If you’re a driving enthusiast who calculates slip angles, kvetches about the inability to fully defeat stability controls, obsesses over your last gymkhana performance, and regularly dials in steering with the sole of your right foot, this is not the small roadster for you (give BMW a call; the Z4 sDrive35is is waiting). However, if you’re an enthusiast of driving — be it spirited or casual, competitive or cruising — the SLK350 is perhaps the most well rounded choice in its segment.
Is it quick? Yes — the 3.5-liter V-6 gains direct fuel injection for 2012 and sees its output jump to 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. Is it as frantic as the BMW? Not quite, and because it retains a conventional automatic transmission, gear changes aren’t quite as snappy, either. But it is comfortable, far more so than the Z4. Suspension tuning is firm and the car offers plenty of grip yet manages to soak up the harshest asphalt and biggest potholes without chipping your vertebrae.
Better yet, it offers a stylish interior that’s also pleasant to use on a daily basis. Cupholders are well placed, switchgear is cleanly arranged, and Benz’s Comand control knob makes flipping through menus a breeze. Another thoughtful touch? The center console lid automatically locks itself when you lock the car, allowing its contents to remain secure, even when parked with the top down.
Is the BMW a little more fun to drive? Perhaps around a closed course, at least, but for those looking to enjoy open-sky motoring at its finest — if not necessarily its fastest — it’s hard to beat this package.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
The exterior redesign of the new SLK is very handsome. The styling is not quite so cute as that of the old SLK — the car’s whole demeanor is now more aggressive, with a wider grille opening and hard lines on the flanks where there used to be soft curves. As one would expect from Mercedes, the two-tone leather and wood trim in the interior are top-notch, but I didn’t really pay it that much attention, as sunny weather beckoned on the day I drove the SLK. The only problem was that it took me a while to find the button to lower the convertible top (it’s located inside the center console bin). Perhaps it’s placed there for security reasons, but it would be nice if it were somewhere on the dash or at the forward part of the center console, so that I didn’t have to twist his or her torso awkwardly to lower the top.
Other than that minor bit of nitpicking, the driving experience in the SLK is quite satisfying. The seven-speed automatic delivers the power of the V-6 engine smoothly, and if you want to shift for yourself, there are shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel (right for upshifts, left for downshifts). The ride is neither too firm nor too soft, and while you can’t help but feel some of the bumps and irregularities in the road surface, they are nicely modulated.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I really liked our test car’s white paint over a tan and black interior. The new Magic Sky Control roof is super trick: simply push a button and the glass roof darkens or lightens instantly to either let the sun in or block it out. It’s the latest chapter in Mercedes-Benz’s continual obsession with improving every aspect of the open-air experience, a trend that began with the last-generation SLK’s AirScarf, a feature that returns in the new SLK (warm air blows out of the headrest onto your neck). With the SLK’s top and windows down, you can still hear the stereo well. I see that the SLK has the same groovy, flat-bottom steering wheel as the new CLS four-door coupe; it’s a great steering wheel, just the right size and with the right amount of heft.
There’s no question, the SLK is definitely sportier than before, yet it’s more refined than the one-dimensional BMW Z4 roadster. Put the transmission in S for Sport mode, and you get strong, linear acceleration away from an intersection by simply stomping the gas pedal. Want to take more control? The shift paddles deliver downshifts pretty crisply. There’s a great exhaust note, and a nice raspiness from the V-6. The car feels drum-tight when you bang over a series of railroad tracks, too.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
My disappointment could be seen in every mirror I looked in. My twelve hours in this car saw nothing but gray wet clouds. No topless activities for me to report on this fine little gem. This car is everything a Mercedes-Benz should be, in a tiny, very refined package. When I left the office and arrived at the gym, I was able to park next to an older black SLK. The contrast was dramatic both in the colors and in the lines of the cars. While doing cardio, I could see gearheads linger around the duo to contrast and compare. This is the first car I have been in that my Gulfstream G5 coffee mug would not fit into the cupholders. It is as if they were designed for a Red Bull can or some other slender beverage containers.
Kelly Murphy, Creative Director
As a brand, Mercedes-Benz doesn’t ooze passion quite like BMW does. But as a car, I’m always surprised, impressed, and smitten by how Mercedes-Benzes endear themselves to me. This new SLK350 is no exception, winning my heart with typical Benz sophistication and refinement while still maintaining an air of driving fun.
The SLK’s compact exterior gives way to an unexpectedly spacious cabin that exudes old-school, understated luxury. This Benz doesn’t dazzle like a new Audi, but it does boast long-lasting comfort, excellent materials, and impeccable build quality. The goofy Magic Sky Control name redeems itself in the novelty of the technology. Whether the roof is completely transparent or fully dimmed, Magic Sky Control allows for open-air ambiance even when the weather forces you to keep the top up.
The real marvel, though, is that Mercedes has made the new SLK so responsive and simultaneously so comfortable. Tear down a road with the new 302-hp V-6 snarling at the top of the tach, and the SLK delivers unexpected competence in nearly ever facet. The steering is particularly adept, with immediate turn-in and great weighting. Most important, the superb suspension tuning keeps body motions under tight control but never feels too stiff. True, the SLK350 isn’t a sharp-edged, back-road bomber, but as a stylish, luxurious way to enjoy driving, it is an excellent car.
Eric Tingwall, Assistant Editor
When this third-generation SLK made its debut at the end of last year, it was unsurprising that Mercedes had again shrunk its flagship sports car’s look to create the SLK’s design. (In this case it was the SLS AMG; the previous generation cribbed from the SLR McLaren.) My initial reaction to the car’s styling was that it was very plain and that Mercedes was making up for putting that pointed schnoz on the previous-generation car. However, the more time I spent with the little roadster, the more the design’s nuances revealed themselves.
The SLK has petite proportions — it’s almost two feet shorter than a C-class sedan — but is no longer a chick car. It has a new sense of athleticism. The design team at Mercedes created a car that has the feeling of forward movement through subtle side strakes, curving hips, and simple taillights. The upright, rectangular grille makes the little roadster stand out in a crowd and proudly declares with a large three-pointed star, “I am a Mercedes-Benz.”
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
Yes, the SLK has become much more masculine for 2012. But it’s not as if making the SLK more masculine was a difficult task. The exterior of the SLK has a much more convincing look than ever before, and there’s more than enough performance to satisfy most shoppers.
Despite these improvements, I still can’t connect with the SLK on an emotional level. The SLK appeals to a wider array of buyers than a Porsche Boxster, an Audi TT, or a BMW Z4 because it’s the most refined car in the group. I don’t require a roadster to be as focused on performance as a Boxster or a Z4 to make an emotional connection — the $23,905 Mazda Miata that we have for the summer provides lots of emotional appeal without being fast or luxurious. Mercedes just insulates the car so well and the suspension soaks up bumps so well that the interior is much more memorable than the actual driving experience. There’s nothing wrong with this approach – but I don’t have a hard time handing the keys back when my turn behind the wheel is over.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
The 2012 SLK doesn’t look like a chick car anymore, but it still feels like one from behind the wheel, especially if you’re stopped at a traffic light and gaze around at your surroundings. The cabin just doesn’t look or feel very sporty to me (especially with this wood trim). But no matter how you spec an SLK, it doesn’t have the sporty edge of its competitors.
I didn’t drive them back-to-back, but the BMW Z4 is clearly the sportier, more fun car of this pair. Plus I like the Bimmer’s looks better than those of this Benz. The Benz is definitely the more livable of the two, however, whether you’re talking cupholders or ride quality.
The SLK boasts some very cool features, including tiny dome lights on the A-pillars. The Magic Sky Control sunroof seems very desirable, but the weather was way too nice for me to drive this car with the roof closed. With the windows fully down, quite a bit of rushing air hit me in the face, so I raised the driver’s window six inches or so on my late-night drive home. In the morning, when the temps were warmer, it wasn’t as bothersome.
I really like Mercedes-Benz’s new interior switchgear: the buttons for the heated/cooled seats, for instance, look like they’re wrought of solid aluminum and feel very nice to the touch. Also to its credit is this Benz’s strong engine note and quick-shifting transmission. Acceleration isn’t phenomenal, but it’s more than adequate. Handling is as good as most SLK buyers will ever want. Still, the SLK is no track star, and any German roadster shoppers who want a car with superlative handling should look at the evergreen Porsche Boxster.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350
Base price (with destination): $55,675
Price as tested: $66,805
● 3.5-liter V-6
● 7-speed automatic
● 18-in. five-spoke alloy wheels
● Variable-ratio power steering
● Electronic stability control with traction control
● Adaptive brakes w/auto brake drying, brake priming, & hill-start assist
● Attention Assist system
● Rain-sensing windshield wipers
● Tire pressure monitoring system
● SmartKey w/infrared-remote opening/closing of windows
● Leather upholstery w/contrast stitching
● 8-way power seats w/memory
● Power tilt/telescoping steering column
● Heated power side mirrors w/power fold-in
● Auto dimming rearview mirrors
● Power locks/windows
● Cruise control
● Audio system w/8 speakers, HD radio, AUX jack, & USB port
Options on this vehicle:
● Diamond white metallic — $720
● Premium 1 package — $2590
o Heated seats
o iPod/MP3 media interface
o SiriusXM satellite radio
o Harman/kardon logic7 surround sound system
o Infrared-remote hardtop operation
● Lighting package — $1090
o Bi-xenon headlamps with active curve illumination
o Headlamp washers
● Multimedia package — $2150
o Command system with 80GB HD navigation
o SiriusXM Traffic and Weather
o Navigation with enhanced voice control
o 10GB music register
o 6-DVD/CD changer
o SD card reader
o Gracenote media database with album-cover art
● Panorama sunroof with Magic Sky Control — $2500
● Dual-zone climate control — $760
● Airguide windstop — $350
● Trim package — $990
o Hand-polished burl walnut wood trim
o Wood/leather steering wheel and shift knob
Key options not on vehicle:
● Sport package — $2500
o Sport body styling
o 18-in. AMG 5-spoke alloy wheels
o Direct ambient lighting in solar red
20 / 29 / 25 mpg
Horsepower: 302 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 273 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
Curb weight: 3397 lb
Wheels/tires: 18-in. alloy wheels
224/40R18 front and 245/35R18 rear high-performance tires