2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Senior Editor
November 25, 2004

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2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK 350 by TCC Team (3/22/2004)
New face, new game.

There are plenty of sports car models that started out well conceived, focused, and edgy, and over time lost their way. The Mercedes-Benz SLK is an exception. The outgoing ’98-’04 version started out as a nice-looking roadster that from the start lacked the raw excitement and performance focus to be considered a sports car. With its original supercharged four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission, it was a little too soft, more of a tourer than a traditional roadster. Adding the later 3.2-liter V-6 or the AMG 5.5-liter V-8 gave it satisfying thrust but didn’t make it any more of a sports car. But the redesigned ’05 SLK introduces more of a sports-car edge.

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Starting out with the outward appearance of the SLK, the “masculine” styling elements in front, inspired by the Mercedes McLaren SLR supercar — with horizontal bar, large lower air dam, and prominent three-pointed star — bring a newfound presence and stance to the SLK. From the side, the profile is more curvaceous and sexy than the old car. Overall, the coefficient of drag has been lowered to 0.34. Based on the reactions of colleagues and the public, the only place where the SLK fails to woo with its styling is from the back, where the rounded, more bulbous tail reminded us a little bit of more pedestrian sedans and coupes.

No more girly buyers

No surprise, Mercedes-Benz described the audience of the new car as being younger and more male. The outgoing SLK has become known as the roadster of choice among professional women, and women made up more than half of buyers, but this time Mercedes focused on making it a little more masculine and is hoping for more male buyers in the mix.

From the side, the roadster’s shape is familiar but a little more wedge-like than before, from the more pointed front through the beltline that now angles up toward the tail — a look now shared with the somewhat related Chrysler Crossfire. Fixed roll bars now sit just behind the seats.

Inside, it’s a swoopier take on familiar packaging. You still sit quite low, between a high beltline and a high center console that’s over a rather tall drive tunnel. The seating position seemed a little awkward. The footwells are deep and cocoon-like, yet you sit relatively upright, and your forehead is actually quite close to the top edge of the windshield. The shifter is at the far forward section of the center console, and a reach if you’re back in the seat. The console curves up at the back, so this lanky driver had trouble knowing what to do with his elbow while shifting.

Cosmetically, though, the changes are quite dramatic. It’s all a full step more upscale, with cues here and there borrowed from the larger SL. Gone is the old-style parts-bin instrument cluster. Fortunately, M-B has kept with large, easy-to-read round gauges rather than the slightly more difficult arc-style gauges featured in their sedans. An analog clock is still part of the display, but there’s no temperature gauge. By and large, controls are intuitive, but first-time drivers seem to complain about how the two stalks on the left can be confused — the top for the cruise control and the bottom for the turn signals and wipers. You get used to it quickly. A three-spoke steering wheel includes various controls and allows a clear view of the gauges.

COMAND or naught

One thing you don’t get used to quickly — and something you not want anyway if you shop for a seat-of-your-pants roadster — is the complicated screen-driven control interface, called COMAND, that comes with the optional DVD-based navigation system and color LCD screen. Otherwise a monochromatic trip-computer display is standard in its place. Unfortunately, it’s almost unreadable in bright sunlight, where it bleaches out.

The new SLK is powered by a hotter double-overhead-cam version of the familiar Mercedes-Benz V-6, now with four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing for both the intake and exhaust valves. Intake and exhaust breathing has been completely reworked; electrohydraulic variable valve timing and a two-stage intake manifold help bring more torque to the low- and mid-rpm range without giving up smoothness or all-out high-rpm power. It’s rated at 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Mercedes actually claims the much more powerful 3.5-liter is slightly more frugal versus the outgoing SLK’s 3.2-liter.

Start the engine, and the sound is the first thing you’ll notice. A much more masculine exhaust note asserts itself. It’s a well-tuned companion, burbly at idle, raucous and just a tease juvenile on hard acceleration, and — unlike the Nissan 350Z — quiet on the steady-speed cruise.

In a time when few automakers boast about improving the quality of their manual gearboxes, Mercedes-Benz claims advances in the shift quality of its standard six-speed manual transmission. The six-speed has a rod linkage and shorter, smoother, more precise gates than the last-gen SLK. The clutch is a little on the heavy side (probably required by the torquey engine), and there’s still some driveline lash, preventing the shifts from being as smooth as they could be, but the shift quality is much-improved compared with the manual shift offered on recent SLK and C-Class models.

The variable valve timing and controlled breathing mean the engine is flexible and torquey in about any situation. You can lug along from just over 1000 rpm in any gear, and it will actually accelerate slowly without a shudder or complaint. Drop down a gear, so the revs are up even slightly, and there’s tremendous power at your command.

Seven-speed auto a first

2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK 350

2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK 350

A completely new seven-speed automatic transmission is optional on the SLK. The Mercedes-Benz-designed unit is said to be the world’s first seven-speed auto, with gains in both performance and fuel economy possible though a wider spread of gear ratios. The torque converter lockup clutch engages in all gears for a more direct feel, and better efficiency, and the transmission can skip up to three gears in downshifting. In full-throttle highway passing, though, this meant two separate — although almost seamless — downshifts.

The seven-speed shifted well under most conditions, but in ‘Drive’ on a tightly curved mountain road with lots of smaller ups and downs the electronically controlled transmission didn’t seem to want to stay in a lower gear on uphills or around corners as it might. If you opt to go through the gears yourself with the Touch Shift manual control, it forces upshifts well before the 6500-rpm redline. Of course there are minor complaints and overall, for everyday driving, the new automatic is one of the best.

Speaking of bests, the new SLK offers the best performance in its class. With the six-speed, it can sprint to 60 in a claimed 5.4 seconds, slightly faster than the Honda S2000, Porsche Boxster S, and BMW Z4 3.0i, and significantly speedier than the Audi TT V6.

Of course a more honed sports car must handle and brake especially well, too. Big disc brakes provide stopping power all around, with 13-inch perforated/ventilated discs and 4-piston calipers for the front. Pedal feel is good. As with the former SLK, different-size tires are used, front to back, with 225-width in front and 245-width in back.

The 2004 SLK was one of the last holdovers in the M-B lineup with the old-style recirculating-ball steering setup, but for ’05 a new rack-and-pinion setup replaces it. Mercedes-Benz boasts that the new system gives sharper and more direct steering response, but it seems that engineers tuned the system to have a very strong on-center feel, like the old recirculating-ball steering, and in doing so it’s just not as sharp as it could and should be. The ’05 SLK’s steering is an improvement, but it still lacks the sharp turn-in feel and edgy steering response of its competition. For most buyers, that shouldn’t matter, but might for those who look for a serious sports car and cross-shop with the edgy Boxster or S2000.

Handling fair and balanced

But probably the biggest news with the new SLK can be found on a track, at the limits of adhesion. It’s good news. The retuned suspension and new steering gear bring more balanced, entertaining handling without the unsettled feeling in back that the old SLK would sometimes get near the limit. Front-to-back weight transfer on tight corners on the throttle seems much more controlled. The latest version of M-B’s Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is more helpful and much less obtrusive than former versions of the system. Now, with faster updating and processing, plus improved algorithms, ESP is now the best of both worlds, helping keep out of trouble on the road by detecting slides and understeer or oversteer situations and countering them at the start. It’s now so unobtrusive that sometimes you only know the system is active by the blinking “!” dash light. It’s a very effective companion and helper in high-performance driving to all but the most experienced drivers.

While the Mazdaspeed Miata and Honda S2000 are a lot of fun at low speeds, the SLK doesn’t hit its pace until around the legal limit and pulls especially strongly in the 60-90 mph range. With the hardtop up, we briefly hit about 110 mph on a straight, and there was less wind noise that you’d get from a typical sunroof. Wind buffeting with the top down was equally impressive.

Mercedes is using a new type of clearcoat paint on the SLK that holds its gloss longer and is highly scratch-resistant, thanks to a new “nanotechnology” process that incorporates ceramic particles into its molecular structure.

Coming with the optional ($950) heated seats is an especially clever new feature in the SLK that we didn’t have the chance to experience: the innovative new AIRSCARF system, which provides heated air to the neck area, intended for top-down motoring in cool weather. The heater unit is small and self-contained, mounting inside the seatback.

Folding hardtop and safety features unmatched

The SLK’s unique folding hardtop still sets it apart from the rest of the small luxury roadsters. The SLK’s retractable hardtop still really sets it apart from other roadsters. With some changes in its design for the new SLK, the roof can now go up and down in 22 seconds, and it takes up less trunk space with a clever pivoting rear window. When in place, the retracting hardtop also acts to help reinforce the body structure.

The SLK remains the most safety-focused of the compact roadsters, with a serious list of safety features almost as long as on the automaker’s high-end sedans. Two-stage front airbags, belt tensioners and force limiters, new head/thorax side airbags, and knee airbags help protect occupants in the event of a crash, and the systems are interlinked through a central processing unit to help sequence the deployment of each measure. The side bags can deploy if the hardtop is up or down, and there’s also a rollover sensor that tenses the seatbelts and activates the side airbags.

The SLK is also one of the few roadsters to provide real rollover protection. The fixed roll bars behind the seats and braced, reinforced A-pillars are designed to hold their position. The unique hardtop design also still makes the SLK the safest of the smaller roadsters, no doubt.

M-B invested a lot of time and resources to make the SLK a much better car than before, but the roadster market just isn't what it was eight years ago. Mercedes says that the buyers of the new SLK will be less concerned with luxury and convenience and more focused on performance and innovation.

A matter of taste

Although the SLK320 is now the fastest of the affordable roadsters — and feels like a true sports car — it still doesn’t have the lightness of the Miata or the raw roadster feel of the S2000, or the racy feel of the Boxster S. You trade some of those qualities off for a stouter feel on the road, as Mercs are known for. If I were to choose one of the current crop of roadsters to drive across the country, it would be the SLK. Whether you want something that feels edgy or looks edgy is a matter of taste.

The SLK350 is a nice, powerful, balanced, touring-friendly sports car. But for the power-hungry, an SLK55 AMG model — offering a 362-hp, 5.5-liter V-8, a Speedshift seven-speed transmission, and extensive equipment modifications — goes on sale this month.

The SLK is just as civil, refined, safe, and luxurious as ever, but more of a playful bad boy this time around.


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2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK350
Base price:
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 268 hp; 258 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
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 mpg): 18/25 manual; 19/25 auto
Safety equipment: Dual front two-stage airbags, head/thorax side airbags, knee airbags, seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters, anti-lock brakes, automatic headlamps, ESP stability control, TeleAid, fixed roll bars, rollover sensor, front and rear fog lamps
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone climate control, keyless entry, leather seating, heated power mirrors, cruise control, power windows/locks/mirrors, tilt/telescope steering wheel, AM/FM/CD sound system, 17-inch alloy wheels
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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