SLK joins the downsized and turbocharged brigade
Expensive sports cars are supposed to have big, powerful engines, right? It's all part of the appeal. Effortless performance backed up by peerless design; perfectly exemplified by the German and British car makers, who've been doing this for decades.

Well, sorry to burst your bubble. While the two-seat roadster market is less sensitive to the whims of the economy and available cash, it still needs to at least appear in step with the times. So it's perhaps not so surprising that we're seeing the industry downsizing trend stretching into these higher classes.

You'll find fewer entry-level luxury cars with six cylinders. Audi and others have been there a while, but BMW and Mercedes-Benz are coming around too.

Following C-Class' lead

2013 Mercedes-Benz SLK 250(Photo: Mark Atkinson)

Like the C-Class, the SLK adopted a smaller turbocharged four-cylinder for its first base model in North America, the 250. In this case, it features a 1.8-litre direct-injection unit that produces a healthy 201 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque. Amazingly, our tester came with the extremely rare six-speed manual transmission, something we believe only existed in theory since no one ever orders them. The company claims the littlest SLK will hit 100 km/h from rest in 6.5 seconds with a human handling the shift duties (6.6 sec. with the seven-speed automatic). Top speed is limited to 210 km/h in every SLK bar the nutso V8-powered AMG model.

Thankfully, Mercedes-Benz' manual transmissions have improved greatly since the original SLK of nearly 20 years ago. The shift action is no longer notchy and balky while clutch take-up is smoother too. However, there were a few instances when the electronic throttle and some turbo lag at low revs made changing gears under light throttle a tad challenging. When giving it the boot, these issues mainly disappeared.

Strangely, the car has a very faint porpoising action — even over relatively smooth roads. Activating the Sport Mode firms things up just enough to cancel the bob, without sharpening the throttle response as with some sport settings from other brands.

Decent driving manners

2013 Mercedes-Benz SLK 250(Photo: Mark Atkinson)

The SLK's steering is light and reasonably communicative, but artificially weights up during harder cornering. Once you find the right road, the SLK 250 can find its flow, but will never be mistaken for a Porsche. You get the sense that Mercedes-Benz figured most entry-level buyers will spend more time in parking lots or trendy shops than country back roads.

Compared with the carryover V6-powered SLK 350, the four-banger weighs 65 kg less and gets better gas mileage, only using 9.1 L/100 km in the city and 6.1 on the highway (9.0/6.0 with the automatic).