We investigate the droptop conundrum: to buy or not?

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CW_Merc SLK200 (8)Let’s get something straight. You want a roadster. The sky’s your roof and the wind against your face accentuates your pace. You can’t carry any unnecessary weight, colloquially known as people, around. So then, the car is perfect in every single way. But if that’s the case, then why aren’t more people buying one?

I’ve always had a soft spot for roadsters. Although these are not exactly popular where I live – to me, it would always represent the epitome of a sports car. There’s no real science to it, sporty roadsters just feels right; low seating position, nimble handling, and a preppy engine that putters off the line.

CW_Merc SLK200 (9)You can’t dismiss the cool and sleek looks either. As a kid, I recall watching a Honda Del Sol with the optional TransTop doing away with the roof –  it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen that came close enough to a similarly themed robot cartoon I watched on TV, on Saturday mornings. So cool, it became one of those childhood promises you make to yourself that when you grow up, you’d get one no matter what. Unfortunately reality hits you like a sack of bricks and you’re now driving something dull, frugal, economic and practical – no where close to that little child’s dream. As adults, more often than not, we are tuned for practical and rational thinking. Or maybe not just yet…

As luck would have it, I was recently handed the keys to an R172 Mercedes Benz SLK 200 – a convertible roadster that only seats two, with practicality thrown out the window (or in this case, retractable top). My inner child lit up, but would the child’s glee prevail, or would the sensible thinking adult in me stop me from having too much fun?

CW_Merc SLK200 (7)First, let’s talk a little about the car. The R172 SLK 200 is the 3rd generation of roadsters from Mercedes-Benz, preceding the newest SLC-Class which was announced in December last year. A turbocharged, direct-injected 1.8 litre lump mounted longitudinally sits in the engine bay, putting out a modest 181hp from its crankshaft. Performance was boosted with several small upgrades which include a new intercooler (to flow cooler air), de-catted downpipe (for a freer flowing exhaust), and a piggyback on 97 tune.

Stock rims and rubbers weren’t going to make the cut, which they were swapped out for a set of 18″ BBS CS5 rims in Black Diamond-cut form, with each corner shod in 255/35 Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres. The low profile, slightly overstretched set-up ensures less sidewall flex when taking on intense corners, improving tyre response and reducing vagueness in handling. Stopping power was also further improved with cross-drilled brake rotors and calipers lifted from its higher performance sibling, the SLK 55 AMG.

We end up with a a little extra oomph, suitable for daily driving, and with a throatier growl, without overbearing the senses – which sane adults, myself included, can appreciate.

CW_Merc SLK200 (6)Folding the lid takes only 20 seconds at the flick of a switch. But as most roadsters go, the internal boot lid needs to be in place to ensure sufficient clearance. The result is a thoroughly diminished boot-space – only just manageable for two. Our biggest gripe with this particular car, is that the car needs to be completely stationary for the roof to stow – very different from the Boxster we drove some months back.

Once on the road, you can cycle between three driving modes between Economy, Sport and Manual. By all means the Sport mode is always the crowd’s favorite; throttle response sharpens, the revs hold higher and even the gears shift quicker.

CW_Merc SLK200 (4)The SLK 200 is quick, but not mind-numbingly fast. And that’s fine. The selling point of a roadster is that it’s built to be fun and exhilarating in one package – you’re not trying to achieve any new land speed records here. It can gracefully dance on corners and take on roads and slaloms with ease, and that’s exactly what a roadster does and should do.

So really, why are roadsters uncommon on our roads? We already know it lacks space. Apart from two human bodies in the cabin, there’s maybe a little extra room for a magazine or two. That means weekend grocery runs needs to be strictly stored in the boot. And if you want to drive with the roof down, you don’t exactly have a lot of real estate.

CW_Merc SLK200 (11)

Driving around with the top open in the streets of Kuala Lumpur is certainly discouraged, and may not even make sense at all – combined with the blazing heat and soaking rain from the weather, constant threat of bird poop, exhaust gases from other vehicles, unwanted urban scents and even the risk of your own safety, the retractable top does not seem to have a purpose, if any. Let’s be honest; how many times would you have seen one with the top open, driver inhaling fumes and sweating profusely from the sun? I’ll answer that for you, it’s probably nada.

It may seem as if I’m bashing the roadster, but it’s the ugly truth – you don’t get space, and you’re paying for a roof feature that’s seemingly as useless as a red light in Grand Theft Auto. But, the problem is that most of us would point out its superficial faults, and not see its benefits. Most roadsters are an absolute joy in the driver’s seat since the body configuration can achieve a closer ideal weight distribution by design and with that comes improved handling and a car that’s fun to drive at the limit, something key that any enthusiast looks for. Built for the purpose, all in for the sport.

CW_Merc SLK200 (1)With most roadsters, you’re not looking at more than several duffel bags worth of space in the boot. As small in comparison with your sedans, it’s not that often which you completely utilize all of it. Still not convinced? Try counting the number of times in a year that you had a boot that was filled to the brim. But of course, if you’re planning to haul stuff all around town, I’m pretty sure that this car we’re talking about here isn’t the car you’ll need.

And if you actually do see a poor chap sweltering with the top removed in the afternoon heat and traffic, he (or she) is definitely a fool to begin with. It’s like eating a burger with a fork and knife. Or having an alcoholic beverage after a round of durian. You’re doing it wrong. Just like how you’d suit up for a wedding, there is a time and place for everything. You open up when you get to the hills. You open up when you drive alongside the coast.

With all that said, would I still get one? Certainly and most definitely when I can afford it. If you drive, and really do drive it’ll put a wide smile on your face. So if you’ve been pondering for a while, go ahead and let that inner child out loose.

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Having a penchant for cars since youth, he firmly believes that speed and stature go hand-in-hand. He enjoys the occasional spirited drive and can be found personally grooming his cars from time to time.

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