Photos: Mercedes-Benz. Click image to enlarge
by Laurance Yap
If ever there was an automotive poster child for the extreme makeover, it’s the new Mercedes SLK 350. Once the softest, smoothest, and most conservative luxury two-seater on the market, it’s undergone a radical transformation, ending up as a real sports car, more extreme in some ways than BMW’s Z4 or even Porsche’s Boxster.
It starts with styling that’s more aggressive than anything in the Benz lineup this side of the SLR McLaren supercar, or indeed most other cars on the road. Never mind the wedge-shaped profile, with its sharply upswept waistline, tiny glasshouse, and angular mirrors, door handles, and side marker lights; check out the front. The Mercedes logo, big as can be, is stuck down on a nosecone that’s a dead ringer for the company’s Formula 1 cars, and is flanked by a set of strakes, vents, and lights that further reinforce the motorsports connection. You see an SLK coming in the mirror and you know it means business.
You know what? It does. It’s not just that the 268-hp 3.5-litre V6 (a 350-hp V8 comes in the insane SLK55 AMG version) hauls the little roadster along with real authority; it’s that it sounds serious, too. While the old SLK, particularly in its four-cylinder incarnation, was plagued by a mechanical mooing sound that discouraged spirited driving, the new SLK is as snarly and angry and high-pitched as a little Ferrari, and wills you on to reach for the redline time after time.
Helping with the encouragement is a new six-speed manual transmission which is not only the best Mercedes manual gearbox I’ve ever used – saying that would be damning it with faint praise – but also one of the nicest on the market, period. Its tall lever slides cleanly and smoothly between tight, well-defined gates, and the pedals it works in conjunction with are perfectly sized and positioned for heel-and-toe shifting.
The sharpness in the SLK’s drivetrain has been matched in its chassis as well. The steering, while still sporting the traditionally large Mercedes steering wheel, now controls a rack-and-pinion setup that is way more accurate than the previous recirculating-ball setup; it also makes for superior road feel. The multi-link suspension keeps the car stable and planted in corners, while the Continental tires hang on tenaciously. Amazingly, despite their low profile and the suspension’s composure in bends, the SLK’s ride quality is excellent as well; it floats over most pavement imperfections as if they weren’t there, and even the largest bumps merely elicit a distant thump. Finally, as you would expect of a car developed on the autobahn, the SLK’s brakes are superb, with excellent stopping power and an easily-modulated pedal.
Photos: Mercedes-Benz. Click image to enlarge
As a driving experience, the SLK is right up there with the base Boxster and a Z4 with a sports package, at least most of the time. A couple of blemishes, however, mar the overall experience. First among them is a stability-control system that, despite being more aggressively calibrated than any previous Mercedes system, is still a bit of a spoil-sport: at the slightest hint of rotation or wheelspin in a corner, it shuts down the proceedings, first by slamming on one of the four brakes to haul the car back in line, and if that isn’t enough, by reducing engine output. And while there’s a switch marked “ESP off”, all it actually does is raise the threshold for the system’s intervention. The only other issue is wide bucket seats that, despite looking sporty and aggressive, are actually fairly flat; thanks to their shaping and slippery leather surfaces, you find yourself sliding all over the seat, reducing the precision of all your inputs.
Seats aside, though, there’s very little to complain about with the SLK’s interior. While the old car was a pastiche of old-school Mercedes parts – rendered in solid, hunky plastic – and flimsy pieces developed for the company’s first bargain-priced roadster, the new car feels uniformly luxurious and expensive, commensurate with its $64,500 price. The dashboard and door panels blend well together and are rendered in the same dense, pebbled plastic. Aluminum trim graces the console, shifter, handbrake, and door handles. The audio and (optional) navigation systems are the same used in higher-end Mercedes, meaning that there’s a large, well-lit screen, instead of a row of dim orange LEDs to read from. It also means that all of the high-end features you would expect from a Mercedes – integrated hands-free dialling for your cell phone; DVD navigation; automatic climate control – are now all available in the smallest car they sell. Some options, like the $1,290 AirScarf system which blows hot air from out around the shoulder area on the seats, aren’t even available in the most expensive SL roadster.
One feature that the SLK now shares with the SL is its ultimate selling proposition: a folding metal hardtop that’s faster and more sophisticated than any on the market. Not only does it collapse and fold into the trunk, but its rear window now does a backflip in the middle of it all to open up more space in the rear compartment. In the space of less than 20 seconds, the SLK goes from gorgeous open-topped roadster to a gorgeous coupe that’s completely oblivious to the elements in a way that none of its major competitors can match.
The fact that it won its class this year at the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s TestFest indicates that, as an overall package, the SLK is difficult to match, period.
Technical Data: 2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK 350
|Options||$11,425 (Premium sound system with DVD navigation $3,950; Power front seat $1,895; Handsfree telephone dial system $2,365; Bi-Xenon headlamp system $1,465; AirScarf heated seats $1,290; Heated steering wheel $460)|
|Price as tested||$77,520|
|Type||2-door, 2-passenger roadster|
|Layout||Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.5-litre V6, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder|
|Horsepower||268 @ 5,700 rpm|
|Torque||258 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm|
|Curb weight||1,465 kg (3,230 lbs.)|
|Wheelbase||2,430 mm (95.6 in.)|
|Length||4,082 mm (160.7 in.)|
|Width||1,778 mm (70 in.)|
|Turning circle||10.51 metres (34.4 ft.)|
|Cargo capacity||300 litres (top up)|
|208 litres (top down)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 12.9 L/100km (22 mpg) (Imperial gallons)|
|Hwy: 8.5 L/100km (33 mpg) (Imperial gallons)|
|Warranty||4 years/80,000 km|
|Powertrain Warranty||5 years/120,000 km|