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By some estimates, the first U.S. baby boomer turned 50 in February 1996. Coincidentally (or maybe not), a trio of new roadsters was introduced, the BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster, and Mercedes-Benz SLK. The midlife crises of the oldest boomers breathed new life into the roadster, a segment that had long been dead.
The Mercedes SLK, was welcomed to the U.S. with open arms in January 1997 (after being introduced in Europe), and immediately captured awards from the automotive media, including the prestigious 1998 North American Car of the Year, presented by an independent jury of the top 50 automotive journalists in the U.S. and Canada. Sales, which Mercedes hoped would hit 6,000 a year, increased to a peak of nearly 13,000. Mercedes sold more than 66,115 SLK models in its first seven years of production, with more than 300,000 sold around the globe.
Advance the clock eight years, and baby boomers, whose ranks number 78 million, are turning 50 at a rate of one every seven seconds, and they now have a host of sports cars to choose from, including the Nissan 350Z, Audi TT, Honda S2000, and Cadillac XLR to name only a few. And the earliest entries are now appearing in next-generation form.
The Mercedes SLK is among those entering their second generation. With its extreme makeover for the 2005 model year, the SLK seeks more men suffering midlife crises, with its bolder, more macho appearance, added horsepower and technical innovations. The original proved too popular with women making it less desirable for men, Mercedes marketers say.
The redesigned Mercedes SLK is far more macho than the almost cute appearance of the original SLK in an effort to attract more male buyers. The current SLK sells to 52 percent women and 48 percent men and U.S. marketers want to flip the percentage, and appeal to 60 percent men versus 40 percent women. The thinking, shared by other automakers, is that women will buy a car that appeals to a man but men won't buy cars associated with women.
Mercedes designers were inspired by Formula 1 styling themes and the McLaren SLR, an ultra-powerful, ultra-expensive Mercedes sports car. Racing-inspired cues include the arrow-shaped nose, steeply raked windshield and twin tailpipes. The wedge-shaped SLK sports a long, sloping hood and a short rear with wide doors in between. The SLK's design is a tad schizophrenic, as if two different designers did the front and back. Its face is busy, so there's lots to look at, almost too much, while the back end is clean and sleek.
In addition to gaining more machismo, the SLK also has grown in key dimensions. Compared with the current SLK, the new one is: 2.8 inches longer with 1.2 inch more wheelbase; 3 inches wider; and 1.3 inches higher. The added dimensions allowed for a seemingly roomier cabin, albeit still cozy, and a larger, more useful trunk, measuring 6.6 cubic feet, up 1.8 cubic feet.
The SLK did retain its retractable roof that dazzled crowds when it was first shown as a concept in at the 1994 Turin (Italy) and 1995 Paris auto shows. Now, the top folds in 22 seconds, three seconds faster than before. The top borrows from the more expensive SL roadster which turns the rear-window unit with its curved glass so it packages with the metal roof panels, thus creating more trunk space in concert with the more upright back end. (Optional run-flat tires help keep the trunk clear.) As before, the retractable hardtop, when up, makes the SLK feel like a solid coupe whereas softtops often suffer from annoying body shake and wind noise with the top up.
The SLK350 comes in 11 colors, including a new silver and a Caspian blue. Mercedes has exerted another technical innovation on the exterior; the paint used on the SLK, which is being expanded to all Mercedes models, is designed to be far more scratch resistant than other paints.
Inside, the added length and width have created passenger quarters that are a tad more roomy. The environs remain cozy but less cramped. Still, storage is almost non-existent but for the glovebox and door pockets. Purses, briefcases and jackets have to stow in the trunk when two passengers are aboard. Highly adjustable in a variety of directions, the seats are extremely comfortable and supportive even during long drives.
What's most impressive about the new SLK interior is the giant leap in quality of materials. The material covering the dash is irresistible to touch, soft and almost silky. Switches, buttons and trim are silver against the dark background. Five color choices for the interior are offered, black, blue, beige, red and ash. The ambiance is high-tech but not in a steely cold way, but rather in an inviting manner. The only wood is that which is ordered with the optional Vavona wood trim package.
A large center console divides the cabin in half. The console is home to the optional navigation and communications systems. In front of the driver, the redesigned instrument cluster features two large dials surrounded in silver, one of the speedometer, clock and fuel gauge, the other for the tachometer. Both have white needles.
Automatic climate control with built-in sun and pollutant sensors is standard.
A number of new techie features are available on the SLK. Among the most intriguing is what Mercedes calls the Active Heated Headrest or, in other countries, the AirScarf, deemed too feminine a name for the U.S. A first in the industry, the heater installed in the upper backrests of both seats blows warm air about the head and neck. Mercedes says the heater will allow the SLK to go topless for more hours of the day and to extend its top-down season. Traveling with the top and windows down, one can barely feel a whisper of warm air from the heater. The trick is to power the windows up and then one feels the warming blast, which can be set at one of three levels. Another clever feature is an infrared remote control to raise and lower the metal roof, useful for letting hot air out as you're walking up to the car (and great for showing off).
While an array of engines is offered on the SLK in Europe, the first U.S. model will be offered only with the new 3.5-liter dual-cam V6, marking the first use of this new engine. It replaces the previous 3.2-liter V6 and, thankfully, the supercharged four-cylinder Kompressor that appeared in the original SLK. The new engine marks a huge jump from the original SLK's 185 horsepower and even the 215 horsepower of the current V6. Yet, fuel economy is actually a tad better, at an estimated 22.2 miles per gallon, over the SLK320.
The new, more powerful engine appropriately matches the more aggressive, macho look of the roadster. The engine is rated at 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, putting it ahead of the BMW Z4 3.0i, the Porsche Boxster S, and V6-powered Audi TT. Mercedes engineers estimate the SLK350 is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mile per hour in less than 5.5 seconds, which would put it ahead of the pack. Indeed, the SLK packs plenty of punch when taking off from a stoplight or accelerating onto the highway, as we found while driving the car at its European introduction.
Another major change for the SLK is the shift to rack-and-pinion steering which delivers far more precise, point-and-shoot steering, an extremely appreciated improvement around blind hairpin mountain turns. Likewise, the sturdier body structure, which led to a complete absence of body shake, has made the handling sportier, while the ride remains comfortable.
The 2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class is all-new, with macho styling, macho power, more stable handling, and a roomier interior. Male and female baby boomers in midlife crisis are sure to appreciate the macho look, spirited driving dynamics and long list of innovative technologies.
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