Toe-to-toe at last
We've been waiting a long time for this meeting. The predecessors to the two cars you see here debuted back in the booming late 1990s, but were as different as Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, or Friends and Seinfeld. The bulldog-faced Z3 oozed machismo, performance, and back-to-basics simplicity. James Bond drove one. The SLK, in contrast, had a steel folding hard top, came in colors like copper and electric green, and had recirculating-ball steering. Your wife wanted one.
It's a lot more complicated these days. Everyone knows Newt's a philanderer, too, and no one knows what's on NBC Thursday nights. More to the point, with the two-seat convertible segment shriveling to a size that can no longer support multiple niches, BMW and Mercedes have moved away from their extremes and have, in the process, created very similar roadsters. In the Z3's transformation to the Z4 and now the second-generation Z4, it aped the SLK's luxurious appointments and its folding hardtop. Mercedes, meanwhile, has quietly injected testosterone into its "chick car" such that the new SLK350, which went on sale earlier this month, puts down 302 hp and carves corners like an honest-to-goodness sports car. Call it evolution; call it regression to the mean; call it business. We'd call it the makings of a great showdown.
Uniqueness counts. Or does it?
A comparison of lesser hardtop convertibles would no doubt spend much time talking about which did a better job disguising the frumpy rear quarters. This, however, is the master class, and there's no trace of awkwardness in either our diamond white metallic SLK350 or Melbourne red metallic Z4 sDrive35is. Instead, we can consider the SLK and Z4 on the merits of their overall design.
Much like buying the cheapest house in a ritzy neighborhood, the SLK clearly benefits aesthetically from having very expensive older siblings. The roofline whispers "SL550" and the upright front end barks "SLS AMG." And yet unlike the last model's drooping SLR McLaren nose, the cues on the new SLK don't seem tacked on in a vain effort to convince dates that you're a movie star rather than an orthodontist. It's convincing, mature, and masculine without being butch.