As a somewhat cute roadster, the SLK previously appealed to trophy wives and very successful hairdressers. But not anymore. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 comes out with an aggressive look in front and an exhaust note that sends small woodland animals scurrying for the hills.
Vents in the hood, a big lower air intake, and the prominent Mercedes-Benz badge on the grille declare that the SLK350 has something to prove, a chip on its shoulder from too many years of Sunday driving. But the rear does not maintain the new style, instead showing curves similar to those of the BMW Z4, one of its chief competitors.
With its panoramic glass roof, the SLK350 has a very futuristic look from the rear, which is not at all stylistically cohesive with the front end. From the back, the car looks like a space pod, something that would be floating around the International Space Station in 10 years or so.
As a retractable hard top, the SLK350's roof is an entertaining bit of tech. As with most modern movable tops of this type, it is power-operated, doing a bit of origami on itself at the push of a button. It stacks up in the trunk or unfolds itself, protecting the cabin from wind and rain. As a gee-whiz option, Mercedes-Benz also offers an electroluminescent top that changes opacity depending on the severity of the sun.
Eco, Sport, and Manual
Like the car's new front-end looks, the engine helped me feel secure in my manhood as I got behind the wheel of this former chick car. The 3.5-liter V-6, now featuring direct injection, starts up with the sound of an angry tiger, then settles down to a clearly audible idle. This thick steering wheel has a flattened bottom and sculpted thumbholds above the spokes, a practical style for slaloms and S turns.
Paddles on the wheel complement the shifter, both working through the seven gears of the automatic transmission. A button near the shifter takes the car from its default Eco mode to Sport, then to Manual. Each of these modes changes the gearbox programming. And while an automatic may discourage sport drivers, this one uses a lock-up clutch, eliminating torque converter slush and creating hard gear shifts.
The SLK350's default Eco mode is actually its standard drive mode, with Mercedes-Benz' clever use of the letter E reflecting its claim that its cars are very efficient and emit minimal CO2. Expect to see other cars in the Mercedes-Benz lineup adopt this nomenclature.
While driving the car in Eco mode at low speeds on city streets, I found the high-revving engine and gearbox led to some herky-jerky motion. Moderately stepping on the gas pedal initiated gear changes that threw me back and forth in the cabin. The SLK350 didn't always behave in this manner, but at certain speeds it delivered less than the luxury driving character promised by the Mercedes-Benz brand. I would never want Mercedes-Benz to go back to the torque converter gearbox, but maybe a little refinement of this one's programming would eliminate the jerks.
Getting into higher speeds, the SLK350 delivered the kind of performance I would expect from a tony roadster. The leather seats and Harman Kardon audio system made the cabin a pleasant place to sit while covering boring stretches of freeway, but the short wheelbase and excellent engine note had me thirsting for the tight turns of a mountain road.
The cabin of the SLK350 is an enticing place, Mercedes-Benz having taken pains to make it suitable for open-top driving. The Air Scarf technology blew warm air from the base of the headrest around my neck, and heated seats handled any other challenge from the fall weather. Mercedes-Benz also tried to minimize turbulence in the cabin, which mostly seems to work with the help of a screen between the headrests.
With the top down, the wind noise at anything over 40 mph is intolerable. After hearing the jet enginelike volume during a bit of freeway travel, I brought up the side windows, which diminished the sound considerably even with the top still down. And made it possible to hear music from the 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio system.
That many speakers may seem like overkill in a two-seater, but I had no complaints. Although hampered by external noise, during later testing with the top up I could hear an excellent degree of detail from this system. It managed to lift tones and instruments from complexly layered tracks that might get lost when played over an inferior system. The system could also handle cranked-up bass without a problem. In some ways, the reproduction is too detailed, as high notes can become piercing.