First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK

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 was nothing good about the C class suspension that I drove back in 2008. I am the only one that find the ride more econobox than German luxury? Comparing this suspension to the C class does it no favors. Surely it deserves more text on the subject.

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