I sat unblinking in the dark office, my chin and forehead pressed against a metal frame, and as my eye doctor slowly maneuvered a glowing purple circle thing up against my eyeball, he began telling me how much he likes his Mercedes-Benz SLK. "The car's been perfect," he said, as I tried to remain motionless. "When I bought it, I also looked at the Porsche Boxster. We took the car out and the salesman was saying, 'Aren't you going to put it through its paces?' and I said, 'But this is how I drive.'"
As hard as it is for auto reviewers to understand, most drivers -- even drivers of expensive European roadsters -- do not spend their time racing around at 10/10ths, lapping Willow Springs. So while the SLK is probably doomed to never beat a Porsche Boxster in a magazine or web site comparison test, plenty of real-world buyers happily choose it over its more overtly sporty competitors.
With the latest SLK -- the third generation since this car's debut as a 1998 model -- one gets the feeling that Mercedes-Benz is comfortable with what the car is, and what it is not. It is not an aggressive, high-strung, high-performance sports car. It is a comfortable, stylish, sporty, luxurious two-seat convertible.
Speaking of style, this has to be the most successful SLK design to date. The original effort was kind of a mishmash of disparate elements, with a grille and headlights that were rounded-off, nondescript slab sides, and a rear end that featured very angular taillights. The second iteration was dominated by the strange projection at the front end, which was supposed to suggest an F1 car but ended up just looking oddly phallic. The new version has a more upright grille housing a large, three-pointed star, sheetmetal that is more creased, and an overall look that's much closer to its larger, more expensive siblings -- never a bad idea.
The SLK pioneered the retractable hardtop in this segment, a feature that is perfectly in tune with the car's character. For 2012, the top has some new innovations. The hardtop is now optionally available with either a tinted glass roof panel (Panorama sunroof, $500) or with a tinted glass roof panel whose opacity can be adjusted (Magic Sky Control sunroof, $2500). My car had the fixed-tint glass panel roof, which brightens the interior a bit when the roof is up but also allows it to heat up more in the sun (there is no shade). Outward visibility remains good with the top up -- one of the benefits of a retractable hardtop over a soft top. Another is quietness, and indeed the SLK is coupe-quiet on the highway. One downside of a folding metal roof is that they tend to take up quite a bit of trunk space, and that's the case here, although you might be able to go away for the weekend using only the 6.4 cubic feet until the retractable divider that must be in place to lower the roof; if you need all 10.1 cubic feet, then you won't be able to put the top down until you get to where you're going.
The cabin, at least, is comfortable for a long haul, with a good driving position and plenty of room for two, but again, there's not a lot of space for stuff. The seats are well shaped, as is the steering wheel rim. Two options help to extend the top-down driving season. Mercedes' Air Scarf is basically an air vent at the base of the headrests that can blow warm air onto the back of your neck. My SLK was so equipped and on my one slightly chilly day with the car, it worked as advertised. A second option (not on my test car) is called Air Guide, which consists of curved pieces of plexiglass that attach behind the rollover bars and can be positioned to reduce buffeting, although there's already a standard mesh wind deflector that fits in between the rollover bars.
Looking around the interior you're unlikely to find any shortcomings in materials quality -- there are no obvious cut corners anywhere. Leather is standard (which is not a given at Mercedes-Benz) and the trim is aluminum. Wood trim and more expensive leather can be had. The gauges are housed in two deep binnacles, and they look good, although the 160-mph speedometer is crowded into only three-quarters of the circle. Mercedes' Comand system is optional, and its 7-inch LCD screen is clear, bright, and easy to read even in sunlight. The multi-function central controller is supplemented by 10 preset buttons, which is nice for playing the radio. In all, it's a comfortable, upscale environment.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mercedes still offers a manual gearbox here -- or it will, with the 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder that's coming next year. For now, a 3.5-liter V-6 is the only engine available, and for the V-6, the seven-speed automatic, with shift paddles, is the sole gearbox. That transmission's priorities are shifting smoothly and getting into the highest gear as soon as possible, the better to eke out the best possible EPA ratings (in this case, 20/29 mpg). Of course, it willingly downshifts in response to an order from your right foot, but if you want to keep the engine revving in a livelier part of the tach, you'll need to either use the paddles or select sport mode (the latter must be done each time your start the car, as the transmission always defaults to economy mode).
Speaking of the engine, the SLK's 3.5-liter V-6 is not the one from the previous SLK, but a new, direct-injected unit that also does duty in the C-class. Its 302 hp and 273 pound-feet of torque ably motivate this compact roadster -- 0 to 60 happens in 5.4 seconds, which is just 0.1 second behind the SL550. Even so, this isn't exactly a tuneful, exotic powerplant. Below 2000 rpm, where the engine spends much of its time, it just kind of blats; only when you kick it into the higher rev ranges does it emit a more satisfying, sharp, angry growl.
Equipped with Mercedes' so-called Direct Steer power steering system, the SLK responds quickly to inputs but has none of that tactile quality that hard-core enthusiasts crave. At least effort levels are reasonable, and fairly consistent, making the SLK easy to drive. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard, and their low-profile, high-performance tires are the one item that seems a bit like a disconnect in this car. True, they probably do contribute to the SLK's quick turn-in, but they also faithfully telegraph road imperfections to passengers. When they do, at least the car's structure is solid enough that there's no shudder or shimmying in the cabin. Handling is about what you'd expect, with far more grip than drivers are likely to use but little incentive to explore the chassis limits.
As your doctor can probably tell you, however, exploring the limits of adhesion and hanging the tail out while executing rev-matched downshifts is not what a Mercedes SLK is all about. Instead, the SLK is a distillation of Mercedes' best-known qualities into a nimble, open-air machine for two -- a car with which to reward yourself, after a long day of looking people in the eye, or eyes.