Mercedes-Benz SLK350 — Rock solid roadster

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We marveled at the retractable steel top when we first got our hands on a 1998 Mercedes SLK roadster in the fall of 1997. It was the first modern hardtop convertible we had encountered and we admired the German automaker’s ingenuity in manufacturing an open-air car that offered the quiet weather-tight cabin of a coupe while enhancing security.
The first edition, badged as the SLK230, came with a 185-horsepower turbocharged 2.3-liter that gave it a just-right roadster feel, a fun sporty open-air two-seater that featured precise steering and a road-carving suspension.

The new roadster was indeed a work of art — it looked good and drove quite well.
But compared to today’s more aggressive premium roadster standards it was rather sedate with a 0-to-60 time of just over seven seconds.
What followed in 2001 was a more aggressive 215-horsepower V-6, and in 2002 the roadster got the AMG treatment with a monster 349-horsepower supercharged V-6.
The second generation SLK — model year 2005 — improved on the original design and came with a 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V-6. 
The 2012 SLK350 — the first offering in the sports car’s third iteration — comes with a new performance-strong 302-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission. It’s rock solid, top up or down.
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-metal starts as the roadster soars to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds. Quarter mile times have been recorded in 13.9 seconds at 102 mph.
Fast, indeed, but the SLK is more than straight-ahead performance. It’s 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 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 keep 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 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’s 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 a sculpted elongated hood and 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. Our test roadster’s looks were helped by the $2,500 sport package that brings 18-inch AMG 5-spoke wheels and sportier fascias and rocker panels.
Mercedes has got the hidden steel top styling trick worked out to perfection. With the top up there is no hint 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.
SLK can be ordered with an optional 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. A “fixed tint” sunroof is available for a mere $500. 
With the top open, the SLK becomes one of the most passenger-friendly convertibles on the planet, well insulated from the wind with a fixed glass deflector as well as optional AirGuide wind-blocker panels ($350).
We didn’t need it on several early autumn evening drives with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees, but our test car came with Mercedes’ innovative AirScarf system that blows warm air at your neck to give the passengers a feeling of warmth on colder days.
We found the SLK cabin spacious — we of wide body dimensions had no complaints — and it is loaded with first-class materials and a handsome somewhat conservative dashboard treatment. In fact, the SLK interior fairly well mimics the cabin in the six-figure SLS supercar. Our test car came with optional Bengal Red premium leather ($630) and neat brushed aluminum trim.
Mercedes controls have become more intuitive over the years, but we still found operating the multi-disc CD player a bit of a struggle. On the plus side, there’s no substitute that we have found for the long-standing Mercedes’ seat controls on the door. If there are easier-to-use controls in the industry, we haven’t encountered them.
Mercedes has safety covered with antilock brakes, traction and stability control, knee and side airbags that cover the abdomen and head, rollbars and a new Attention Assist system that monitors the driver for signs of inattention or drowsiness. Also available is an optional PreSafe system that anticipates an imminent crash and automatically takes measures to better secure occupants. Yet with all the obvious pride that Mercedes takes with its plethora of safety equipment missing is a back-up camera and a blind spot monitoring system.
The SLK350 comes with a base price of $55,675 including destination charge. Options are plentiful and can prove irresistible, and they can run up the bottom line. Our test car with options was $67,195.
Base price: $55,675; as driven, $67,195
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 302 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 273 pound-feet @ 3,500 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Seating: 2
Wheelbase: 95.7 inches
Length: 162.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,408 pounds
Turning circle: 34.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 10.1 cubic feet
Luggage capacity top down: 6.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.9 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 29 mpg highway, 20 mpg city
0-60: 5.4 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4, Audi TT
The Good:
• New styling rocks
• Top-notch performance and handling
• High-quality cabin
• Excellent fuel economy
The Bad:
• No manual transmission
The Ugly:
• Missing back-up camera/blind spot system