The first piece of good news about Mercedes-Benz's third-generation SLK is that it no longer looks like the wimpy chick car it started life as fifteen years ago. Not that the first SLK wasn't a smash hit right out of the box; the entire production run for 1997 was sold out. The time was right for a compact, premium roadster. But the 2012 SLK finally looks like it bears the same noble genes that spawned the iconic 190SL of the 1950s and today's SL family.
Chief designer Gorden Wagener is succinct on the subject of the SLK's design: "Our sports car recipe is very simple: Long bonnet [hood]; a passenger compartment that is visually almost on top of the rear axle; and a short, snappy tail end." The SLK's newly aggressive road presence is dominated by a large three-pointed star leading the way from the middle of the wide upright radiator grille split by a horizontal chrome blade. It's the new Mercedes-Benz brand look, and it's a powerful one. It's also a particularly sleek one -- in all, design and aero tweaks to the SLK brought its coefficient of drag down from an already impressive 0.32 to 0.30.
A smaller version of that chrome blade highlights a vent tucked inside body creases on each front fender, leading your eye along the SLK's smooth flanks to new tail lamps. Most noticeable at night, the wide horizontal light clusters are made up completely of LEDs, and wrap subtly around each corner into the body sides. A thin strip of LEDs also runs above each headlamp, providing daytime running lights. LEDs not only flick on a fraction faster and last a lot longer than traditional lamps, they can be set to shine with varying intensity, according to function.
Grounding the macho look of the SLK are fairly huge 18-inch, five-spoke wheels shod with meaty 225/35 tires. Our test car had more serious Continental ContiSportContacts 225/40s on the front and 245/35s in back.
Given the test route laid out around Tenerife, the largest of Spain's Canary Islands, we were keen that the new SLK also behave better than that chick car of old. Mercedes loves the Canary Islands for early press drives. For one thing, year-round sunshine is virtually guaranteed. The surprising part is how wicked the roads are: from straight, smooth and fast, to twisty, lumpy, narrow, and scary. You have to be pretty confident in your dynamic expertise to invite wave after wave of international lead foots in over three weeks to thrash the whee out of your new car on such a demanding course. Not that Mercedes engineers suffer from a lack of confidence.
Their confidence was not misplaced. The 2012 SLK is a much more robust car, built on the newest C-class, so everything good about that chassis transfers to the SLK. The basic multilink independent suspension (with forged aluminum hub carriers) has two levels of sporting upgrades -- a lowered suspension with shorter springs and stiffer dampers, and the special order Dynamic Handling package which now allows electronically controlled automatic variable rate dampers with a button that allows you to switch between sport and comfort. Even the most sporting among us were scrambling for the comfort setting once we hit the volcanic interior of the island, where the narrow asphalt strip of road cutting across the national park's Llano de Ucanca had a chewed-up quality that had us nervously checking the third largest volcano in the world for signs of life. The change from sport to comfort was immediate and noticeable.
When the SLK350 hits the States this June, it will be powered the biggest of the C-Class engines -- the DOHC direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6, with 302 hp available at 6500 rpm. The hugely improved seven-speed 7G-Tronic Plus automatic transmission can be managed with steering wheel mounted paddles and the console mounted switch in Manual, but left to its own devices, it's super precise and quite quick in both Sport and the more leisurely ECO modes. Okay, it could be quicker.
The 201-hp, direct-injected turbocharged four-cylinder (which is such a delight in the new C-class) will arrive in the SLK250 "later," with a six-speed automatic transmission or the SLK350's seven-speed as an upgrade. The turbo four is about second slower from 0-60 mph, but it has the same 155 mph top speed with an estimated 23/31 EPA rating versus the V-6's 20/29 city-/highway mpg estimate. Still, the four-cylinder could be even more fun in the SLK than in the C-class. It's about 100 pounds lighter, and makes the SLK250 feel more agile, simpler, and easier to fling around these mountainous roads. A new flat-bottomed steering wheel was the perfect precision instrument with which to direct the flinging.
The real cleverness of the SLK is its approach to top-down motoring. The first SLK was launched with a retractable hardtop -- the "vario roof," which it still sports today. The design is cleverly compact, folding so neatly on itself that it leaves a decent amount of trunk space. When the 2004 replacement came, M-B added the amazing "air scarf" feature -- vents in the headrests that blow warm air around your neck and head, keeping you so toasty with the top down that about 80% of SLKs leave the factory with that option.
In that fine tradition of roadster innovation, M-B has engineered three 2012 SLK top choices: the basic body-color painted vario roof, the optional retractable top with a new panorama glass roof, and the optional panorama glass with 'Magic Sky." With the touch of a button, the "Magic Sky" version of the glass roof switches between clear and opaque transparency. In either light or dark mode, the electrochromic glass blocks both UV and infrared, but dark mode not only shades the interior, it can keep components like armrests up to 18 degrees cooler. Magic indeed. (The SLK's leather interior is also treated to reflect the sun, reducing the temperature of the seats by more than eighteen degrees when it's parked in the sun.)
The top's frame is now magnesium, saving thirteen pounds, and improving the mechanism sped up its operation to twenty seconds (from twenty-five) and opened up a touch more trunk space (now 6.4 cubic feet with top down, and a golf bag-swallowing 10.1 cubic feet with the top up). One more clever new option is Airguide, transparent plastic shields that fit to each roll bar and pivot, allowing personalized adjustment to block cabin turbulence.
There's never been an excess of room inside the SLK, and the new model is no different. A 6'2" passenger with a 34-inch inseam just fit with his back against the wall, trading seatback rake for precious legroom. But the seats are perfectly comfortable and supportive, with high side bolsters, and active safety headrests to reduce whiplash risk in a rear collision. New head bags are incorporated in the doors and thorax bags in the upper seatbacks to protect driver and passenger in side collisions, and Attention Assist monitors drowsy driving behavior, sending a vibration through the wheel when a dotted lane marker is crossed.
Other new SLK options include the Parktronic with parking guidance, Keyless-Go, COMAND with a 7-inch color display that replaces the standard model's new 5.8-inch color display, red ambient lightning during exit and entry, and active bi-xenon headlamps with curve illumination. Most options are bundled into a variety of packages, as usual.
A rich variety of exterior colors are available. The most subliminally wicked color -- one which drew everyone who saw it -- was called "designo magno glacier grey," a striking matte grey paint that is part of the very exotic and optional "designo" line. Inside, the designo titanium grey/black leather sported matte-finish silver leather seat and door trim, which was a tad more disco than evil.
Prices on both SLK350 and SLK250 have yet to be revealed. Perhaps at that time, Mercedes-Benz will also confirm an AMG version of SLK to follow, although the hints were broad enough to assume the obvious.