The 2012 Mercedes SLK looks sharper than ever, with driving and luxury to match.
Since the Mercedes-Benz SLK made its debut, its styling has been writing checks the rest of the car couldn't cash. The 2012 redesign has improved the SLK in many respects. Driving enthusiasts will still lean toward a BMW Z4 or Porsche Boxster, which outperform the SLK at the extremes, but the gap is closing.
The V-6-powered SLK350 comes standard with a seven-speed automatic. Starting in February, Mercedes will offer an SLK250, with a turbocharged four-cylinder running through the automatic transmission or a six-speed manual. February will also mark the debut of a V-8 SLK55 AMG, which comes only with the automatic. All three cars have rear-wheel drive and a standard power-retractable hardtop. We evaluated an SLK350; click here to compare it with last year's SLK.
The SLK350's 302-horsepower V-6 feels burlier than its 3.5-liter displacement suggests, but it's best driven in the automatic transmission's Sport mode. The alternative — Eco mode — makes for recalcitrant downshifts and tepid acceleration off the line — a recurring complaint I have in Mercedes vehicles. (Alas, there's no mode between Eco and Sport.) Sport mode doesn't eliminate accelerator lag, but it makes start-offs responsive enough and highway kickdown improves a great deal.
Driven hard in Sport, the SLK350 moves out well, kicking down three or four gears at once to barrel up to speed. Curiously, the transmission's steering-wheel paddle shifters effect a slower response: Request a few downshifts and the gearbox ticks through the intermediary gears en route to what you want. It's best to leave the SLK in Sport mode, mash the pedal and let the gearbox do its thing.
Mercedes says the SLK350 hits 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, while the 201-hp SLK250 takes 6.5 seconds. That's snappy enough, to be sure, but pokier than the Porsche Boxster, Audi TT and BMW Z4 with comparable drivetrains. If you prefer to smoke two out of three, the SLK55 AMG's 415-hp V-8 hits 60 mph in 4.5 seconds — quicker than all but the newest version of Audi's coupe, the TT RS.
The SLK steers confidently, with good midcorner feedback, albeit less precision than the laser-like Boxster. The Mercedes holds course well enough, though, allowing controlled slides if you deactivate the electronic stability system. Ride quality improves, too: Our tester's suspension filtered out small bumps with none of its predecessor's floaty jitters. Typical of a hardtop convertible, top-up driving is as quiet as you'd get in a coupe. Major bumps disrupt the peace, prompting one editor to denounce the SLK's ride altogether. The optional adaptive suspension might fare better, but our test car didn't have it. Note, too, that the SLK55's steering and suspension have unique, higher-performance tuning.
Outside & In
Wider and longer than its predecessor, the new SLK takes cues from Mercedes' SLS AMG supercar. The lower taillights might not be for everyone, but the roadster's nose should find few detractors. Mercedes says inspiration for the forward, upright grille comes from the 1955-63 190SL, much like the SLS' relation to the gull-winged 300 SL. I approve.
The SLK250 has 17-inch alloy wheels, while the SLK350 has 18s. The SLK55 has wider 18s, among other additions: LED running lights, reworked ground effects and darker lights. All trims have a power-folding hardtop, but it crawls: It takes 30 seconds to operate, including putting the windows back up.
A solid metal roof is standard. Mercedes' optional Magic Sky Control replaces it with a glass panel, which you can vary from clear to opaque with the touch of a button. For less money, the automaker offers fixed-tint glass, which our test car had. Take note: There's no sun shade, and in direct sunlight the tint doesn't stop the cabin from baking.
Cabin materials have improved, with genuine aluminum trim, hefty controls and more consistent paneling than last year's SLK. Two navigation systems have screens measuring 5.8 and 7 inches. Our test car had the latter; it's a more robust system that couples with Mercedes' intuitive Comand knob-based control system.
The seats, unfortunately, remain too stiff, with little payoff on curvy roads. Get the SLK in a tight sweeper, and your backside still slides too much. Power adjustments are standard, but tall drivers will want more range. At 5-foot-11, I drove with the chair all the way back.
Trunk volume is 10.1 cubic feet, falling to 6.4 cubic feet with the convertible top lowered. Both figures compare to the Z4, but that illustrates a drawback of folding hardtops. The soft-top TT and Boxster don't encroach on luggage room when you lower the roof.
Safety, Features & Pricing
The SLK hasn't been crash-tested, and given its limited sales volume it probably won't be. Standard features include eight airbags and the federally required antilock brakes and electronic stability system; click here for a full list of safety features.
Standard features on the SLK350 include power-adjustable leather seats, the automatic transmission, a power-folding hardtop, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, and a CD stereo with USB/iPod connectivity. Options include upgraded leather, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated seats, two navigation systems, two glass roofs (one of them variable tint) and adaptive xenon headlights. Check all the factory options, and the SLK350 tops out near $70,000.
As of this writing, Mercedes has yet to spec and price the SLK250 and SLK55. Expect them to bookend the SLK350's price, with fewer standard features in the SLK250 and more in the SLK55.
SLK in the Market
Short of perhaps the SLK55, the SLK still shies away from hard-core performance — something the Boxster embraces and the Z4 hits on well enough. But the Mercedes comes closer to the mark than it used to, and it doesn't sacrifice too much along the way. Styling and cabin quality alone should sell the car. Its chief aggravation — accelerator lag — is endemic to Mercedes overall, and it hasn't stymied the brand's sales uptick so far. The new SLK is far from perfect, but it's the best one yet.
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