The Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster is perhaps the standard-bearer for the quadroon of small, sporty German drop-tops. It debuted in 1997, with a revolutionary power folding hardtop and styling that was drop-dead gorgeous. It was visually superior to the BMW Z3 and the Porsche Boxster, but not as dynamic in terms of performance. It gave up a little ground to the Volkswagen Golf-based Audi TT in the style department, but was a better performer with its genuine RWD platform. It was a Benz through and through, focusing more on style and luxury than on outright speed. As such, it became stereotyped as a bit feminine.
In a 2004 redesign, Mercedes-Benz has addressed all of the SLK’s shortcomings. Not most of them – all of them. It has shed its cute, stubby styling for something entirely different. Its nose is inspired by the McLaren Formula1 cars that use Mercedes-Benz engines, and brings the SLK in line with the SLR supercar, the high-dollar joint venture between McLaren and Daimler-Benz. In contrast to the old car’s slab sides, the new car is made of more contoured (and therefore more expensive) sheetmetal, giving the car a healthy dose of that visual massiveness that Mercedes-Benz has mastered.
Like the TT, the SLK was criticized for putting style before substance, and buyers looking for a driver’s car got into BMW Z3s, Boxsters, and Honda S2000s. The SLK now has the chops to play with those cars, with new engines and transmissions, as well as more traditional sports-car handling. It’s remarkably agile, considering the added weight that a folding hardtop mechanism inevitably brings with it.
Our test car was the mid-level SLK 350, which falls between the entry-level SLK 280 and the brawny SLK 55 AMG. It seems to be the perfect compromise. Its 3.5-liter V6 delivers 268 horsepower at 6.000 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque over the spread from 2,400 to 5,000 rpm. That propels the SLK 350 from zero to sixty in just 5.4 seconds, and gives it instant torque at almost any engine speed. The high torque at low rpm is something you’d normally associate with a turbocharged or supercharged engine, and it makes the SLK 350 incredibly tractable.
Ordinarily the AMG models are the enthusiast’s choice, but the SLK 55, with its 355-hp V8, doesn’t come in a manual like our 350 did. Both the 350 and the 55 are electronically limited to 155 mph, but the 55 is only listed as .6 seconds quicker to sixty (4.8 versus our 350’s 5.4) and gets worse gas mileage (16 city/22 highway, against our six-speed 350’s 18/25).
Another stopwatch figure worth quoting is 22 seconds – the time it takes the SLK to drop its top. Or to put it back on, for that matter. It’s darn quick, and so quiet that it can sometimes lead you to take off with the process still in motion.
You can also watch the 2007 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Video on YouTube.
The main drawback to power folding roofs (aside from the added weight, which doesn’t seem to bother the 350 very much) is the restrictive effect they have on trunk space. But Mercedes has found a way to minimize this consequence – the SLK’s boot has 9.8 cubic feet of cargo volume with the top up, and 6.5 cubic feet with the top stowed inside. Most hardtop convertibles find their trunk space cut in half or more, but the SLK has an ingenious solution – the glass rear window swivels during the folding process, to match the curvature of the top panel. That makes for a much more compact package when stowed, and minimizes the practical compromises one makes when owning a car with such a roof.
Mercedes has also endeavored to make the SLK as much of a year-round convertible as possible. Our test car came with the Heating Package, which features a high-quality cloth windscreen, heated seats, and the killer “AIRSCARF” neck-level heating system. This does just what it sounds like. Hot air blows out of vents built into the SLK’s seats, activated by the push of a button on the dash. The combination turns the SLK into a convertible for the late fall, and that’s provided you’re not wearing gloves or a hat. If you were really determined and properly attired, putting the top down in the dead of winter would be OK for short periods of time.
The Heating Package was one of the more worthwhile selections on a long list of options for our particular SLK 350. ‘Storm Red’ paint added $700, automatic climate control was $710, and the six-disc changer was $440.
The multiple packages equipped added a new dimension of luxury (and cost) to our test car. An appearance package ($990) added exotically named wood trim and upgraded wheels, the Lighting Package ($1,000) added Bi-Xenon headlamps, corner-illuminating fog lamps, and headlamp washers. The “Premium III” package was a monster. It added $4,850 to the SLK’s price, and included a host of luxury upgrades: Eight-way power seats, power steering column, SIRIUS Satellite Radio, the COMAND DVD-based navigation system, an infrared function to remotely open the roof, an ambient lighting package for the interior, and a Harman/Kardon surround sound system. That’s not even all of it, either.
After all that, our SLK’s starting MSRP of $47,400 had ballooned to $57,835 including a $775 destination charge. That pretty much removes the SLK from bargain territory. If it were our money, we’d skip everything but the Heating Package, as that is absolutely essential to the SLK’s character as a year-round convertible. Everything else is expendable, really. Power seats are less important when you don’t have a rear seat to accommodate, and automatic climate control is not essential in an open-top car with a very small passenger compartment. So, you can buy an SLK 350 on a budget for less than $50K, and that’s very good news.