Auto writers are forever criticizing the SLK because it's not really a sports car. I don't know why it never dawns on them that the SLK isn't trying to be a sports car. As a baby Benz convertible, the SLK is supposed to be posh, flashy, comfortable, and quick--a top-down, feel-good machine. Boxster-like driver involvement and Miata-like tossability are not a part of the program.
So, how does the SLK350 succeed at its actual mission? For the most part, pretty well. The styling is flashy, although too busy to be truly beautiful. The interior is rich looking, with uniformly high-quality materials. The wide cabin is roomy and comfortable. The retractable hard top seals out noise, but it gobbles up too much trunk space when lowered -- a good soft top would be nearly as effective and would allow you to take along more luggage on a top-down getaway.
Trying a little too hard to appease the sports-car crowd, the SLK rides on wide, low-profile tires that pound heavily over bumps. The steering, though, is quite good. Now that a turbo four-cylinder SLK250 has joined the lineup, we need to take a more critical look at the SLK350's 3.5-liter V-6. It delivers strong acceleration and plays nicely with Mercedes' seven-speed automatic. When it's just loafing, though, the direct-injected V-6 does not have the aural quality befitting an expensive car -- it sounds more like an old Chevy Lumina with a hole in its muffler. Paradoxically, however, when you really open it up, it unleashes a high-tech snarl that's pitch perfect for a sports car -- check that, not a sports car, but a rolling symbol of the good life.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
Joe Lorio is right; the SLK really needs to be a stylish, comfortable cruiser. Unfortunately it misses those marks by a little bit. The SLK looks reasonably good, but I can't understand the faux fender vents. They are garish enough to be on an Escalade. Lose those vents and the car would look a lot more upscale. Comfort was an afterthought on our test car because of the 18-inch AMG wheels and resultant low-profile tires with very stiff sidewalls. Each time the tires hit a pothole (very often in SE Michigan) I cringed and dreamt of a more comfortable Benz. Mercedes-Benz isn't a hard-core sporty brand, so its cars need to glide over pavement imperfections -- without giving up body control. Only an AMG car should be this stiff.
I also agree with Lorio about the odd exhaust sounds. Stomp on the car with the transmission in Sport mode and the engine sounds fantastic. When you're not driving the SLK very hard, the engine sounds a bit flatulent and embarrassing for something in this price class. A BMW Z4 is probably the closest competitor and the inline engines BMW uses sound a lot more appropriate than this V-6. At least the power delivery is appropriate for a Mercedes. My only complaint with the transmission is that the efficiency mode is very hesitant to downshift. At one point I was cruising along at a slow pace and needed to rapidly increase my speed. I had the gas pedal floored and it felt like an eternity before the transmission downshifted. After that I left the transmission in Sport and had no other issues.
The SLK is surprisingly loud on the highway for a hard top convertible. I blame the wide tires for transmitting too much noise through the cabin. Wind noise was well masked, though. Unfortunately the folding hard top takes a huge bite out of trunk space and requires the cargo cover to be perfectly positioned before the top can be raised or lowered. I miss the old days when roadsters had simple cloth tops that could stow behind the front seats and not eat up the entire trunk capacity. Although those simple cars were incredibly loud with the top up, the technology available for soft tops has come a long way and it's now possible to get a quiet cabin with a soft convertible top.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
People kept insisting to me that I shouldn't like the SLK because it's not a real sports car. They're right -- the SLK is not a sports car, but a sporty, two-seat roadster, and I quite like it. The SLK has morphed from a fashion accessory of sorts to one of the most well rounded luxury roadsters on the market. It's sportier than an Audi TT but not as hardcore as a Porsche Boxster or as high-strung as a BMW Z4. I also think that the SLK is the best looking of the quartet -- its baby-SLS looks are scaled down perfectly here, keeping the car from looking ill-proportioned or overly stubby (like the new SL).
I disagree with my colleagues about the exhaust note from the 3.5-liter V-6; I think that it sounds great at all times (especially with the top down), though not quite as sweet as BMW's inline-six. However, I do agree with Phil that the transmission is very hesitant to downshift, often leaving you without power to pass on a two-lane without manually downshifting using the transmission level or the paddle.
One other nuisance - the fantastic AirScarf system our car is equipped with blows hot air onto the passengers' necks, a boon for top-down cool weather driving. But can Mercedes make it also blow cold air? It quickly became too hot to keep the top down and the air conditioning vents can't compensate well enough to keep from putting the top up.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
I'm with Lorio and Floraday on the slight coarseness of the V-6 engine, and I'm with Nordlicht on the exhaust, which sounded pretty sweet to me. My time with the SLK350 definitely supported the notion that, to the general public, this Mercedes roadster "reads" as an extremely desirable automobile. It was parked in my driveway, top down, one evening when I had a few people over for dinner, and a 40-something woman who owns an Audi wagon practically swooned over it. Another day, I drove it to a dental appointment, and the entire office staff was craning their necks out the window, wondering what "that gorgeous little red car is." When I told them it was a Mercedes, there were appreciative murmurs. I've known my dentist since I was about 21 years old, and he chuckled and said, "Who would ever have imagined that Joe DeMatio would be driving a Mercedes convertible!" I reminded him that I don't own it. Anyway, my point is, none of these people were asking me if the SLK350 suffers from bump steer or vague steering (it doesn't); all they cared about is that the car looks hot and looks like they expect a Mercedes roadster to look.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I drove the SLK350 to a couple gatherings over the weekend and, at both, it was a major topic of conversation. Some thought it was cute, others called it sexy, but everyone agreed that it was eye-catching, especially in the vibrant red paint of this test car. Not all the comments were positive though, as several people also communicated their distaste for the disproportionately massive Mercedes-Benz star on the vehicle's nose, calling it "gross" and "obnoxious."
No one voiced a desire to go for a ride but when I announced I was leaving, a line formed at each of the SLKs doors for a driveway test. The Solar Red ambient lighting on the doors -- part of the pricey $2500 Sport "appearance" package that also adds 18-inch AMG wheels and body cladding--was a huge hit. What really wowed the crowd though was the AirScarf system. The system consists of air vents mounted in the seatbacks that blow heated air onto the necks of the lucky occupants. Even in the mild temperatures, it was unanimously declared the most innovative new vehicle option as well as a totally addictive one. The only thing that dampened the group's adoration was the fact that the system isn't connected to the A/C so it can't blow cool air. And after spending a day with the SLK350 in 90-plus degree heat, I couldn't agree more. Without a doubt, AirScarf is a worthwhile feature because it will extend the top-down season later into the fall or even winter months. But if it pumped out air-conditioning too, it would make topless driving even during the dog days of summer a possibility, thereby increasing the SLK350's top-down time even further.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
I spent two days with the SLK, during which time I never drove it with a raised top. The weather was good, the temperature was moderate, and I looked great driving the car (at least according to the two fashionable women, each of whom carried several bags from a nearby high-end boutique, who told me so).
My guess is that those women -- who seemingly possessed both money and fashion sense -- are squarely in the target demographic for the SLK. If they looked closer, they might decide to forgo the sport package and its styling "enhancements," and they also would probably not be too fond about the overly harsh ride produced by the low-profile tires that are part of the that package, but they'd look good driving the SLK.
On the other hand, the wind turbulence created while driving with the top down might mess up their hair. I mostly alleviated that problem by only driving with the windows down around town; on the highway I raised the windows, which greatly lessened the buffeting.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I don't recall the last SLK350 we drove being as harsh-riding as this one -- even though it, too, was rolling on 18-inch wheels with similar low-profile tires. The front wheels on this example soaked up impacts fairly well, but the rears were a completely different story. I always enjoyed the fact that the SLK was more about comfortable cruising than crushing performance, but the harsh ride on the freeway and disconcerting jolts over expansion joints doesn't match the car's raison d'etre.
Styling is subjective, but it's hard to argue that this latest iteration of SLK isn't a little more attractive -- and perhaps a bit more masculine -- than ever before. When it launched, I marveled at how much of the SLS AMG's personality -- notably the long, muscular hood and clean, clutter-free dashboard -- was carried over to the smaller SLK. I think the look works surprisingly well. As for that giant three-pointed star? It's a tradition dating back to the first 300 SL in 1953, and I highly doubt it'll disappear anytime soon.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor