First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK

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.

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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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