First launched for the 1998 model year, the SLK serves as a smaller-scale companion to Mercedes-Benz's bigger - and far more costly - SL-Class two-seater. Redesigned for 2005, the second-generation SLK grew a little bigger and heavier, with a more rounded profile and a power-retractable hardtop.
Now, for the 2012 model year, Mercedes-Benz has redesigned its SLK-Class roadster once again. In addition to a freshened appearance, the new version offers a choice of a four-cylinder engine, as an alternative to the V-6. The SLK350, with its 3.5-liter V-6 engine, went on sale first, gaining 2 horsepower (now 302). Later in the model year, Mercedes-Benz will add the SLK250, with a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder that produces 201 horsepower.
A six-speed manual transmission will be available for the new SLK250 model, with a seven-speed automatic as an option. SLK350 roadsters comes only with the automatic. Available features include Attention Assist, Mercedes-Benz's system of warning drivers who might be getting drowsy.
Visually long, low, and sleek, the fully rounded SLK-Class roadster takes a backseat to few others in exterior styling. Not much time is needed behind the wheel to see that the SLK is a truly serious sports car - adding the luxury elements that also make it a grand boulevard tourer.
Precise steering response heads the list of satisfying attributes, accompanied by a steering feel that inspires both pleasure and confidence. At the same time, the SLK's suspension manages to yield a ride that won't remind anyone of cruder sports cars of the past. Instead, it's comparatively genteel, getting bouncy or harsh only modestly and only occasionally. On smooth pavement, you can soon feel you're in a more conventional premium motorcar. Only when a patchy spot occurs, or a serious bump looms, are you reminded of the relatively stiff suspension operating effectively down below.
Performance is another SLK plus, as the V-6 engine delivers bursts of energy in an utterly refined manner. Though it's not the swiftest Mercedes-Benz model, few owners are likely to complain. Automatic-transmission behavior is excellent, with trouble-free shifts. Just enough exhaust blare is evident to demonstrate that something special sits beneath the hood.
Getting into the SLK isn't too difficult, and it's reasonably roomy once you're there - for a two-seater, that is. Visibility is quite good, helped by long windows, but long doors can be a hindrance in tight parking lots.
Lowering the Vario-Roof is a simple pushbutton process, but only after you make sure the trunk area is properly prepared to accept the lowered top. Beware: Tiny rear quarter windows can be inadvertently left down when raising the roof. Cargo space is minimal, as expected: nearer to non-existent if allowing room the lowered top.
For the SLK, Mercedes-Benz retains the poorly-positioned cruise-control stalk, though company representatives have indicated that the stalk will be moved to a better location on all models at some point. As it stands, it's all too easy to grab the cruise-control stalk when you're intending to use the turn-signal lever below it. Stylized non-illuminated gauges, which have a broad span and zero-vertical orientation, are acceptable but not so easy to read.
A few decades back, no one would have dreamed that a true sports car could be so civilized, without losing the attributes that provide its character in the process. Today's SLK is hard to beat in build quality, too.
Sticker price for the 2012 SLK350 is $55,675 (including the $875 destination charge). Pricing for the SLK250 has not yet been released.
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