Mercedes Benz SLK vs Mini Cooper Convertible vs Mahindra Thar - Top of the pops

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This is the ‘Weird Al Yankovic’ of stories. One that hardcore, hardnosed auto enthusiasts with a penchant for numbers and numbers alone should excuse. Before they plan to spam my inbox with angry mails and virus laden attachments, please flip a few pages over and spare me the trouble. Yes, the story sounds of dubious utility, but such is life. For most others, you can whet your appetite by admiring Aneesh’s wonderful artistry with the Canon EOS5D MkII. And for those who like to pull pranks with a straight face, read on.

You can wear a wig in a Mercedes-Benz SLK350, go flat out with the top down till a point where the wind roar either gets too unbearable or you are feeling chicken. In which case, the wig will continue to stay planted around your forehead. And the Thar is easily the most fun you can have for very little money on a drive to the beach. While the Mini convertible, despite its serious lack of grunt, is a head turner and a wonderful car to drive. What we are missing from this mix of front-engined, front-wheel drive/rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive combo is a mid-engined or rear-engined drop top. But trust Murphy to kick in at such opportune moments. Yet he couldn’t ruin the day for us completely.

They make for an ungainly sight at first. One glance at the Mini reminds you of those famous Mini US launch TV commercials with the boxer dog sniffing it, trying to be all friendly. It evokes a sense that ‘all is perfect in this world’ and that everyone is on the top step of Maslow’s need theory pyramid. Bollocks, eh? The SLK, on the other hand, evokes images of the French Riviera. And women wearing scarves and driving it. So what if Aditya’s locks were all the beauty (or beast? – Srini) we had to deal with? And playing in the mix was the Thar, tall and completely out of sync with the fine pair in front.

 

The idea of the story was simple. Take drop tops from different categories and different price bands and drive to a beach in the last dry week of June before the onslaught of rains. It seemed all primed for action, except that the night before, Mumbai received some unexpected pre-monsoon showers, which threatened to flush our story idea away. In any case, we drove off, mindful of the fact that we may have to pitch another story to you, dear readers: how not to plan drop-top stories for such times of the year.

So, we let the SLK run in front. It was to be our ‘guide dog’ for the day, one that sniffed out trouble and was galvanised for a quick U-turn if it did. When it wasn’t doing that, the SLK was better off acting like a celebrity, walking through a fish market in her finest stilettos, a wavy top and polka dotted pencil skirt. Which is fine as long as a fish-monger doesn’t decide to offload the water residue on the market floor. Thankfully, the conditions weren’t all that bad for the SLK, in fact it got better once we were out of Mumbai and we could finally stretch the Merc’s legs.

The only six-cylinder engine in the group, it also meant the other two had to play catch up. What the SLK didn’t have to worry about is that none of its immediate competition was around. And in isolation, the SLK feels like quite the package. Its V6 churns out 302 bhp and the dash to 100 kph is done in about 7-odd seconds. The ground clearance too is quite good, so good that it makes some D segment cars feel like their bodies rest on the wheels. You can take most Indian speedbreakers nose first, something that’s quite remarkable. Okay, so the steering is a bit wooly and the car doesn’t quite feel as remarkably sharp as some of its competition, but then it has a party trick that can empty a whole beach in a matter of seconds – that folding hard top. And dressed in red, even with a large three-pointed logo resting on the front, the number of people who mistook it for a car from Maranello was quite amusing. But yes, press the button for the folding hard top and it disappears into the trunk in under 20 seconds. And since it’s a third-generation SLK, the NVH levels have improved even further, so intimate moments are truly what they are meant to be.

 

You would expect it to disappear into the distance, especially with the next most powerful car in the trio being nearly 200 horses down, but this is India and the roads are a great leveller. But the Mini is also a great car, in isolation or not. The convertible, sold in only in Cooper guise, packs a punch, even though the peak horsepower count is no more than 122. Since I’d driven it with the Cooper S hatch just a few weeks earlier, I was a little disappointed with the performance at hand – the 184 bhp hatch disappearing into the distance every time a drag race was summoned. But on that day, when the clouds played hide-n-seek, the Mini convertible turned out to be the surprise package. Maharashtra’s state highways provided the only aberrations for the Mini’s stiff suspension, but also dished out some fantastic corners that provided some moments of joy. Downshifting on the slightly slow automatic gearbox can be yawn inducing, but it’s that go-kart feeling of the Mini that makes you forget everything that’s wrong with the car.

Aim at a corner, position it correctly, take the right line and watch yourself trying furiously to stifle those giggles. It makes a weekend drive to the beach more than just perfect. And it can seat four too, albeit with some discomfort. But I don’t think the rear seat passengers will complain, not even about the electrically controlled tunic soft-top that does hamper visibility. Because the Mini has this uncanny ability to turn heads. For some it may be ‘cute’, but it’s so much more than that. It takes just one drive to get the gist of it all.

Ordinarily though, it’s a struggle to justify the Thar in this group. Yes, you can take that top off, but it requires a couple of tools, lots of free time and muscle power to do it, unlike the other two. This Thar had a custom made roof top just to beat the rains, in case they threatened our shoot, otherwise you can make do with a full roof top cover as standard. As the only diesel in the lot, its drinking habits too were slightly measured, so it didn’t need stopping for fuel as much as the other two. And as the only four-wheel drive vehicle here, it also played along as the escort of the group.

 

Simple, clean lines, little by way of electronics and none of the fancy-shmancy gizmos of the other two, the Thar held its head high, literally and figuratively. The potholed sections may very well have been like chorizo meat for the Thar. It doesn’t feel unnerved by them; it’s only when you find a large enough bump at speed that it seriously threaten to throw you off the cliff and into the sea. Its 2.5-litre, 100 bhp CRDe engine has large reserves of torque, but the Thar has an even larger reserve of guts.

Therefore, it was the only one we could drive on to the sand and on the beach, thanks to its four-wheel drive gear. Not much there that the Thar can’t do (especially at that price of Rs 6.75 lakh, ex-showroom Mumbai for the air-con version) except maybe hunker down and attack apexes with the ferocity of a wild cat from the Savannah.

With the sun staring down and draining our last ounces of energy, we headed back to Mumbai, the Mini and the Thar leading the way while the SLK played catch up. Dark clouds continued to hover around Mumbai, the roofs were all in place and the wipers started to get a thorough workout once we entered the city. We couldn’t have found a more appropriate time and road to put the three through an extended test, one that even put their tops through the water test. The rain faded and the sun just peeked out as the clouds drew apart for a few minutes before it set on us. It was a signal – the convertible season had finally come to an end.