I've always thought that to be a true sports car, a two-seater needed a certain edginess: the threat of a snap to its rear at launch, nimbleness afoot, sensitive steering.
The latest Ford Thunderbird is not a sports car. The Mustang certainly is. In that same vein, Mercedes-Benz has produced some classic two-seat cruisers that were too straight-ahead heavy to be sports cars -- yet the 2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG, this week's test car, is precisely that.
Of course it helps that it comes from the AMG stables, Mercedes' hot rod wing. Just as, for instance, Audi S models, Ford SVTs, BMW's Ms, Cadillacs with a V, Dodge, and Chryslers bearing the SRT are all symbolic of hot rod roots, so too is AMG. You don't need to know what each letter stands for, only that they all mean thundering speed and performance.
AMG's handiwork runs though virtually the entire Mercedes lineup -- sedans, sports cars, coupes, and SUVs.
Like many Mercedes roadsters, this one runs a bit heavy at around 3,400 pounds, about the same as its predecessor, the SLK32 with its supercharged V-6 engine and 349 horsepower. The SLK55, with a normally aspirated V-8, gains only a handful of horsepower, yet it adds more than 50 lb.-ft. of torque. That torque not only helps haul what is essentially the same weight with smoother pull, it is also translated from motor's twist to rear-wheel tug by a gloriously smooth, seven-speed automatic transmission.
The result is a seamless flow of power that grabs at first throttle punch. Hit it too much and you kick out the rear end for a startling second until traction control gracefully intervenes. Yet that same traction system allows for bold, fast starts as the transmission moves ever upward through gears you do not even realize you are passing. Suddenly you are in seventh, and cruising. Rip out to pass in seventh, however, and it downshifts rapidly for maximum acceleration.
You could, of course, opt for the manual control buttons behind the wheel that allow you to shift on your own. It's fun, and usually productive, but I found it a waste of my time and a waste of the transmission's possibilities. I could not shift more precisely and smoothly than the car did on its own in automatic.
My only complaint was its somewhat jarring tendency to downshift rapidly when I backed off the throttle while rolling down a hill. It induced serious, rapid holding back, which I did not like on descending corners and would certainly not appreciate on an icy hill. Switching to manual helped here, and I could downshift or not at will.
The ride was very, very stiff, but when you are in a car that can, as Car and Driver magazine reported, rip from 0-60 in 4.3 seconds, you need the stiff, lowered stability of the AMG version.
This is one very aggressive looking Mercedes-Benz. The three-spoke star at center grille looks like the prop on an airplane's nose. Snake-eye headlamps top ground-sucking lower air vents. Rocker panels flex beneath the doors, and the tail has a nice little flip.
It looks small -- a shrunken version of the $450,000 SLR McLaren -- and it makes you wonder just how much room there will be inside. Plenty. The stiffly bolstered bucket seats are flat, firm, and encompassing. Lower yourself into them and you are sitting in a deep well of space. There is virtually no storage space (the glove box was eaten by electronics), and trunk space is quite tight.
An interior touch that reflects the muscular bulge of the car's exterior is a half-egg bump at center dash. It seems to flow through the windshield out to the hump on the hood. Inside, the egg flows downward to a central pod for navigation, audio, and climate controls, all easy to use.
The hardtop convertible roof was quick to raise and lower via a toggle switch. While the car is virtually free of turbulence with the top down and side windows raised, there was a slight rumble of wind from both rear quarters with the top up.
Of course, all it took was a touch of the gas to drown that out in a vibrato quad exhaust rumble: four pipes piping at the rear of a Mercedes that can truly be called an edgy, high-performance sports car.