Two-seat sports cars are the sort of indulgent fun that will most likely be ignored for the next few years. Which is horrible timing for Mercedes-Benz since it tweaked its small roadster line to make it more attractive for buyers, and to try and keep it current compared to other new introductions.
So what we have here is a facelift and mild tweaking of the second-generation SLK that originally debuted in 2004, which was in itself a huge step forward compared to the original. Already a reasonably accomplished athlete, the latest SLK shows that it’s one of the more attractive entries in the class.
Designers spent some time cleaning up the front bumper and air dam, mimicking even more the company’s Formula 1 racers, and the three-point Mercedes-Benz star is even more obvious now. In the back, the SLK now sports a rear diffuser, trapezoidal exhaust pipes and darker taillights. The side-mirrors are also new, incorporating the LED turn signals as on most other products in the range.
While there are three engines available in the SLK, the revised 3.5-litre V6 is the best compromise between the just ok 3.0-litre V6 in the SLK300 and the mental 5.5-litre V8 in the SLK 55 AMG. Featuring a number of tweaks to increase power and fuel economy, the $63,500 SLK 350 now features 300 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque. Mated to the familiar (and optional) seven-speed automatic, the 350 can run from 0-60 mph is just 5.4 seconds. The fun-sucking standard six-speed manual is a perfect example of why Mercedes doesn’t do manuals; it’s truckish and awkward, and nowhere near as positive as those offered by the competition.
To its credit, the SLK isn’t only quick in a straight line. The chassis now features the company’s Direct Control suspension settings, and all SLK 350s come standard with 17-inch wheels and tires, and the new Direct-Steer System, which changes the number of turns and effort required to go lock-to-lock, depending on the vehicle’s speed and other factors. This means that at low speeds, the SLK turns in very well, is nicely predictable and inherently a better handling automobile than previously. It communicates its actions clearly through the new three-point steering wheel.
Braking is strong and predictable, helped immensely by standard ABS with brake assist, and Mercedes-Benz’ nanny ESP is there to help if you overcook it into a corner.
For those itching for more corner-carving performance, ordering the $3,600 AMG Sport package should be the first option to check, seeing as it includes lightweight 18-inch AMG wheels, tighter suspension settings, paddle-shifters for the automatic gearbox and a more aggressive front air dam, side skirts, rear apron and trunk lid spoiler.
As with most Mercedes-Benz models, the options and packages available to make the interior truly luxurious are long and exhausting. The $2,100 Premium package includes 10-way power adjustable sport seats with lumbar support and three-position memory for the driver’s and passenger’s seats, a cloth wind blocker and the AIRSCARF system that flows warm air down your neck from the seatback, will help you extend your top-down investment much further into the nasty weather.
The $1,300 Entertainment package includes an 11-speaker 500-watt Harman Kardon audio system with Sirius Satellite Radio. Even with the roof down, the stereo has more than enough power to rock out your favourite tunes crisply and clearly.
Mercedes-Benz’ COMAND system with 4 GB hard drive-based navigation with real-time traffic and 6.5-inch LCD screen is a $2,500 option, while the aforementioned familiar seven-speed automatic runs you $1,500.
Amazingly, Canadians somehow get a much better value compared to Americans, because things like HID headlights with washers, heated seats, dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming mirrors, and the SmartKey are all optional equipment down south. This is both refreshing and mind-boggling all at the same time.
When it comes to competition, the SLK 350 is right in the thick of things. Its traditional German rivals all have models within a couple thousand dollars that are hugely attractive and extremely capable. The $61,900 Audi TTS now features a more powerful 265-hp version of its awesome 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, and while on paper it’s down on power to the Mercedes, the Audi is arguably a much more involving car.
Also, the fantastic 310-hp Porsche Boxster S is only a few grand away at $70,200, and is easily the performance king in this segment. And while the new-for-2010 BMW Z4 has yet to be evaluated, the promise of a 300-plus-hp twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine and folding metal hardtop mean it’s aimed squarely at the SLK.
However, the SLK is the vehicle that can most easily double as a comfortable long-distance cruiser. It feels as solid as its larger SL siblings, and could easily pass as the best GT car in the segment. And for those who want a four-season sports car, this Mercedes-Benz’ hardtop trick is its trump card. For the moment.
Price as tested: $73,575
Summary: Still almost a hairdresser’s car.
Exterior Design: 7/10. Needs AMG package to generate even slight amounts of excitement.
Interior Design: 8/10. Leather-lined luxury.
Engine: 7/10. New V6 is as powerful as old V8s used to be.
Transmission: 6/10. Seven-speed auto old-hat by now. Six-speed manual gives nightmares.
Audio/Video: 9/10. Harmon Kardon does well in enclosed spaces
Value: 7/10. Hits mid-pack amongst high-end German competition.
Overall (not an average): 6.5/10
By Mark Atkinson