2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
February 20, 2012

It may be the most pragmatic roadster of its kind, but the SLK 350 dares you to doubt its partying skills.

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK still may be the least honed, least intense of the trio of pricey German roadsters, but it's ripened over its 15 years and three generations. New for 2012, the latest SLK has pretty much steamrolled over any trace of its dainty past and hot-paved it with real, substantial, and sometimes intoxicating sports-car urgency.

Argue if you want in favor of the Porsche Boxster's no-compromises chassis, or the BMW Z4's now-outed closet speed freak. The SLK holds its own: it grips and grunts with its own visceral pulse, and proves that it's still a three-way arms race in its very small, very exclusive club.

Thus far in the 2012 model year, we've driven two flavors of SLK--the eventual mid-range SLK 350 and the sizzling V-8-powered SLK 55 AMG. There's a turbo four-cylinder SLK in the pipeline, too, but it's likely tagged for a 2013 model-year intro. In either SLK, you'll find ever more sharpening to the performance edge--we wouldn't yet call it the equal of the Boxster or Z4 just yet, but the steering's adopted electric variable ratios to tie it more closely to your nerve endings. The suspension can do the same, if you want--and that gives the SLK unexpected ride softness when you need it, without the pothole jarring of a very stiff-riding machine when you don't.

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If it's pure acceleration you're after, of course, the 415-horsepower SLK 55 AMG is the only choice. It's easy to get used to the 302-hp V-6's rhythm, though, and with either, there's a paddle-shifted seven-speed automatic pushing force to the rear wheels in a mostly smooth way. Massive, biting brakes are in store, either way, and new torque-vectoring control works with the SLK's stability control to tighten cornering, giving this latest edition a lot of tech weaponry to tackle corners.

The SLK didn't grow very much this time around, and the interior's still snug for tall drivers and for luggage. There are no safety scores as of yet, and oddly, there's no rearview camera at all on the features list. However, the SLK is as comprehensively equipped as any Mercedes and better by a long shot than its German compatriots. On top of HD radio, Bluetooth, navigation and real-time traffic, the SLK can be fitted with a photochromic glass roof that tints itself on bright sunny days--and there's AIRSCARF, which blows a warm, gentle breeze on your neck to keep top-down season going another few weeks.

The top, after all, is what the coupe-convertible SLK is all about. And it's just as good at lowering the roof as it is at raising it.


2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class


Our favorite view of the new SLK? From the cockpit, of course.

Mercedes-Benz penned the first SLK with a mission in mind. However you want to couch the language, it was a pure appeal to women drivers, with its minimally detailed body, its lightness and lack of aggression, and above all, its four-seasons folding hardtop.

The second time around the block, the SLK grew far more masculine, its dash studded with techy buttons and its nose dipped low. It changed the car's appeal, and that's the thread the third-generation SLK picks up as it refines the basic look and adapts it to new regulations.

It's difficult to draw elegant cars on such a short wheelbase. It's also a challenge to meet new European pedestrian-safety laws that require much taller front ends. The SLK somehow manages to carve out some elegance from that restricted canvas, with details cribbed from the SLS AMG gullwing and some other styling cues foretelling next year's new SL Class lineup. We've grown happier with the look since we first saw it: it's a vast improvement over the under-detailed first-gen SLK, and the overdetailed second-generation car. There's no denying the massive front end, though--it's tall, and the horizontal grille establishes a new brand identity, but looks blunt and square, where the rest of the car softly tapers to a conclusion. The roof blisters over the body's wedge in a bare little bubble, same as ever, and tapers off into teardrop taillamps that create the most cohesive view--the one from behind. It's best when the roof is tucked in and the metallic twin peaks of the seat backs stand up at attention.

The cockpit's lost most of the metallic studded buttons that confused drivers, but it's traded them for more conventional black switches that still need to be learned before that first long road trip. The center stack reverts to a softly rounded, aluminum-clad look, capped by an LCD screen for audio displays. The screen goes high-resolution in vehicles equipped with COMAND, the wheel-driven controller that rests just under the driver's right wrist. Meaty metallic ribs flare from the flat-bottomed steering wheel, which has its own set of buttons for secondary controls like voice, audio and navigation, and metallic tubes house clean analog gauges remixed with some LCD readouts for the usual trip and gear functions.


2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class


The SLK 350 continues to hone its performance edge; the SLK 55's a pure blast.

When it's a complete lineup, the Mercedes SLK will be available with four-, six-, and eight-cylinder engines. We've driven the two more powerful versions, while Mercedes is holding on to a new turbo four-cylinder edition for the 2013 model year.

The "standard" version, for now, is the SLK 350. It's powered by a 302-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 that pushes its power out to the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic. A grunter, this V-6 has a typical tenor that either dazzles you or leaves you wanting for a straight six-- or best of all, a flat one. Mercedes posts a 0-60 mph time of 5.4 seconds and limits the SLK 350 to a top speed of 155 mph. That puts it solidly on the same playing field as the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z4, though it doesn't make the same emotional appeal with its exhaust note.

The automatic is programmed with a trio of shift modes, and sports shift paddles and manual control at the shift lever. Sport is where you'll want to be most of the time, since it wakes up the tranny with the smoothest blend of fast gear changes. In Eco mode the shifts are long and syrupy; in Manual mode, we felt some lumps as the transmission tried to shift as quickly as a true dual-clutch transmission. Given the choice, we much prefer shift paddles to lever gearchanges. One requires a hand off the wheel--and one makes far more sense, doesn't it?

The V-6's gusto pushes the SLK's multi-link suspension to its limits with a sharper feel than in the prior version. The SLK 350 can be outfitted either with either a conventional independent suspension or with user-selectable shocks, and all versions have electrohydraulic steering with Direct Steer, which amplifies steering inputs according to the rotation angle of the steering wheel. The hybrid steering system leaves the usual Mercedes play of an inch or so on center for a more relaxed attitude on the highway, and works its way into aggression by the time you're a quarter-past in either direction.

In our experience, the Dynamic Handling package and the adjustable shocks make the SLK more tossable than it's ever been. It's not as wired-in as the Boxster, but what non-mid-engine machine is? Slide up near the tires' limits and the SLK breaks loose softly and gradually, where it's easily brought back on line. Deep potholes still can jar, though. The deeply talented torque-vectoring brakes can clamp onto an inside rotor automatically to tighten cornering lines, and make the 18-inch, 35-series rear tires pretty obedient.

There's much more ballet than bully here--that's the job of the SLK 55. Stuffed to the gills with a 5.5-liter V-8, the 415-hp top dog sends its intentions reverberating through its mean-sounding exhaust. It's capable of 0-60 mph times of under 5.0 seconds, and it sounds like it. Tightened and screwed down even more, the SLK 55 still has a pervasive firmness to the ride, but its shocks have been tuned to demand less from the driver and more from the car--a much better balance for top-down cruising.

Once you get back out on the fun roads, however, you'll find steering is precise, if muted in its feel and feedback, quick to turn and neither too light nor too heavy for quick changes in direction. Body roll is minimal, when in sport mode, and the transmission, Mercedes' seven-speed Speedshift clutched automatic, is a ready partner in either automatic or manual modes. The large paddles are easy to grab even when a shift is necessary while there's still some steering angle dialed in. It's that much closer to brilliance.


2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class

Comfort & Quality

It's still snug around the feet and shoulders, but the SLK has some soft-side luggage space and swell fit and finish.

The Mercedes-Benz SLK is now in its third generation, and by the numbers, gen two and gen three are much more closely related. The 2012 model rides on a wheelbase of 95.7 inches, and measures 162.8 inches in all, which makes it nearly identical in size to the prior version.

It has grown a bit broader, but it's hard to gauge in shoulder room; it just doesn't seem meaningfully larger. Most passengers will fit fine, but our taller editors--basically, all of them--think the SLK could use an inch or two more leg room, and more seat travel. The sport seats themselves fit perfectly snugly, but you'll sit close to the dash. We've also noticed the passenger footwell doesn't have as much space, which can make very long drives a little tiring. Very tall passengers will have some geometry to figure out--how far back can I move the seat before I need to adjust the backrest more vertically than I would like?

Otherwise, however, interior space and comfort are excellent for a sporty two-seater. There's not a lot of extra space, nor is there much room in the trunk with the folding top down--and you can't put it down without first aligning the trunk dividing partition properly--but there's enough space for a weekend retreat for two. A flexible cargo lid inside the trunk has to be latched in place over some of the cargo hold before the top can be moved--and it's possible to dislodge it on hard bumps. A backpack-sized space lies under the flat floor; lift out a formed plastic bin and hide valuables, or flip it on its other side for a shallow well that adds a cubic foot or a little more to the equation. In all, there are 10.1 cubic feet of stowage with the roof up, but only a scant 6.4 cubes when it's out of sight.

With the windows up and the climate control system set, the cabin is neither turbulent nor uncomfortably cold. A mesh divider between the seats helps to settle the wind. With the sun fully out and beginning to roast our tender, chained-to-a-desk skin, we decided it was time to put the top up. It's a simple and quick affair, just a button press away--though you do have to be at a full stop for it to operate, or at least we did. Once the top is up, the SLK is much more coupe-like; that is to say, quieter, more closed-in feeling.


2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class


It hasn't been crash-tested, but Mercedes' safety heritage has the SLK's back.

Mercedes has a long and storied reputation for driver safety, as an innovator of anti-lock brakes and lately, the Attention Assist attention-getter that reminds you that, yes, this would be the perfect time to pull over for an espresso.

Unfortunately, that's all we have to go on for now, because neither of the major crash-test agencies has put the SLK through their paces. As is the case with some luxury convertibles, the SLK may never be tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), because of its relative rarity.

Safety equipment on the 2012 SLK includes dual front, side and head airbags with a driver knee airbag; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; mbrace telematics; active head restraints; and Attention Assist, which flashes an alert to drowsy drivers in the form of a steaming cup of coffee.

There's no rearview camera at all, but as long as the top is down, there's little need for one. Still, it's an unusual omission on a brand-new luxury vehicle.


2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class


The SLK is the convertible that coddles: it blows warm air around your neck, and tints your roof glass for you.

The Mercedes SLK is a nurturer at heart. It coddles its two passengers with luxurious finishes and with features that surpass any other convertible, missing just a voice control here or there to be completely on top of the game.

All SLKs come with power windows, locks and mirrors; climate control; an eight-speaker AM/FM/CD player with HD radio, a USB port and Bluetooth audio streaming; and leather seats. They also have the hardtop convertible roof, which opens via a pull lever in an egg-shaped enclosure. Pull the tab and the compact hardtop tucks away in 20 seconds. A mesh air blocker does what it can to cut buffeting, but the short-body roadster has a fair amount of turbulence.

On the SLK 350, Mercedes bundles key options in packages. The Premium package adds power seats; satellite radio; a media interface; and a Harman/Kardon surround-sound system. A Trim package wraps the shifter and steering wheel in walnut; a Lighting package adds active bi-xenon headlights and cornering lights. The Heating package adds the wonderful AIRSCARF jet of air for your neck (more below), and heated seats; the Sport package gets its own AMG-style 18-inch wheels and distinct body add-ons, as well as ambient interior lighting. A Multimedia package tops it off with COMAND controller and hard-drive navigation with real-time traffic; a six-DVD changer, a 10GB hard drive and an SD card slot for audio.

You can opt for features like push-button start; parking sensors; automatic dual-zone climate control; and a panoramic glass roof as stand-alone options. We'd highly recommend the Magic Sky Control roof, which photochromically tints its glass panel from nearly opaque to fully transparent, spanning almost the entirety of the main roof panel. Switch it to clear and the cabin opens back up. It's a tech fancy that's been talked about for at least two decades and finally is here--and works as advertised.

The SLK's other hallmark feature is AIRSCARF, the lovely touch that blows warm air on your neck to steel you for lowering that steel top more often. Think of it like the ancestor of the carefully mapped climate control in the Nissan Leaf--in that it's climate control from a psychological angle.


2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class

Fuel Economy

For a sportscar, the SLK 350's highway gas mileage is very good--but it won't be the only SLK for long.

For its performance levels, the mid-level version of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK delivers good fuel economy. A coming four-cylinder model promises even better numbers, though the monster V-8 edition likely will be significantly lower.

Sportscars don't often nudge 30 mpg in highway gas mileage, but the new SLK does. The SLK 350 earns an EPA-rated 20/29 mpg, thanks to its small size and its standard seven-speed automatic.

Grab the reins on the SLK55, though, and the numbers should drop back to earth--the EPA hasn't rated it, but Mercedes suggests a highway figure of 26 mpg. The V-8 incorporates cylinder-deactivation technology that shuts off fuel to four of the eight cylinders under light running loads.

The V-8's gas mileage could be offset by the upcoming four-cylinder turbocharged SLK, which likely will top 30 mpg on the highway.

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October 31, 2015
2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class 2-Door Roadster SLK 250

Brilliant piece of Engineering

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This is another example of German Engineering at its Best. A real head turner With the Top down on a sunny day Love the Sports Mode for a bit of Fun around my coastal weekend run Very comfortable and the road... + More »
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June 15, 2015
2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class 2-Door Roadster SLK 55 AMG

Strong performance in a small package

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The AMG SLK55 is the way to go for SLK nodels. Previously owned a SLK350 and it takes nice to a new fun level. PLenty of power to play with. Easy to explore the limits of traction control and beyond in sport... + More »
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