If you haven't been in the market for a convertible in a while, you might be surprised to learn how many retractable-hardtop convertibles are available. Mercedes-Benz's SLK-Class was at the forefront of this trend when it debuted for the 1998 model year. It's gone through one complete redesign since then, and for 2009 it receives modest styling changes inside and out — and a more powerful 3.5-liter V-6 engine in the SLK350, which I tested. Also available with new styling are the SLK300 with a 3.0-liter V-6 and the SLK55 AMG with a 5.4-liter V-8.
There are a number of things to like about the SLK350, including its comfortable ride, strong powertrain and svelte looks. Unfortunately, there are just as many things that detract from its appeal, like frustrating power seats and a cabin that isn't luxurious enough for the price this roadster commands.
The SLK350 makes an interesting visual statement. The car has a bulge running down the middle of the hood that recalls the SLR McLaren, Mercedes' supercar, and the large three-pointed star draws your attention to the grille. Exterior changes for 2009 include a split lower bumper that calls to mind the front wing of a Formula One racecar. Smooth bodyside styling continues around to the short rear deck, and the bottom of the rear bumper gains some strakes (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 model).
Convertibles seldom have trouble looking good with the top down; that's what they're designed to do. What's more telling is how they look when the top is up. The SLK350 has an advantage over its soft-top brethren because of its retractable hardtop, which gives designers more control over the shape of the roof. The SLK350's metal roof seamlessly blends with the rest of the car's design, as opposed to just being something to cover the cabin when the weather is bad. Overall, Mercedes has given the car an appropriately luxurious look that takes key elements from other, more expensive Mercedes-Benz models, like the SLR and SL550, which gives the SLK350 quite a bit of cachet for its class.
Ride & Handling
For a convertible that looks like it's a dedicated sports car, the SLK350 proves to be a decent touring car when you get behind the wheel. Its four-wheel independent suspension yields a compliant ride even on rough roads, so you don't have to worry about this car punishing you on the commute to work if that's how you'll be driving it sometimes.
The experience is equally agreeable on the highway, though a concrete section I drove on made the chassis oscillate up and down. A little bit of wind noise can penetrate the cabin on the highway with the top up, but it's otherwise quiet in there.
Probably the biggest impediment to long-haul comfort is the roadster's firm bucket seats, which began to get uncomfortable after only three hours at the wheel. The seats have substantial side bolsters that'll keep you in place when cornering quickly, but they could use softer padding.
The SLK-Class has a new variable-ratio power-steering system for 2009 that delivers quicker than normal turn-in, but beyond being precise and easy to steer, the SLK350 doesn't engage you the way BMW's 335i retractable-hardtop convertible can.
The SLK350's 300-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and seven-speed automatic transmission make a nice pair, with the V-6 providing plenty of power and the automatic executing smooth shifts that can't be felt most of the time. It's also rather thrifty; during a trip from Chicago to Elkhart Lake, Wis. — about 150 miles of mostly highway driving — the SLK350 averaged 29 mpg. Official EPA estimates for this drivetrain are 18/26 mpg city/highway.
The SLK350's cabin is definitely cozy if you're around 6 feet tall, and the car's optional power seats don't help matters. If you're tall, you'll find that the seats work against you in your quest to get comfortable in the car. If you move them back to increase legroom, the backrest automatically moves forward incrementally so it doesn't get mashed against the rear wall of the cabin. Now, I can understand Mercedes' concern for its seats, but shouldn't driver comfort come first? Even though I was able to get relatively comfortable, I was never able to put the seat exactly where I wanted.
Changes to the cabin for 2009 are relatively minor and could easily go unnoticed. The audio system has been revamped and now includes a screen like the one used on models with the automaker's Comand system. It doesn't, however, include the integrated control knob you'll find in a C-Class or S-Class sedan with Comand; selections are made using a set of buttons on the dash. The steering wheel is also new and the gauges have been mildly restyled.
Despite the changes, the cabin is rather plain and basic when you consider the SLK350 starts at about $50,000. Some of the buttons and controls in the cabin, like the ones for the retractable hardtop and side mirrors that are located on the center console, have a low-grade look and feel.
The SLK350 hasn't been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but standard safety features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags, knee airbags and an electronic stability system.
SLK350 in the Market
If you have $50,000 or more to drop on a convertible, life is obviously pretty good, and there's no shortage of models in that price range from which to choose. If a retractable-hardtop is what you want, the 335i is a very good one that's priced nearly identical to the SLK350 and comes with a backseat. Among roadsters, this price is also in the territory of the BMW Z4 and Porsche's Boxster. If you're willing to spend a little more, there are V-8-powered models like the Audi S4 Cabriolet and Chevrolet Corvette.
The SLK350 can clearly hold its own against these models in the styling department thanks to its athletic shape, top up or down, but the cabin design doesn't make the same visual statement as the exterior, and some might find themselves wishing for more comfortable quarters. If that's the case, your BMW dealer may hold the cure on his lot.
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