Though the first generation Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster had a cool folding hardtop and jewelry-like instruments, it was too cute to be considered a serious sports car. In 2004, the SLK350 upped the ante with brawnier looks and a torquey 3.5 liter V6, and for 2009 Mercedes-Benz has gone even further to lend credibility to its entry level convertible. Though pricing has not been officially announced, Mercedes promises a negligible increase over 2008's prices -- $44,975 for the SLK300 (previously named the SLK280), $50,275 for the SLK350, and $64,025 for the SLK55 AMG.
First Glance: Progressive improvement
Mercedes-Benz may sell loads of bread-and-butter sedans like the E-Class, but roadsters are a key part of the brand's mystique. And they're popular, too; with almost half a million sold since its introduction in 1996, the SLK has enabled a wider group of the driving population to boast a Benz in the garage.
Mercedes stepped up their game with the 2009 SLK350, and changes include a few minor interior mods (like a next-gen COMAND system, an updated instrument cluster (link goes to photo), and a new steering wheel.) Outside, a more aggressive front end features a larger triple-pointed star (in case you really want people to know you're driving a Benz), a truncated nose, and a more aggressive grille.
While the base SLK300 (previously known as the SLK280) gets slightly better fuel economy and burns a touch cleaner, its output is unchanged at 228 horsepower. The SLK55 AMG still puts out a whopping 355 hp, but the mid-range SLK350 gets all the makeover love for 2009: it receives a 32 horsepower bump in power, producing a nice round 300 horses and 265 lb-ft of torque. Both the SLK300 and SLK350 now get 17" wheels standard, while the SLK55 is clad with 18" alloys. Also new across the board is a direct-steer system that tightens the steering ratio when the wheel is 5 degrees off-center.
The SLK thankfully keeps its muscular looks and its gee-whiz folding hardtop, which makes it easier to justify as a four-season car.
In the Driver's Seat: More reasons to drop the top
Climb into the Mercedes-Benz SLK and you'll feel instantly enveloped; its leather seats are supportive, the doors are tall, and its proportions are compact. While its nearly-twice-as-expensive big brother SL550 feels spacious in comparison, the SLK is snug but well-finished. For 2009, the M&M candy-shaped instrument buttons have been tinted black (instead of silver), and top stitching has been updated.
While its retractable hardtop makes it quiet and comfortable when the sun isn't shining, a number of neat features encourage top-down motoring. An optional heating package includes heated seats, a wind blocker, and an AIRSCARF system that kills the chill by blowing hot air onto the back of your neck. (AIRSCARF, incidentally, will also be available on SL models for 2009.)
The Multimedia Package includes Harmon/Kardon premium sound, HDD navigation, and hard disc music storage, while all SLKs get the easier-to-use COMAND head unit, which will eventually be incorporated into all Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. While it loses the annoying little buttons on the side of the screen, it's not quite as intuitive as Audi's wheel-operated MMI system. Also newly available for 2009 is Burl Walnut Trim, which really gives you that junior-exec-on-the-go feeling if you're not into the SLK's traditionally stark interior.
All in all, the SLK's slick cabin is every bit Mercedes-Benz; nicely finished, ergonomically sound, and well constructed.
On the Road: A bite to match its bark
Not many roadsters drive as aggressively as they look, but the SLK -- particularly the SLK350 -- has a bite that is definitely as strong as its bark. Since 97% of its torque is delivered at only 2,000 rpm, it's got more get up and go than you might expect—enough to shoot you to 60 mph in only 5.3 seconds. Floor the throttle and the SLK350 makes some sweet sounds; especially when driving top-down through tunnels, the V6 screams a throaty growl that should satisfy all but the most jaded enthusiasts. Sure, the SLK55 is the bad boy of the bunch, but the SLK350's ability to squirt ahead in traffic is more than enough to put a smile on your face. Fuel economy and emissions are improved over the 2008 model, so you zip along with (slightly) less guilt than before.
Its 7G-TRONIC transmission (yes, you read correctly—it has SEVEN gears!) makes it even harder for the SLK350 to feel out of breath. If anything, seven speeds are a bit of overkill for the SLK350; mated to its flexible engine, shift points come so quickly that they seem redundant. It's not a deal-breaker, but it seems Mercedes decided to choose more gears over speedier shifts, and quicker shifts in a car as nimble as the SLK would make more sense.
Ride quality is firm but not too punishing. Handling, while not quite as intuitive as the BMW M Roadster or the Porsche Boxster, is tight, controlled, and tenacious, and the new direct-steer system makes the SLK350 feel a bit more responsive and "alive" than its previous, speed-sensitive system.
Journey's End: A polished premium roadster
If you're a performance enthusiast and a roadster fan, it's hard not to enjoy the zippy Mercedes-Benz SLK, especially the much-improved SLK350. For those familiar with sporty two-seater convertibles, the SLK's faults shouldn't come as any surprise: limited luggage space (especially when the top is down), a smallish cockpit, and the lingering question of whether or not you should have perhaps bought something a touch more practical.
The Mercedes-Benz SLK is a roadster for those who want top-down driving without feeling like they're skimping on luxury, and its bold design, expensive feeling solidity, and smooth driving characteristics back up everything we've come to associate with Mercedes-Benz. Airflow rarely intrudes on in-car conversations (especially with the windscreen in place), and options like 4-way adjustable lumbar support enhances long-distance comfort in spite of the somewhat firm suspension.
Is the SLK for everybody? Most certainly not. But within this very focused segment of the market, Mercedes' pint-sized convertible accomplishes its goals quite effectively, offering a polished, premium roadster that performs as sharply as it looks. --Basem Wasef