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Review and photos by Paul Williams
When the Mercedes-Benz SLK was introduced in 1997, the cleverness of its automatic hardtop was not enough to compensate for ho-hum performance and an automatic-only transmission. The car came third in every magazine test that compared it with the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3.
Soon after its release, a manual gearbox became available, and power increased over the years. The stubby, wedge styling continued, however, and the SLK still regularly came third (in pretty good company, mind you).
For 2005, everything’s changed.
The new Mercedes-Benz SLK 350 completely reinvents the SLK class, with dramatic styling and genuine punch under the hood from its 268-horsepower V-6 engine (330-horsepower is available in the SLK-55 AMG).
You know you’re in something special when people actually stop their vehicles in the middle of the road to take a look.
For the base price of $64,500 you get a road-rocket of a car, both in appearance and performance. Its looks are obviously inspired by the $131,000-plus SL 500, a gorgeous car in anybody’s estimation.
The dramatic front of the SLK 350 is matched by its extreme wedge design. If anything, the rakish profile recalls the Honda S2000, although the two cars are easy to tell apart.
The SLK 350 in base specification gets you the six-speed manual transmission, which for a vehicle of this type, I’d prefer. But the $1,500, seven-speed, driver-adaptive automatic on our test car didn’t cancel out the fun. While you can “manually” shift the gears through the automatic ‘box, it’s in the sport-mode setting where you get the biggest surprise.
Put your foot down and the car leaps away, holding first to the redline, and then aggressively finding second for another power launch. If it shifts down to, say, third, when going around a bend, it will hold that gear as you accelerate out, rather than frustratingly shifting into fourth too soon.
There is a “comfort” setting for that.
Complementing the 268 horsepower, the all-new quad-cam, 3.5-litre engine generates 250 lb.-ft. torque @ 2,400-5,000 r.p.m., 87% of which is available at 1,500 r.p.m. Despite the power, fuel economy is rated at a modest 8.3L/100 km on the highway, although I achieved more like 8.7L/100 km at perhaps a slightly brisker pace than the Energuide testers. But still, very good for such a high-performance car.
The interior is finely rendered, with supportive, eight-way adjustable sport seats upholstered in leather on magnesium frames. The instrument panel consists of two easy-to-read analogue gauges supplemented by digital displays. If you want to know your engine temperature or oil pressure, however, you’ll have to scroll through the multifunction display. Personally, I’d like some extra analog gauges.
The spokes of the small, thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel position the driver’s hands in such a way that supplementary shift buttons behind the wheel are easily accessed. Mercedes’ often-criticized location for the turn signal stalk below a similar but smaller lever for the cruise control is a non-issue if your hands are correctly positioned on the wheel.
Storage is limited in the cockpit, but there is a glove box (that may also contain a CD changer), two boxes between the seats and map pockets in the doors. There’s no room behind the seats. The two-piece roof stores neatly behind the seats. If you’re away for the weekend, there’s room in the trunk for two or three soft travel bags.
Of course, while seated in the SLK 350, you’re not typically thinking about storage. You’re either under the sky or under the convertible hardtop, and it’s the latter that sets this car apart from, say a Porsche Boxster or BMW Z4. The roof, which raises or lowers in 22-seconds, would surely render a canvas top obsolete if it wasn’t so expensive to produce. This is really the next level of convertible motoring.
With the top up or down, the SLK 350 is equally attractive. But with the top up, the cabin warms or cools quickly, ambient noise is minimized, and security is enhanced. With the top down and the windows up, turbulence in the cabin is minimal and you can easily hear the optional $2,950 Harman-Kardon Logic7 digital audio system.
Even on a cool (8-degree) day, the cabin is sufficiently warmed by the automatic climate control, and no, unfortunately that’s not somebody breathing intimately on the back of your neck – that’s the $1,290 AIRSCARF system cleverly venting warm air from the top of the heated seats (that come with this system), maximizing airflow in the cabin. Look closely, and you’ll see the vent reflected in the close-up picture of the dashboard.
On the road, the car is a sensation to drive. While this may be a tired analogy, it really does seem to be fashioned out of a solid block, with no hint of cowl shake or body flex. Stamp on the accelerator and the engine responds instantly, generating a thrilling exhaust howl as it builds speed. Handling is shifter-cart sharp and braking is sudden (too sudden, if you don’t modulate the pressure correctly).
And while the SLK is great in short bursts, it also offers comfortable and relaxed driving over long distances.
My car featured the optional $8,780 Sport Package, which included 17″ ultra thin-spoke aluminum wheels, high performance tires, body kit and the steering wheel shift buttons.
Twelve exterior colours are available including an array of silvers and blues, along with two reds and Everest Green Metallic, recalling British Racing Green of classic roadsters. Five leather interiors are available at no extra charge (grey, beige, red, black and blue) and an optional Nappa leather interior adds $1,675.
What’s not to like? The optional heated headlamp washers ($460) absolutely drench the car in windshield washer fluid, such is the blast and liberal spread from the nozzles. Yes, the washers clean the lenses, but if you’ve spent any time detailing your car’s flashy Iridium Silver paint, you’ll have to start again after using them.
And unfortunately, that exciting exhaust howl when rapidly accelerating, sometimes sounds like a four-cylinder with a failing muffler at city speeds. Getting a deep rumble from a V-6 is not easy (Nissan seems to have figured it out with the 350Z) but the SLK 350 deserves better than this.
A loose, ill-fitting plastic panel forward of the driver’s side threshold plate on our tester was not a big deal, but at this price, unexpected.
And about the price. My SLK 350 stickered at $81,950 with the sport package ($8,700), Motorola phone ($2,365), headlamp washers ($460), AIRSCARF ($1,290), bi-xenon headlamps ($1,465), uprated audio system ($2,950) and rain-sensing windshield wipers ($220). This is virtually the same as the 355-horsepower, V-8, SLK 55 AMG ($82,900).
Definitely food for thought.
Nonetheless, the SLK 350 is a fine piece of engineering, wrapped in a really bold design. Its exciting performance takes the car close to Boxster S territory.
Watch for the magazine comparisons now.