If you're a driving enthusiast who calculates slip angles, kvetches about the inability to fully defeat stability controls, obsesses over your last gymkhana performance, and regularly dials in steering with the sole of your right foot, this is not the small roadster for you (give BMW a call; the Z4 sDrive35is is waiting). However, if you're an enthusiast of driving -- be it spirited or casual, competitive or cruising -- the SLK350 is perhaps the most well rounded choice in its segment.
Is it quick? Yes -- the 3.5-liter V-6 gains direct fuel injection for 2012 and sees its output jump to 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. Is it as frantic as the BMW? Not quite, and because it retains a conventional automatic transmission, gear changes aren't quite as snappy, either. But it is comfortable, far more so than the Z4. Suspension tuning is firm and the car offers plenty of grip yet manages to soak up the harshest asphalt and biggest potholes without chipping your vertebrae.
Better yet, it offers a stylish interior that's also pleasant to use on a daily basis. Cupholders are well placed, switchgear is cleanly arranged, and Benz's Comand control knob makes flipping through menus a breeze. Another thoughtful touch? The center console lid automatically locks itself when you lock the car, allowing its contents to remain secure, even when parked with the top down.
Is the BMW a little more fun to drive? Perhaps around a closed course, at least, but for those looking to enjoy open-sky motoring at its finest -- if not necessarily its fastest -- it's hard to beat this package.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
The exterior redesign of the new SLK is very handsome. The styling is not quite so cute as that of the old SLK -- the car's whole demeanor is now more aggressive, with a wider grille opening and hard lines on the flanks where there used to be soft curves. As one would expect from Mercedes, the two-tone leather and wood trim in the interior are top-notch, but I didn't really pay it that much attention, as sunny weather beckoned on the day I drove the SLK. The only problem was that it took me a while to find the button to lower the convertible top (it's located inside the center console bin). Perhaps it's placed there for security reasons, but it would be nice if it were somewhere on the dash or at the forward part of the center console, so that I didn't have to twist his or her torso awkwardly to lower the top.
Other than that minor bit of nitpicking, the driving experience in the SLK is quite satisfying. The seven-speed automatic delivers the power of the V-6 engine smoothly, and if you want to shift for yourself, there are shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel (right for upshifts, left for downshifts). The ride is neither too firm nor too soft, and while you can't help but feel some of the bumps and irregularities in the road surface, they are nicely modulated.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I really liked our test car's white paint over a tan and black interior. The new Magic Sky Control roof is super trick: simply push a button and the glass roof darkens or lightens instantly to either let the sun in or block it out. It's the latest chapter in Mercedes-Benz's continual obsession with improving every aspect of the open-air experience, a trend that began with the last-generation SLK's AirScarf, a feature that returns in the new SLK (warm air blows out of the headrest onto your neck). With the SLK's top and windows down, you can still hear the stereo well. I see that the SLK has the same groovy, flat-bottom steering wheel as the new CLS four-door coupe; it's a great steering wheel, just the right size and with the right amount of heft.
There's no question, the SLK is definitely sportier than before, yet it's more refined than the one-dimensional BMW Z4 roadster. Put the transmission in S for Sport mode, and you get strong, linear acceleration away from an intersection by simply stomping the gas pedal. Want to take more control? The shift paddles deliver downshifts pretty crisply. There's a great exhaust note, and a nice raspiness from the V-6. The car feels drum-tight when you bang over a series of railroad tracks, too.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
My disappointment could be seen in every mirror I looked in. My twelve hours in this car saw nothing but gray wet clouds. No topless activities for me to report on this fine little gem. This car is everything a Mercedes-Benz should be, in a tiny, very refined package. When I left the office and arrived at the gym, I was able to park next to an older black SLK. The contrast was dramatic both in the colors and in the lines of the cars. While doing cardio, I could see gearheads linger around the duo to contrast and compare. This is the first car I have been in that my Gulfstream G5 coffee mug would not fit into the cupholders. It is as if they were designed for a Red Bull can or some other slender beverage containers.
Kelly Murphy, Creative Director