It’s hard to imagine, perhaps, but there was a time when the American roadster market had all but vanished. Not all that long ago, you had your choice of the Mazda Miata and, well, that was about it. Then, in a veritable blitz of new product, each of the high-line German automakers returned to the barren segment. Porsche rolled out the Boxster, BMW the Z3. And from the folks in Stuttgart came the SLK.
Each had its own unique personality, each its own distinct market niche. Unfortunately for Mercedes, its entry was quickly labeled the “chick car.” Let us go on the record right now: we have nothing against women drivers, nor cars that appeal to the distaff side of the market. But being branded like this runs afoul of the old adage: you can sell a man’s car to a woman, but it’s a challenge to sell a woman’s car to a man — especially in a segment where macho counts.
All this came to mind recently when Mercedes lifted the covers on its second-generation SLK. Though the basic dimensions haven’t changed all that much, appearances would suggest it’s a very different roadster — quite intentionally, company officials readily acknowledge.
If you experience a sense of déjà vu, that’s certainly not surprising. The long, sloping nose, with its yawning air scoops and integrated Mercedes tri-star, has been liberally borrowed from the automaker’s new SLR McLaren. And that $400,000 supercar, in turn, was heavily influenced by the Mercedes/McLaren Formula One racer.
The new SLK is designed to leave no confusion in your mind. It absolutely, unabashedly screams “serious sports car.” And the good news is that it drives like one, as well.
It’s also as close as you can get to a year ‘round, open-top roadster, no matter what part of the country you live in.
On the road to Mallorca
With a cool breeze blowing off the water, we chose to start our day-long journey with the new Vario roof up. The original SLK broke new ground with its retractable hardtop, the automotive equivalent of origami. The new car’s roof is even better: it folds up or down in barely 20 seconds, and has been redesigned to offer more usable trunk space. It also delivers more headroom, while other tweaks to the layout of the new SLK improve legroom, as well.
A hardtop roadster offers a variety of advantages over a ragtop. It’s a lot more theft-resistant, for one thing, and significantly quieter than a conventional convertible. It’s also more pleasant to use in the off-season, when you might be tempted to park a ragtop. Yet there’s little reason to ever put the SLK in the garage, in fact, you may be tempted to keep the top down during all but the chilliest winter months, thanks to a new feature dubbed the AirScarf. The concept is simple: warm air is channeled up through the seat, gently blowing out a vent at the base of the headrest. When your neck feels warm, you feel warm, and that makes it easier to drive al fresco even on downright chilly days.
When it was introduced in 1997, the SLK was powered by an anemic, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and 16-inch wheels. For much of the world, the new roadster will be offered with a dizzying array of engine options. U.S. buyers will have only one choice — at least initially.
The SLK350 boasts a new 3.5-liter V-6 that ups output by 50 horsepower compared to the current SLK320. (And that power’s delivered through new, 17-inch wheels, by the way.) The 268-hp package will launch from 0-100 km/h (0-62.5 mph) in a scant 5.6 seconds. That’s with a six-speed manual gearbox. Mercedes will also offer as an option the world’s first seven-speed automatic. It’s designed to deliver both fuel economy and performance.
While the SLK350 will be the only U.S. model available at the September 2004 introduction, the lineup will soon grow. For the first time, Mercedes plans to offer a V-8 in the SLK. The 360-hp SLK55 AMG promises to cut the 0-100 km/h times down to a beyond-brisk 4.9 seconds. Company officials also hint a 3.0-liter SLK300 will be added in the not-too-distant future, providing a more affordable version of the roadster.
Into the hills
A line of steep mountains bisect the island of Mallorca. A network of well-paved roads crisscrossing that spine provides a perfect opportunity to test out the new SLK.
Along with the new powertrain, there’s an all-new chassis, notably stiffer than the original. That quickly becomes obvious as we charge up and down the weaving mountain roads. The new platform is surprisingly stiff, a refreshing improvement from the original, which was the softest of the three German roadsters.
The suspension has also been beefed up, yet it seems to suck up road bumps, delivering a more comfortable ride than the original SLK.
We were a tad bit disappointed with the new seven-speed automatic, however, finding it a little sluggish on its shifts. That may be resolved with a few tweaks of the system’s computer controller, and we’ll be looking forward to a second chance to test the new gearbox in the near future. We also find the paddle shifter, used for manual mode shifting, a bit odd and difficult to get used to, not always doing what we expect.
The previous SLK — like most Mercedes products — tended to overuse its stability control system. You’d race into a corner and suddenly scream to a virtual halt, the system slamming on the brakes to keep you in control. The new car’s ESP system has been reprogrammed, more in line with the high-performance Mercedes AMG models. We find it now allows us to hang the rear end out in a corner, only kicking in when it seems we are truly ready to lose control.
A new beast entirely
This sort of driving is one way to test a roadster’s seats, and the new SLK doesn’t let us down. They are firm, yet comfortable, keeping us well-planted, no matter how hard we zig and zag.
Unlike its rival, BMW, Mercedes has chosen not to consolidate all its controls in a single, computer-style controller. There are a dizzying array of buttons and displays in the new car’s center console, but because they are organized in logical clusters, each with a different shape, we find it easy to get used to them.
The bottom line is that this is an entirely new SLK. And it’s likely to win over a lot of folks who’d written off the original. It’s fast, it’s fun, it’s handsome. It will still appeal to women, but there’s nothing in the new car that will scare off the macho males, either.
Nothing but the price tag, anyway. The premium for the new SLK is going to be steep, so if you’re penny-pinching, you may choose to wait for the SLK 300.
2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK 350
Base price: mid-$40,000 (est.)
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6 with two-stage variable intake manifold, 268 hp/258 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Length x width x height: 160.7 x 70.4 x 51.1 in
Wheelbase: 95.7 in
Curb weight: 3231 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 22.2 mpg (combined)
Safety equipment:Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control system, six airbags, including driver and passenger knee bags, three-point seat belts
Major standard equipment: power windows, door, seats, power retractable hardtop, AirScarf system, nine-speaker sound system with in-dash CD, antitheft alarm, Tele Aid emergency call system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles