by Matthew Wilson
Mercedes-Benz first launched their SLK roadster back in 1997, but only now has it become the car it should always have been. The first generation wasn't bad looking, but was still a bit plain when compared to the also new (at the time) BMW Z3. Fast forward to 2005, the second generation was a notable improvement in both styling and performance. Still, the design, specifically the hood, was somewhat overdone, especially for a small roadster.
However, the SLK was one of the first modern roadsters on the market to incorporate a retractable hardtop. The Mazda MX-5 began to only offer one in 2006 and the current BMW Z4 came out in 2009. And through its lifetime, the SLK's main competition has been the Z4 and the Porsche Boxster, yet it appeared to be the more tamed car. The second generation, unlike the first, delivered much better performance to match its sporty looks. Unfortunately, the SLK still didn't stand out amongst its fellow landsmann.
For 2012, Mercedes-Benz has launched the all-new, third generation SLK350. Set to go on sale this June, it has a new direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 that produces 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. It's mated to a seven-speed manumatic transmission. Prefer a six-speed manual? Then you'll have to wait until 2012 for the SLK250, which will be powered by a new turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder with 201 hp and 229 lb-ft of torque. Fortunately, the overall set-up of the SLK350 makes it a great car to drive. With a predicted 0 to 60 mph time of 5.4 seconds, the V6 sounds good and is very responsive.
The brakes are strong and there's plenty of solid grip. Also new for 2012 is a new cornering brake control system which works well to help balance out all of the front end weight. However, there will be some understeer when trying to push the car further. It also has improved fuel mileage, with Mercedes engineers predicting it will earn a 20/29 mpg city/highway rating, a solid improvement over the 18/26 mpg of the outgoing model. Perhaps one of the most innovative features Mercedes-Benz developed is something called the Magic Sky Control roof.
Weighing 110 lbs lighter than the standard all-metal roof, the technology consists of crystals that are suspended in fluid between two glass panels. With the push of a button, the crystals will align themselves and allow sunlight to pass through the cabin. Push the button again and the crystals will disperse, now partially blocking the light coming through. The idea is to reduce the need for turning up the air conditioning on warm days, saving additional fuel. Buyers can choose this high-tech roof, the standard retractable metal roof, or a panoramic glass roof.
Raising and lowering the any of them takes about 20 seconds and the car must be stopped in order to do this. The interior is also a huge improvement over the previous generation. Gone is the rather plain-looking dash, replaced with one that genuinely looks like a smaller version of the SLS's. With a flat-bottom steering wheel, the design is cleaner, sportier, and more elegant than before. There's also 1.3 inches of increased shoulder room for both driver and passenger. Without a doubt, Mercedes has made improvements everywhere.
Taking exterior styling cues and from the SLS AMG, it looks and drives more like a proper roadster. It's not as performance-oriented as a Porsche Boxster, but it doesn't need to be. It's the choice of those wanting power, elegance, and technology in a single package, but don't want to (or can't) pay for the SLS. Final pricing hasn't been announced, but an estimated base price of $50,000 sounds reasonable. The Mercedes-Benz SLK has finally become the proper roadster, inside and out, it should have always been. Still aching for more power? The naturally-aspirated V8 SLK55 AMG is on the way.