I drove my first-generation Mazda Miata for about 850 miles the three days immediately preceding my time in the SLK250 and also spent some time behind the wheel of an SLK55 AMG on a closed course a few days before that. There have been a lot of top-down miles in my life recently.
The SLK is relatively big and heavy, which is exactly what I'd expect from a Mercedes. With the top down, the beltline feels especially high. There's plenty of room for bigger drivers and passengers, but the interior won't really hold anything else. Our test car is significantly different from every other Mercedes currently on sale because it has a six-speed manual transmission. After spending a few days with the SLK, I can see why virtually nobody opts for this transmission. The throws are long and the SLK's character is more of a cruiser than a real sports car - the seven-speed automatic just makes more sense for this car.
The turbo four-cylinder is plenty powerful, and the expected turbo noises are certainly present. I got a kick out of the blow-off valve each time it opened when I lifted my foot after a full-throttle sprint. Anyone unhappy with the power of an SLK250 can step up to an SLK350 or the AMG model, although I don't see much need for the SLK350. I did enjoy the AMG model more than I expected to on the track because it was so fast and had a ton of grip.
I dislike the folding hardtop on the SLK. It's quite bulky when stowed and it still lets in a fair amount of road and wind noise when the top is up. The folding process is also incredibly slow since there are so many movements required to fold the hard pieces. There's nothing wrong with a quality soft top.
If I were looking for a new, small roadster I'd just go with a cloth-top Miata. Mercedes does a better job with the bigger, more luxurious SL than it does with the SLK. Just as Benz does the S-class better than it does the C-class, this brand is best experienced with the largest product. If the SL doesn't fit your budget, the SLK is an acceptable substitute. Just don't expect it to be small and light.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
The SLK250's turbocharged four-cylinder engine is raspy and cheap sounding at startup. I recall that the first-generation SLK's supercharged four-cylinder, way back in 1996, sounded a lot better than this. Once you're on the road in today's SLK250, though, the engine delivers good straight-line performance, even if this is no sports car. As for the manual transmission, I am loathe to criticize it since I am a member of the automotive-journalist community, which collectively complains that not enough luxury and performance cars are offered with manuals anymore, but that doesn't prevent me from observing that this six-speed isn't the slickest thing in the world. But it's not bad. How's that for a lukewarm endorsement? Let me continue: The SLK250 provides decent body control, but crisp handling is not really in the SLK's repertoire. Brake-pedal feel and feedback are good but not great.
Did I really like any part of the SLK250? Yes. I drove home one 61-degree evening with the top down, and after I drove a couple of blocks, I remembered the AirScarf feature, which blows warm air onto your neck from the headrest. I turned that on, booted up the seat heater, raised the side windows, and had a very comfortable and invigorating drive home while listening to the superb Harman/Kardon stereo.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
With enough UVA rays and thumping bass, any droptop can make you feel good, and this Mercedes is no exception. I love the sound system, how the stick shift flatters you when you drive gingerly, and the indigo-over-cream color combo on our tester.
But the SLK250 has never been, and will never be, a sports car. I'll credit Mercedes with giving the 250 a manual transmission, but it's a box that balks when you're trying to shift quickly. The turbo engine has good on-boost power, but otherwise it's laggy and sluggish; it pales next to BMW's superior 2.0-liter turbo four. I spent much of my time with the car shifting at 2000 to 2500 rpm, gently loafing around city streets, which would be considered heretical in a true sports convertible.
Ultimately, the SLK250 is a convertible that feels better than it performs. If you're going to buy this pseudo-sporty convertible over a comparable BMW Z4 sDrive28i, you'd best have a very good reason.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
I am a huge fan of convertibles. The SLK250, however, stands out in a very bad way. I cannot recall any convertible bombarding its passengers with wind, particularly from the side, as harshly as this SLK. It feels as though someone is shooting an air gun toward your outboard ear. (I'm talking top down, windows down--the way convertibles are "supposed" to be driven.) At 55 mph, it feels like you're going 85 mph in almost any other droptop; at 75 mph, you positively have to shout to talk to your pained passenger. My brother-in-law and I were hoarse after a two-hour, mostly highway, sub-80-mph drive to Frankenmuth, Michigan.
On the drive home, blistering sun and an ambient temperature of 92 degrees (plus the aforementioned wind buffeting) made me reluctantly decide to drive south with the top up. I made this decision at a traffic light, which was an embarrassing mistake, because the roof takes an annoyingly long time to open and close. Mercedes claims it takes "less than 20 seconds," but it seems longer than that, largely because the top won't move if the car is moving. (In a Porsche Boxster, for instance, you can cycle the roof at speeds of up to 30 mph! Very handy.) The SLK's tinted, transparent Panorama roof helps reduce any guilt about driving with the top raised, as well as any feelings of claustrophobia that might strike; however, the air-conditioning had to work pretty hard to keep the cabin at a comfortable temperature with the sun shining so brightly from above. At least the eyeball-like circular vents look great.
The exterior also looks great, especially in the dark blue over tan of our test car, and I don't think the new SLK looks at all a chick car (which was often said of its predecessors).
Speaking of the SLK's predecessors, the only other stick-shift Mercedes-Benz I've ever driven was a 2005 SLK. Little did I know it'd be more than seven years before I'd find myself in another manual Mercedes. The 2012 model's shifter throws are pretty long, but gear engagement is positive and fulfilling; I really enjoyed knowing that I was driving such a rare car, even if the stick doesn't really fit with the SLK's personality. There's no doubt that this car is turbocharged (due to the engine's whistle, lag, and surges), but the power levels are impressive and suitable, I think, for an M-B roadster. Still, as a driving enthusiast who's more interested in sporty handling and functionality than style, I'd buy a Boxster over an SLK every time.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Although I am generally in favor of downsized turbocharged engines and manual transmissions, the powertrain in this Mercedes-Benz SLK250 fails to excite me. The 1.8-liter turbo-four emits a dull drone as if it belongs in an economy car, and the engine occasionally surges in low-speed driving. Neither of those qualities is well-suited to a roadster that wants to be both sporty and luxurious. The six-speed manual is also quite uninspiring, owing to its rubbery and disconnected feel, but I at least commend Mercedes for still offering a shift-it-yourself option in a $52,575 luxury car.
Despite that, the Mercedes SLK is a very agreeable roadster. I like its curvy body, the well-appointed interior, and the composure of its suspension. This is the sort of car that I would love to drive top-down for long distances, although I would probably opt for a naturally aspirated engine and automatic transmission to better match the car's relaxed demeanor. Joe already mentioned the fantastic AirScarf neck heating system; it appeased my girlfriend when I insisted on driving home from dinner with the roof down on a chilly evening.
When I first got into the SLK, it took me several minutes to figure out how to lower the "Vario Roof" folding hardtop. It turns out the elegant brushed-metal control for the roof is hidden under a flip-up cover on the center console. It's a nice touch that keeps the bulky switch from cluttering up the cabin. I also appreciate that you don't have to manually undo any latches at the top of the windshield, which is the case in many other convertibles.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor