2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350

RALEIGH, N.C. — The 2012 SLK350 — the first offering in the sports car's third iteration — has entered the marketplace and comes with a new performance-strong 302-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. Other engines are on the way, but the new direct-injection V-6 gives the SLK a just-right performance persona.

An angry smile-inducing engine note accompanies pedal-to-the-metal starts as the roadster soars to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds as measured by a major automobile magazine. Quarter mile times have been recorded 13.9 seconds at 102 mph.

Fast, indeed, but the SLK is more than straight-ahead performance. It is a true road warrior with the capability to entertain the owner who enjoys weekend trysts with daunting back-road twists and turns. Whether it corners like a Porsche Boxster or a BMW Z4 is neither here nor there. Few drivers we suspect will be able to take this roadster to its limits without first reaching a level of mind-numbing apprehension.

The all-wheel independent suspension and thicker anti-sway bars keeps the SLK planted while a highly communicative steering feel gives the driver a high degree of confidence. So do some really great brakes.

If you are looking for more frugal performance and a reduced price tag, Mercedes has you covered. The SLK lineup will soon include a return to the car's 4-cylinder roots with a 1.8-liter turbocharged engine making 201 horsepower and a healthy 229 pound-feet of torque. The SLK250 will be no slouch in the performance department with an expected 0-to-60 time of 6.5 seconds. Fuel economy may be as much an incentive as price — 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway.

On the other end of the spectrum, thrill seekers across the fruited plain will not have long to wait for a new monster SLK. Mercedes has announced that a SLK55 AMG is planned with a 5.5-liter V-8 under hood making 415 horsepower and 398 pound-feet of torque. Mercedes estimates a O-to-60 time of 4.5 seconds. It is expected to go on sale in the U.S. by spring 2012.

The new SLK, in whatever engine configuration you desire, has a stunning presence carrying such classic features as an sculpted elongated hood with an aggressive large in-your-face grille inspired by the Mercedes SLS AMG. Looking at the SLK in profile, only subtle changes from the previous generation can be noted, including some reworked sheetmetal and what appears to be an emphasis on more bulging fenders.

Mercedes has got the hidden steel top styling trick worked out to perfection. With the top up there is no hint that the car is indeed a convertible, and with the top stowed there's no way of telling if the top is steel or fabric.

With it closed, the SLK effectively becomes a solid coupe devoid of wind noise and totally free of typical convertible creaks and rattles.

It can even be ordered with a fixed sunroof that Mercedes calls Magic Sky. It uses nano-particles embedded in the glass that change from clear to opaque with the push of a button. It's a bit pricey, however, at $2,500. Maybe the best way to go is a "fixed tint" sunroof for $500.

The SLK350 comes with a base price of $55,675 including destination charge. Options are plentiful and can prove irresistible, but can run up the bottom line.

The new SLK is indeed a very desirable luxury roadster. Mercedes has done a creditable job taking it to the next level.

— Jim Meachen