SLK 350 models we tested on a wide variety of roads around Cardiff, Barry and Bridgend in early June.

The SLK 200 Kompressor, which is powered by a 1796 cc, four-cylinder engine, is available for an on-the-road price of 27,470. This model develops 163 bhp and is an ideal low cost entry-level model. Its striking design and stunning side profile are unmistakable, but it does feel underpowered during spirited driving and is not the chosen model for a performance-minded roadster enthusiast.

The list of standard equipment is impressive and includes a CD with speakers, high-level brake lamp, a multi-function leather-trimmed steering wheel, air bags, climate control, ABS and BAS, electric windows and mirrors, ESP, outside temperature gauge, power steering with manual adjustment, a remote boot release, remote central locking, roll-over protection, sports seats, tinted glass and a wind deflector.

But like all desirable sports cars it is the vast range of 'add-ons' which increase both the desirability and the price. My test model would be available in dealer showrooms for 34,500. That is a full 7,030 more than the price of the base model, although I personally would have been loathe to pay for some of the extras.

The option of a five-speed automatic transmission with Tipfunction and cruise control is an absolute must for urban driving and extensive motorway use. The gear change is slick and the SLK 200 does make rapid progress if the revs are maintained. This option would eat into 1,450 of the 'add-on' budget.

You would pay 930 for five-spoke alloy wheels and sports suspension and 340 for neck level heating to prevent wind chill and muscle cramps in chillier driving conditions. Bi-xenon headlamps would set you back another 710 and there would be no change from 350 for a CD changer. Folding exterior mirrors, heated seats and an uprated sound system would up the price tag by another 1,000.

Then you would be coughing up 200 for a heated steering wheel, 900 for leather seating and a further 600 for the metallic paint option. Delving deeper into your pockets would give you rain sensing wipers, remote key roof operation and a telephone facility. Suddenly the base price of 27 grand has all but disappeared.

It's only when you have driven the more powerful SLK 350 that you can see why the 200 is a little underpowered. A fully-loaded SLK 200 would cost around the same price as the base SLK 350, but you would be mad to opt for the former once you had fired the 3.5-litre, six-cylinder unit in the 350 into life. The 350 develops a potent 272 bhp and is a delight to drive.

Equipped with a 7G-Tronic, seven-speed transmission with gearshift buttons on the steering wheel - which is available as a 1,770 option - you can half imagine being at the wheel of a performance racing car. The car delivers a throaty engine note and will catapult you into illegal speed territory within six seconds. The standard model is fitted with a six-speed manual transmission and Speedtronic variable speed limiter, which is particularly useful with the number of speed cameras on modern roads.

Included in the base package you will also receive all the standard SLK 200 accessories, an automatic headlamp activation system and an interior lighting package. But the fully-equipped SLK 350 with the seven-speed transmission may cost you as much as 47,000 if you opt for the AMG alloys, AMG body styling, the 2,000 cockpit management and navigational display and the speed-sensitive power steering.

The new SLK is a marked improvement on the older 'box' version and there's no denying that the SLK 350 is a superb drive. It turns enviable heads in the city and at the traffic lights and 'roof-down' motoring is an effortless and enjoyable exercise. However, once you have driven the SLK 350 in earnest on a glorious summer morning, you will feel a little let down by the performance and the price of the SLK 200.

Ends

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