All new for 2005, the Mercedes-Benz
SLK features dramatic changes to its appearance and its personality, while retaining the distinguishing retractable steel hardtop. Through this evolution, the second-generation SLK has been transformed into a bona fide sports car that offers more interior space and improved amenities over its ground-breaking predecessor. Two models are available: the SLK350 with a new, 268-hp DOHC V-6 and the SLK55 AMG that packs a 355-hp V-8 and brings chassis upgrades to further sharpen its corner-carving skills. Our tester was a modestly optioned SLK350 with the AMG Sport Suspension.
Taking visual cues from Mercedes' Formula One racers and the SLR supercar, the SLK's bold nose anchors a rising-arch profile that's complemented by a steeply raked windshield, pronounced fender flares, and dramatic body contours. Staggered-width alloy wheels mount 225/45ZR17 front and 245/40ZR17 rear tires on the SLK350, while the SLK55 AMG goes plus-one, and wears 225/40ZR18 and 245/35ZR18 rubber.
Avant-garde style and nearly 12 percent more room highlight the SLK's cabin revamp, although entry/exit remains more a process than a single motion. Once inside, you'll find supple leather upholstery--premium Nappa in the AMG model--set off by aluminized accents and silver-painted seat frames made of lightweight magnesium. While overall control layout is good and legibility of the gauges and displays praiseworthy, the plethora of knobs and mini-buttons in the SLK's central dash stack is less than user-friendly, with or without the optional navigation system.
The SLK has a proper Mercedes-Benz feature set, from a full range of power assists and a multifunction display accessed by selector buttons on its three-spoke steering wheel to dual-zone climate control, an anti-theft system with TeleAid Stolen Vehicle Recovery feature, and the ubiquitous programmable SmartKey. Its baseline AM/FM/CD audio package can be upgraded to a 380-watt harman/kardon LOGIC7 surround sound system. Dialing in an ideal driving position is quick and easy, courtesy of torso-hugging eight-way sport seats and a tilt/telescoping steering column, all power adjustable in the AMG car. All-season al fresco fans will love the new AIRSCARF option that uses vents in the seatback to blow warm air on your neck and shoulders. Still a one-touch-and-hold operation, the SLK's steel top now goes up or down in just 22 seconds.
Storage space remains modest, and it consists of a non-locking glovebox (that virtually disappears when you add a CD changer), small covered console bin-within-a-bin, flex pockets in each door, and a secondary enclosure on the rear bulkhead. The dash-mounted pop-out cupholders appear to be vestigial afterthoughts. Better news out back, where the trunk will swallow a reasonable 9.8 cu ft of luggage with the top up, or just 6.5 cu ft with it stowed.
Like every Mercedes, the SLK's passenger protection starts with a robust structure and loads of electronic handling/braking/stability assists. Also standard are "smart" front airbags, a driver's knee bag, side and thorax bags, seat belt tensioners/force limiters, fixed steel roll bars, and automatic collision notification by Tele Aid whenever an airbag deploys.
This stunning two-seater gets high marks for motivation. An all-new 3.5-liter DOHC V-6 with variable valve timing makes 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, enough to send an SLK350 to 60 mph in roughly 5.5 seconds with either the standard six-speed manual transmission or the optional seven-speed Touch Shift automatic. The SLK55 packs an AMG-crafted 5.5-liter SOHC V-8 that cranks out 355 ponies and a stout 376 lb-ft of twist. Backed with a seven-speed autoshifter that uses AMG SpeedShift programming, it can top 60 mph in under five ticks.
Behind the Wheel
In addition to gaining 1.2 inches of wheelbase and 1.5 inches/2.5 inches of front/rear track, the SLK teams a new suspension derived from the C-Class with rack-and-pinion steering in place of the old recirculating-ball setup. It's a formula that greatly enhances overall precision and handling prowess. Base curb weight has risen by about 175 pounds, but you're more apt to feel the 46 percent gain in torsional rigidity, top up or down. The SLK's standard chassis tune strikes a good balance between control and compliance, abetted by aggressive tires that give up grip grudgingly and predictably. If you opt for the more stiffly sprung AMG Sport package--or full AMG underpinnings on the SLK55--expect to pay a modest price in added noise and harshness when traversing rough road surfaces.
Smooth and strong, the new V-6 is a technological delight. The variable valve timing helps torque peak at just 2,400 rpm--and remain there until revs hit the 5K mark, a "sweet plateau" that serves both transmissions well. Most buyers will opt for the autoshifter. But the revised manual gearbox has become far more tempting, thanks to its new and vastly improved short-throw linkage, a critical element that's been egregiously absent from the mix until now. Mercedes also tweaked the SLK's electronic stability control to accommodate more aggressive driving styles. However, it will still automatically override the manual de-select function if the car exceeds predetermined threshold limits. Huge four-wheel ABS disc brakes proved masters at smooth, straight speed bleeds, and feature both Electronic Brake force Distribution and Brake Assist.
Amenities galore, sparkling dynamics, and exhilarating quickness make the new SLK a great first step for those who have the soul but not yet the heel to bootstrap themselves into an SL. This premium coupe/roadster is hardly cheap, but at barely half the price of an SL500, even the SLK350 will equal or better its more sophisticated sibling in every major performance category, save for the index of pure prestige. Backing that street cred, the SLK350 also earns excellent marks in IC's ownership value ratings.
The harder-core sport set may contend, and with merit, that the mid-engined Porsche Boxster and Boxster S or a Nissan 350Z would still deliver more smiles per mile. A slightly less compelling case could be made for the Chrysler Crossfire SRT-6 Coupe and Roadster--which use mechanicals from the previous-generation SLK--an Audi TT V6 Quattro, or a BMW Z4 3.0. But if you regularly spend hours seeking out deserted twisty two-lanes just for the fun of it, the SLK deserves prime consideration as an eager and capable traveling companion.
A poseur no more, the new SLK boasts serious sports car credentials to match its aggressive looks. AMG spec raises that already stellar performance to an even higher level.
Completely redesigned and vastly improved, the Gen II SLK is a clean-sheet effort that shares little but a common class name with its predecessor.
Prime SLK packages range from Premium (digital climate control, auto-dimming mirrors, Homelink, SmartKey top activation, and lots more) and Entertainment--with or without DVD-based navigation (harman/kardon surround sound, six-disc CD changer, and COMAND) to Lighting (Bi-Xenon headlamps, corner-sensing fog lamps), Heating (AIRSCARF, heated seats) and Comfort (eight-way power seats with memory and power steering column, standard on SLK55). Run-flat tires, an AMG Sport Package (both SLK350 only), and unique designo variants are also available.
Others to Consider
Audi TT V6 Quattro, BMW Z4, Porsche Boxster