Let me just say right off the bat that I love the new SLK350. Let me also say that I was not a huge fan of previous SLKs, and I downright didn't like the four-cylinder models. At this point I should also admit that my friends made fun of me while I was driving the SLK. But just a little.
See, now that Mercedes has made numerous changes to the SLK's mechanical bits and interior quality, its biggest problem is its image. My friend Sarah said the SLK looked like a car for lawyers' wives. My friend Scott, her boyfriend, said it made me look like the lawyer's boyfriend. Ouch.
Potential image issues aside, I put 200 miles on the SLK350 in a few days, and wound up not tiring of it. Which is more than I can say about some other cute little convertibles I've driven in the last few weeks (Mazda's MX-5 and Mini's Cooper S convertible, to name just two). And the best parts of the SLK were things that I never expected: the engine and the steering.
First of all, Mercedes has installed its Direct-Steer System on the SLK. The idea behind this system is that the steering ratio should be relatively slow on-center to reduce dartiness, but should quicken as you turn the wheel further. Rather than going the BMW Active Steering route, which uses a computer to control the constantly varying steering ratio, Mercedes chose the right route: the Porsche way. In place of complex actuators, pumps, and computers, the Mercedes system requires no additional parts - the rack is designed to change to a quicker ratio after a certain amount of lock.
Unlike in the BMW models with Active Steering, where you're always second-guessing what the result of your steering input will be, you don't even notice the Mercedes system. You just notice that the SLK has fantastic on-center steering feel, tracks dead straight ahead even at triple-digit speeds, and then turns in progressively and quickly when the road twists. The system gives the SLK a feel of sportiness that it's been missing since day one.
That second big fix is the engine. Turn the key, and the SLK350's 3.5-liter V-6 will surprise you with its throaty exhaust note. Stomp on the gas, and you'll be positively shocked. This is one of the best-sounding V-6 engines on sale today, if not the best. The new engine revs to 7200 rpm, and the seven-speed automatic bangs off quick shifts through closely spaced gears. I kept slowing down so I could floor it and hear the music again and again.
The new engine isn't just all bark and no bite: horsepower has been increased by 32 compared to last year's 3.5-liter. Producing an even 300 hp at 6500 rpm and 265 lb-ft at 4900, the SLK is seriously quick. Mercedes claims that it'll hit 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, which is only four tenths slower than the V-8-powered SLK55 AMG. The V-6's newfound thrust comes courtesy of a higher compression ratio (11.7:1), a new intake manifold, and modifications to the valvetrain. To sweeten the deal, the 350 actually gets better fuel economy than last year's engine.
If there is one fault with the SLK350, it's that it's not available with a manual transmission. The base SLK300 is, though it's considerably slower (228 hp, 221 lb-ft, 0-to-60 mph in 5.1 seconds), only revs to 6500 rpm, and doesn't sound nearly as good.
The rest of the driving experience in the SLK is just as pleasant as its exhaust note: the suspension is taut but gives a surprisingly smooth ride at highway speeds. Handling is fairly neutral, and grip is prodigious. Brake feel is excellent, and cross-drilled rotors stay quiet all the time. The chassis is remarkably solid and free of scuttle shake. The transmission is only occasionally slow to react to sudden throttle inputs, and I was disappointed that the non-AMG SLK models lack a full manual mode.
The interior is finished with materials that are a quantum leap from the first SLK's, and a medium-sized suitcase can fit in the trunk even with the top lowered. A simple mesh wind blocker stretches across the roll hoops, and combined with heated seats, a powerful heater, and the delectable Airscarf (which blows warm air on your neck), makes top-down Interstate-speed cruising comfortable even when it's cold. In fact, even at speeds up to 120 mph, airflow is remarkably well controlled in the cabin with the top down.
Mercedes' new, enhanced stereo system sounds fantastic, and the iPod integration works well. Unfortunately, the small screen on the dashboard appears to have the same resolution as a 1980s monochrome computer monitor. Thankfully, it can be switched off completely.
I wonder if some of the SLK's target customers (those lawyers' wives) will tire of the 350's exhaust note, but I certainly wouldn't. In fact, other than my friends' accusations that I was that lawyer's wife, I wouldn't tire of the SLK at all. Hats off to Mercedes for turning the SLK into a real sports car. If it were available with a manual transmission, it would even give the Porsche Boxster a run for its money, and that's high praise indeed.