Mercedes-Benz SLK 55
By Jeremy Clarkson
Perfection, with optional nightmare
The first three weeks of Ford GT ownership were not happy. Its alarm
went off constantly, the anti-theft tracker cried wolf every five
minutes and the satellite navigation system caused the engine to think
it might be a dishwasher of some kind. So I sent it away and demanded
my money back.
This didn't go down well with the readership of The Sunday Times.
Every day my in-box was choked with more and more missives from angry
people saying I'd been too rash, that I'd waited 40 years for this
car and shouldn't have given up because of some small electronic
You were right, of course, so I'm delighted to say that it's back,
sitting in my drive looking all blue and huge.
They've fixed the alarm by winding down the sensitivity of the
sensors. Now you could host a showjumping competition in there and the
siren would remain mute. They've fixed the tracker by turning it off.
And I don't know how they fixed the sat nav, but whatever they did it
only lasted a mile before the engine warning light came on again.
Who cares? This sort of thing is bound to happen on a car that's
right out there at the technical limits of what's possible. The
mistake I made before is thinking the big Ford could be an everyday
car, and it can't. It's for when the sun is shining and the roads
are quiet. It's a car for high days and holy days. For Tuesdays and
wet November days and negotiating-mini-roundabout days I needed some
back-up. I needed something else.
But what? You'd imagine that in my position the choice would be easy
and you'd be wrong. Making an ill-informed decision is easy - you
just buy a BMW. But making a decision based on experience is . . .
Well, let me put it this way. When I ask AA Gill where we're going
for dinner it usually takes him until three in the morning to decide.
So did I want a Range Rover or a Honda S2000? I like the way the
S2000's engine revs, but could I tell people at parties that I drove
a Honda? And similarly I liked the idea of how a Range Rover would
irritate the hippies, but the BBC's underground car park has
Berliner-sized spaces. And 4x4s won't fit.
So, I went on to think about a second-hand Nissan Skyline GTR, an Eagle
E-type Jag, a Porsche 911, the Range Rover, again, a Jaguar XJR, a Golf
GTI and an Alfa 166 before eventually deciding to buy a Mercedes SL 55,
the very car I'd sold to make way for the Ford.
Sadly, I discovered that next year it will be updated and given a new
6.3 litre engine. So on the basis that it's daft to buy a car
that's going out of production soon I went back to the drawing board
and asked a simple question. "In what car have you had the most fun
recently?" Ah. That'd be the SL's baby brother. The SLK 55. I
drove it for Top Gear through an army base in Norfolk while members of
the Irish Guards' sniper division tried to shoot me in the face. And
I loved it. I loved the jackhammer sound track, the brutal power
delivery, the slightly vulgar styling details and, most of all, the
air-scarf that blows warm air on the back of your neck when the roof is
down. It's like being massaged by an axe murderer.
Being essentially mean I also liked the fact that the SLK 55 is roughly
half the price of an SL 55 and no slower. Sure, its V8 has no
supercharger and therefore only 360bhp, but because it's smaller and
lighter it's just as quick. 0 to 60 is dealt with in 4.7sec. And the
top speed is 155.
Having made the decision I toddled off to my local Mercedes dealership
to buy one. Simple. Walk in. Ask for SLK 55. Hand over cheque. Go home
with it. Sadly, though, it wasn't quite that simple.
I presume that most people who walk into a car showroom have pretty
much made up their mind what model they want. They've spotted one in
town, seen the ads or maybe read a report in a car magazine. And what
they want to know is precisely how much this choice will cost and
exactly what options it will have.
So why, then, is the brochure you're given full of such tosh? Let me
give you a nugget from the bumf on the SLK. "Did you know that
emotions - like pleasure - actually originate in the brain and not,
as used to be thought, in the heart? Sense impressions like seeing,
hearing and touching create an overall 'picture' which is relayed
by the midbrain to other brain regions where emotions are produced."
I'm sorry. I thought this was a car dealership. Not some Robert
Soon, however, I was with a charming salesman and a colour chart . . .
well, when I say a colour chart it's actually no such thing. Dulux
gives you more clarity when trying to sell you a fiver's worth of
paint. All you get from Mercedes is some samples that "may differ
slightly" from those that actually appear on the car.
This is ridiculous. Why can't each dealership have big pieces of
steel in all the available shades so we can see what a colour looks
like for real? And why is blue an optional extra? I chose black and
moved on to the interior. I wanted bright red seats but these are only
available in a two-tone combo with black. "I don't want that. It
will look like I'm sitting in an advertisement for Lynx
aftershave." But it was no good. The only single-tone red was the
same colour as a placenta. And there were only four other choices,
German Shoe Grey, Hearing Aid Beige, Mrs Thatcher Twinset Blue, or
Albert Speer Black. I went for the placenta.
And then we started on the options, which I figured wouldn't take
very long since I was buying the most expensive, most powerful model in
Hmm. On a £50,000 Mercedes SLK 55 everything is an option except the
bodywork, and if you want different wheels that's £4,000. And you
don't even get to keep the set it would have come with anyway so you
can sell them on eBay. James May, my ferociously unreliable
co-presenter on Top Gear, recently ordered a Porsche Boxster. This is
the main reason, actually, why I wanted the 55. To annoy him by having
a better, faster car. Anyway, he specified a brown interior but said he
wanted the original black steering wheel. This, for some unfathomable
reason, would be an extra £400. What? For leaving something alone?
James and I don't understand this. We simply don't know why it all
has to be so complicated, why there are so many questions. Mind you, he
doesn't have broadband because he says it's all too baffling.
Eventually, though, I'd selected all my options, including a roof
that can be opened remotely on the key - how cool is that? - and
then had to haggle the price up. Being a motoring journalist means
being offered big discounts. But being a motoring journalist means I
can't accept. And then I was quoted a delivery date of "when the
Iraq war is over".
Luckily I have an internet, because I know a man who could install one
while I was at the pub, so I came home and looked on the worldwide web,
where there were many SLK 55s. One of these, which has a specification
close to the one I wanted, is available "when hell freezes over".
And since that's likely to be sooner, this is the one I'm going
I've learnt a valuable lesson, then, these past few weeks. Testing a
car is easy. Writing about a car is easy. But buying one is bloody hard
Model Mercedes-Benz SLK 55 AMG
Engine 5439cc, V8
Power 360bhp @ 5750rpm
Torque 376 lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Seven-speed automatic
Fuel 23.5mpg (combined cycle)
Acceleration 0-62mph: 4.9sec
Top speed 155mph
Verdict Almost perfect, just don't try buying one