To me, the SLK’s recent revisions have helped it become less of a “hairdresser’s car,” as it’s sometimes derogatively called in the UK. Sure, the subtle tweaks to the interior and exterior styling play a part in this, but a bigger improvement lies in Mercedes-Benz’s new “direct-steer” rack, which greatly enhances the sportiness of the SLK. Michigan roads aren’t great for sampling this new system, but the improved steering was plainly clear when I drove this car in the mountains near Nice, France, in spring 2008, when M-B launched the ’09 SLK family. The upgraded 3.5-liter V-6 (with 32 more hp and 7 more lb-ft of torque) doesn’t hurt either, and it sounds pleasantly muscular. Overall, Benz’s most compact roadster is attractive, nimble, and easy to drive. Still, if I were going to spend $50K on a roadster ($60K as tested in this case), I’d almost certainly go straight for a Porsche Boxster, which is more fun to drive, more masculine, better-balanced, and also offers a slick stick-shift gearbox.
This particular SLK350 test car features a strange wind blocker that looks like someone stretched pantyhose between the rollhoops. Wind management doesn’t seem to be improved enough to warrant the weird aesthetic treatment. SLKs typically excel in cabin comfort anyway, though, thanks to the optional heated seats and AirScarf, which blows heavenly warm air onto your neck. Every convertible should have such a convenience.
I drove the SLK to the grocery store last night, and the decent-size trunk easily swallowed my booty. Still, with the top down, the trunk is difficult to access because the hard top parts significantly cut down on the size of the trunk opening. Hardtop convertibles such as the Volvo C70, for instance, have a handy button that allows you to raise the top mechanism several inches for loading/unloading.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
I think I’m in love with AirScarf. Call me crazy, but I drove around on a 72-degree day with the top down and the seat heaters on and warm air wafting around my neck, and I loved it. I couldn’t stop; it was like some weird, quasi-futuristic Warm Suit, or a glimpse into what my life would be like as a hot-flashing woman. Probably the best convertible feature ever invented, although I’m not convinced that the blower motor is strong enough to keep up an actual fall or winter day. But call me a sucker for gadgets: I still think it’s cool.
Rusty’s right-the SLK’s recent revisions make it less of a hairdresser’s car and less of a poser-mobile, but I still felt a bit too much like Paris Hilton’s dog (or a frost-tipped Nick Lachey) while driving it. Style counts more than substance here, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, both the Porsche Boxster and the aging BMW Z4 offer a bit more of both.
Still, the Mercedes trumps the rest of the segment in comfort and long-distance usability, even given its small trunk. And the updates make a tangible, noticeable difference. The revised steering offers much better feedback and mid-corner response, and the new engine sounds a heck of a lot better-meatier and more guttural-than the old one. Unsupportive seats, a sluggish transmission, and a slightly porky chassis are the most noticeable downsides. And while the SLK’s interior feels both robust and durable, its materials and surfaces lack the crafted, soft-touch charm that you get in a Boxster or Z4.
Sam Smith, Associate Editor
I cannot disagree with any of the comments made by my colleagues about the SLK: it’s a meatier, faster, better-looking, more satisfying car than it used to be. It’s also pretty darn expensive, with our fully loaded test car checking in at $60,225, a price point where more substantial automotive thrills can be found. I couldn’t help but think of Automobile Magazine’s Four Seasons 1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK320, which stickered for about $42,000. Then again, it was a stubby little thing, saddled with a 185-hp, 2.3-liter supercharged four-cylinder engine mated to a horribly calibrated, five-speed automatic transmission. So, let me see: add ten years of inflation, much better driving dynamics, much better body styling, and a 300-hp V-6, and our 2009 SLK350 test car doesn’t seem so overpriced, after all.
Joe DeMatio, Executive Editor
Can’t add much to the above comments, so let me take this opportunity to vent about a feature on all Mercedes-Benzes that has bugged me for several years. Why, oh why, is the cruise control stalk located so close to the blinker stalk? I can’t tell you how many times in the last few years I’ve accidentally engaged cruise control while trying to signal a lane change. I did it again shortly after I hopped behind the steering wheel of the SLK350. So I had a stern talking-to with myself to HIT THE CORRECT STALK when signaling. Not five minutes later, I accidentally activated the cruise control when I wanted to signal a lane change. And then I did it again ten minutes later! Perhaps I’m just a slow learner, but I prefer to think of it as an ergonomic failure of the highest order.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I am late to this party, so let me bounce around.Thank you, Amy, for exposing the fact that, after so many years, we still grab the cruise control stalk instead of the turn signal stalk. IT MAKES ME NUTS! But I have to say, it is one of the most exacting speed controls in the business. It lasers in on your selected speed and you can precisely choose to raise and lower the upper limit in one-mph increments. Exactly.
As for all that hairdresser talk, clearly the past weighs heavily on the SLK name, much the same as the bad years of sissy BMW 3-series’ relationship with yuppie stockbrokers made it difficult to turn opinion when the 3-series got its act together. I’m quick to forgive, never mind that it’s my job. The face of the SLK is fairly “penetrating,” if you know what I mean, and I think you do. The interior is ruthlessly black-on-black.
Trunk room? Let’s remember that this is a roadster, a roadster with a folding hard top. It’s amazing that there’s ANY trunk, let alone one that will hold four grocery bags, a backpack, and a rolling briefcase. Height is the key to packing well.
I took a trip to northern Michigan and had a duffle, the aforementioned briefcase and backpack, and put the top down while waiting at a traffic light. It was a fantastic, breezy summer day, just perfect for a long easy cruise. The engine is reasonably powerful, although it doesn’t take your breath away. It also doesn’t empty your wallet: EPA is 18 city/26 highway.
The day following my happy little drive north brought a deluge that flooded my dirt drive. Stupidly, I drove right into it, keeping steady pressure on the accelerator, and made it through about a half-mile of water (traction control blinking frantically on the dash the entire way) without a problem. I wouldn’t suggest anyone else try that, however.
And last but not least: Sam, Air Scarf is not even close to what it’s like to be a hot-flashing woman. Because Air Scarf is nice.
Jean Jennings, President & Editor-in-Chief
2009 Mercedes Benz SLK350
Base Price (with destination): $ 50,825
Price as tested: $60,225
– Palladium Silver Paint – $720
– Digital Automatic Climate Control – $730
– Premium I Package – $2950
– Lighting Package – $1030
– Multimedia Package – $2980
– Heating Package – $990
-18 / 26 / 21 (city/hwy/combined)
– 3.5 Liter, 24-Valve Aluminum V-6
– Sequential Multipoint Fuel Injection
-Horsepower: 300 @ 6500 rpm
-Torque: 256 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm
– 7-speed automatic with Touch Shift
– 225/45 R17 High Performance
– 245/40 R17 High Performance