Luxury roadsters have always been niche vehicles. With the economic implosion over the last decade, that niche has become even smaller. Last year the Mercedes SLK and BMW Z4 each sold less than 3,500 units on our shores, down from over 10,000 each back in 2006 and Canadian sales are roughly a tenth of that. While Mercedes is likely crying in their delicious geflügelsuppe, roadster shoppers benefit by being able to drive one of the most exclusive Mercedes models available on our shores. While the last model awkwardly aped the unholy union of a Mercdes F1 car and a bottlenose dolphin, the new model sells itself with sexy new sheet metal, 29 MPG on the highway and a $54,800 base price.
Now in its third generation Mercedes has finally found a style that fits the SLK. The first generation SLK in 1997 was described by all my college buddies as “cute” – not exactly how a dude wants his potential ride described. The second generation in 2005 struck me as more awkward than Ugly Betty in a southern beauty pageant. I’m not sure what the 2005-2011 SLK looked like inside because I couldn’t bring myself to get close enough to find out. Fortunately for the 50-something, six-figure earning, multiple car owning target buyer as well as the 30-something Silicon Valley professional, the SLK’s new duds are decidedly delicious. From the aggressive hood to the pert little trunk, the SLK looks like the hot love child of an SLS AMG and the recently announced 2013 SL550. Adding to the appeal is one of the best expressions of Mercedes new-found love for angles that (to me at least), is considerably more aggressive than the Porsche Boxster’s slippery sheet metal.
Luxury cars are all about options and features, and the SLK is no different. Our tester wore one of two optional wheel packages; the 5-spoke “AMG” wheels included in the $2,500 “Sport Package.” While AMG doesn’t use said wheels on any AMG car, they are quite attractive, as are the $500 wheels in the stand-alone wheel upgrade. Either option will get you 5-spoke rims and identical tire selections. The sport package also adds a more aggressive (and more SL-esque) front and rear bumper, faux-carbon fiber gauges, and more expressive side sill treatments. Our tester also wore a $720 premium metallic paint job, and had the $1090 lighting package which added bi-xenon headlamps that steer into corners and headlamp washers. The Xenon lamp upgrade seriously aids vision at night, and if you are balking at an $1090 option, it is time to pick a cheaper car.
According to Mercedes, SLK stands for “sportlich leicht kurz.” In English this means sporty, light and short. 300+ HP? Sporty: check. But at 3400lbs, light must be a relative term. The SLK is 17-inches shorter than a Toyota corolla, 10-inches shorter than a Boxster, and 3-inches shorter than a Golf, and the “short” part becomes obvious when anyone over 6-feet tall tries to gain entry into the SLK with the top up. You don’t so much get into the SLK as “put the SLK on.” Despite being a tight entry (due as much to the dimensions as the low ride height) once inside, the 38-inches of headroom and 42.5-inches of leg room are similar to the baby-Porsche and even a Volvo C70 (a four-seat hard-top convertible). Being 6-feet tall, I had no problems getting comfortable in the SLK. My six-foot-five friend however fit snugly ( yet with ample leg room) and found the ride a bit more claustrophobic with the lid up.
The SLK350’s cabin is all high rent as long as you don’t look skyward. Oddly enough some of the mechanicals of the two-piece folding hard-top remain completely uncovered with the lid closed, something you don’t even see in the bargain basement Chrysler convertibles. Aside from this haptic mis-step, the rest of the interior is absolutely top-notch from the soft, cross-stitched leather seats to the thick-rimmed, flat-bottomed sport steering wheel. Our model was equipped with the standard aluminum trim which many reviewers seem to favor, but I’d pony up the $990 to get the burl walnut trim to satisfy my deforestation desires. The real-tree upgrade includes highly lacquered walnut door and center console trim as well as a wood/leather steering wheel and wood shift knob. Strangely not available at any price is Mercedes’ excellent radar cruise control and collision warning system dubbed “Distronic Plus.”
Since our tester was equipped with the aforementioned “Sport Package,” our interior was bathed in red ambient lighting from the doors and a glowing red stripe down both sides of the center console. Also included was the $2,590 “Premium Package” which brings a few options that really ought to be standard on a $54,000 car, namely: the iPod/MP3 player interface and heated seats. On the flip side, the package does also buy the 11-speaker, 500-watt Logic 7 sound system by Harman/Kardon and a pair of “Airscarfs” (yes, I’m told that is the correct plural). The up-level sound system is as crisp as the Logic 7 sound systems in the rest of the top-tier Mercedes lineup but it lacks any bass punch at all. Apparently there was no room to squeeze a subwoofer so if thumping bass tunes are required for your cruising, you might want to look elsewhere. As gimmicky as the “Airscarf” sounds, they proved worthy of the name and kept our topless napes warm as December temperatures in California “plummeted” into the 40s.
Rounding out the gadget list is the $2,150 “Multimedia Package”, also known as Mercedes COMAND. The system comes with XM radio, XM weather (and a short 6 month subscription), voice controlled navigation, voice controlled Bluetooth phone interface, 10GB of usable storage for your music, an SD card reader, and a 6-disc DVD/CD changer. If you have read any of my other late-model Mercedes reviews you will know I’m not the biggest COMAND fan, I find it somewhat awkward and a decent step behind iDrive. I’d rather have COMAND than nothing, but the price tag is a bitter pill to swallow. Also on our option list was the $760 dual-zone climate control option, $650 for keyless-go and a whopping $970 for ultrasonic parking sensors. While parking sensors on something as big as a size-10 cross-trainer seems silly, rearward visibility isn’t that great with the lid closed so you might want to consider coughing up the cash before bashing your $60,000 roadster into a pole, or accidentally cracking the center surround speaker with your elbow as I did. Oops.
If the options above have your head spinning already, as they say on TV: but wait! There’s more! While the SLK doesn’t have a “sunroof” that opens like the VW EOS, in the front section of the two-piece hard top you still have some choices. You can opt for the basic all-metal lid, a “panorama sunroof” which is a fixed, slightly tinted piece of polycarbonate for $500, or the $2,500 variable tint sunroof dubbed “Magic Sky,” which, at its darkest setting, comes as close as you can get to an actual cover in the SLK. Our tester had the $500 plastic porthole option and I have to say, I’d skip it or jump up to the active window. (Given the price, just skip). On a bright sunny day I found myself jamming envelopes, papers, anything I could get my hands on, into the seams around the “sunroof” to block the hot sun and glare. Regardless of your choice, the SLK350 goes topless in 21-seconds flat.
Once the two-piece top is stowed, trunk space drops from 10.1 cubic feet to 6.4. While I find this number a bit disappointing given that there are no back seats to use as a padded cargo area, it is on par with a wide variety of four-seat convertibles and significantly better than the 1.99 cubic feet the Infiniti G37 convertible is left with. There is just about enough room for a weekend away as I was able to fit one computer bag, one camera backpack, and one carry-on rollerbag in the trunk with the top down. Since Mercedes doesn’t offer a feature like Volvo where the roof segments lift up and out of the way to make cargo retrieval easier, the top must be closed to stow or retrieve those larger bags. The Boxster on the other hand gives you 9.9 cubic feet of cargo space at all times, but splits it into his and hers trunks in the front and rear. For safe topless driving the new SLK350 also includes head airbags that pop out of the sides of the seat, active headrests and tiny roll-over hoops behind the seats.
Putting out 302HP at a lofty 6,500 RPM and 273 lb-ft of twist at 3,500 RPM, the new engine drops the SLK’s sprint to 60 by just over half a second (to 5.06 seconds) compared to the former SLK350, thanks to a broader torque curve and a reworked transmission. In addition to being a hair faster, the new 3.5L V6 features a 60-degree bank angle making it considerably smoother than the outgoing 90-degree V6. Joining the new engine is a revised Mercedes 7-speed automatic with three drives modes: Eco, Sport and Manual. As with other Mercedes products, Eco mode causes the transmission to be reluctant to downshift but supposedly improves economy by 7% in mixed driving. Sport mode makes the transmission hold a lower gear for longer and in addition allows this new 7-speed unit to downshift directly from 7th to 3rd for improves padding performance. “Manual” attempts to replicate the paddle shifting tendencies of Infiniti and Jaguar with rev-matched downshifts. Unfortunately the Mercedes transmission has absolutely no sense of urgency when it comes to the flappy-paddles and treats flaps like mere suggestions, not commands. Just leave the transmission in Sport and mash the pedal or put it in Eco and enjoy the “greener” leanings of the new V6. For 2012 EPA numbers are up from 18/25 MPG to 20/29 MPG, and in our 578 miles with the SLK we averaged a respectable 24 miles per gallon.
While the SLK’s primary mission is to be a stylish luxury roadster that’s a cheaper alternative to the six-figure SL, the 2012 baby-Benz makes a compelling argument against the likes of the Porsche Boxster S. The optional ($990) dynamic handling package which includes a variable suspension system and a torque-vectoring rear axle is an absolute most for anyone that wants to have a bit of fun in the twisties and remain parallel to the lane lines. The well-weighted steering, balanced chassis and an engine that sounds like a banshee when pressed to the limit, make getting sideways in the SLK easy, entertaining, slightly unexpected, thoroughly butt-clenching and strangely addictive. Compared to the Boxster S, the more compliant suspension, narrower 225-width front and 245-width rear rubber and nearly 400lb heavier curb weight mean the SLK will never handle as well as the small Porsche (or indeed a Subaru WRX STi that was my mountain dance-partner for a short while) but in my heart of hearts I would have to say I prefer the softer GT characteristics of the SLK. If crazy is what you seek, the SLK55 AMG is dropping soon with a 412HP 5.5L V8 under the hood and a rumored base price around $70,000.
Speaking of pricing, our SLK started at $54,800 and ended up at $67,565 after options. ($720 Diamond White Metallic paint, $630 Bengal Red Premium Leather, $2590 premium package, $1070 lighting package, $2150 Multimedia Package, $500 Panorama Roof, $2500 Sport Package, $760 dual-zone climate control and $970 “parktronic” parking sensors). Price aside, roadsters are such a niche market that somehow the first and second generation SLKs came and went without TTAC taking one for a spin. If the sales numbers are anything to go by, the same happens on dealer lots. Largely forgotten by shoppers who lay down similar cash for E350s, ML350s or GL350s at Mercedes dealers, buyers are walking right past one of the best Mercedes models available. Forget about the school run, forget about the trailer you never tow and buy an SLK350 as your commuter car. After all, a pair of commuters in an SLK can drive in the 3+ HOV lanes in California and Texas. Sounds practical to me.
Statistics as tested
0-30: 2.08 Seconds
0-60: 5.06 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 13.46 @ 105.5 MPH
Mercedes provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.