2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK

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2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK Review

By Marc Lachapelle of MSN Autos
Rating: 8.8

Bottom Line:

With great looks, a feisty and frugal new V6, balanced handling and a comfortable, fully equipped cabin, the 350SLK can now take its direct competitor, the BMW Z4, head on. It's a slick and perfectly modern roadster, and with the newest version of the retractable hardtop it made popular, you can drive it year round.
Pros:
  • Classy shape
  • Strong, smooth new V6 engine
  • Sharp, balanced handling
Cons:
  • Short on steering feel
  • No dual-clutch gearbox
  • Pricey with options

The original Mercedes SLK basically laid out the blueprint for the modern roadster and convertible when it was introduced in 1997. It was the first vehicle to offer a well-executed, practical and reliable power-retractable hardtop in a stylish, compact package. Plus, it was fun to drive. But, while the SLK has always looked sporty, it has never been sporty like some of its peers, namely the BMW Z4 or Porsche Boxster.

Now in its third generation, the SLK is a much improved vehicle, with performance and handling commensurate with its looks. Dimensionally, it's very similar to its predecessor. However, it has actually been extensively revised, with an emphasis on refinement, dynamic balance, effortless performance and improved efficiency.

Model Lineup
Two models are currently available. The 2012 SLK350 is powered by a new direct-injection 3.5-liter V6 engine coupled exclusively to an also-new 7-speed automatic gearbox with three shifting programs, including a manual mode and steering-mounted aluminum paddle shifters. The SLK250 is powered by a new turbocharged 1.8-liter direct-injection inline 4-cylinder. It comes with a 6-speed manual as standard gearbox and the 7-speed automatic as an option.

The new SLK is slightly longer and wider than its predecessor. Exterior styling evokes the Mercedes SLS AMG, with a more upright and rectangular grille and that big three-point Mercedes-Benz star smack in the middle. The new Gullwing's influence also shows up in the SLK's instrument panel, with its two main gauges and big, round vents.

While the new SLK350 weighs in at an estimated 3,397 pounds, about 80 pounds more than the outgoing model, fuel economy is improved--20 mpg city/29 mpg highway--thanks to better aerodynamics, a direct-injection engine and a more efficient new gearbox.

The 350SLK is an upscale roadster and it's a Mercedes, so standard kit is predictably abundant. But you can expand on it substantially. There are trim and infotainment packages, as well as a la carte options such as pivoting full-xenon headlights for $1,070, an "advanced" parking-aid system for $970, and Distronic automatic cruise control with Pre-Safe brake application for an additional $1,900. And you get to pick from 11 color choices for the body and five for the interior leather trim.

Inner Space
First and foremost, the 3-spoke steering wheel is a gem, with a nicely shaped rim that is just thick enough and wrapped in splendid leather. The same quality is found in the well-sculpted leather sport seats that you can easily position with door-mounted controls and readily commit to memory or recall at any time with the 4-button pad beside the seats. The driving position is fine, with a proper footrest, and the major controls are well designed and smartly laid out.

All the current niceties and power accessories are included, such as full audio with auxiliary and USB connections, and HD radio and Bluetooth for audio streaming and hands-free phone operation. There's also a new electronic parking brake that frees up space on the center console. Dual-zone climate control is a $760 extra, but you have to wonder how useful it can be in a small, cozy roadster you'll want to drive as much as possible with the top stowed. And the control buttons are typically tiny, too. The standard air conditioning is fine with its larger knobs and buttons.

The $2,150 Multimedia package adds the Comand system with a 10-gigabyte hard drive for navigation and music, weather and traffic info; a 6-disc DVD/CD changer; an SD card reader; and an upgrade from a 5.8- to a 7-inch color screen. The Premium 1 package ($2,590) brings a digital player interface, satellite radio, a Harman Kardon 11-speaker surround-sound audio system, and heated seats with Airscarf neck-warmers, plus remote roof operation. There's a trim package with burl walnut for the console, steering wheel and shift knob ($ 990); black ash wood trim for $325; and a Sport package with additional bits for the body, red ambient lighting, 18-inch AMG alloy wheels and a checkered flag motif for the SLS-style main gauges ($2,500).

The retractable hardtop's panels are made of polycarbonate and perform their 20-second ballet thanks to six hydraulic cylinders. You can get the optional panorama roof with a classic glass panel ($500), or a new translucent roof that turns almost opaque blue at the touch of a button. Poetically called Magic Sky Control ($2,500), it uses electrical current to change the alignment of microscopic metal particles in a fluid sandwiched between the panel's two glass layers. It works quite well.

There is very little wind buffeting or turbulence with the top down, and virtually none when the optional wind-panel is in place between the roll-bar loops. Another option is a pair of transparent scoops you can adjust to deflect air behind the roll bars. The optional Airscarf ducts are also back, pushing warm air on the neck for open-top driving on cool days. It's effective even when your driving position holds your neck far from the head restraint.

Under the Hood
The 350SLK is powered by a new 3.5-liter V6 engine. The new double-overhead-cam V6 produces 302 horsepower, only a couple more than the old engine, but peak torque is 273 lb-ft, up from 265 lb-ft.

This flexible powerplant is well-matched to a second-generation 7-speed automatic that is not as snappy on manual mode downshifts as the rival BMW Z4's dual-automated-clutch gearbox, but it can nonetheless skip up to four gears for quick passing. Claims of a zero-to-60-mph sprint in 5.4 seconds seem believable.

Powering the SLK250 is a new, turbocharged 1.8-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine that produces 201 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque. This model's zero-to-60 mph dash is quoted at 6.5 seconds and its fuel economy rating is 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway.

On the Road
The key to the 350SLK's overall handling and character is its new variable-ratio rack-and-pinion steering. The drive is innocuous at a normal pace. But pick up the pace on challenging, twisty roads such as North Carolina's Highway 129, better known as Tail of the Dragon, and the newest SLK raises its game accordingly.

You can switch the transmission in "S" (for sport) mode, since upshifts come at revs that are much too low in "E" (for economy), but it's best to shift gears yourself with the paddles behind the wheel in "M" (for manual) mode.

Balance, grip and suspension damping are fully sorted, with a measure of body roll and predictable understeer when pushing hard. The keenest drivers might go for the optional Dynamic handling package ($990) that includes variable-damping shocks and torque-vectoring brake application to help the SLK pivot in corners.

Right for You?
Balanced, quick and refined, the new SLK is ready for its direct nemesis, the BMW Z4, on all counts. It won't match the Porsche Boxster for pure driving prowess, in spite of its creators' contention, but that's not the point anyway. The SLK is a roadster in pure form. It's a light, front-engine rear-drive sports car with a long hood, a short rear deck and a slick top that flips out of the way or back up in about 20 seconds. There's plenty to enjoy at the SLK350's base price of $54,800 — and it ramps up from there.

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BB03 - 8/27/2014 8:01:54 AM