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The Mercedes-Benz SLK was clearly created for people who have succeeded in life, acquired a significant chunk of disposable income, and are seeking to recapture the thrill of youth. Nothing wrong with that, and the current SLK delivers as advertised. This has always been a good-looking little roadster that's easy to live with, with Mercedes cachet and a stowaway hard top that turns the car into a closed coupe with the touch of a button. In its original iteration, the SLK didn't entirely live up to its image. It was a pretty little boulevard cruiser more than a true sports car.
For 2005, the SLK was thoroughly redesigned with a new, more powerful engine and a retuned suspension (not to mention aggressive new styling). With its 268-hp, 3.5-liter V6, the SLK350 now performs on much better terms with rockets such as the Honda S2000 and Nissan 350Z.
For 2006, Mercedes broadens the SLK's appeal with the introduction of the SLK280, a less expensive model powered by a 228-hp, 3.0-liter version of the V6. It's just right for buyers seeking the pleasure of open motoring and the luxury of a Mercedes without the higher cost of the more powerful engine. The new SLK280 complements the SLK350 and super high-performance, 355-hp SLK 55 AMG.
The roadster boom of the mid-1990s created a host of cars in this class, covering a broad range of prices. Machines such as the Mazda Miata, Audi TT, and BMW Z4 have their own strengths and unique appeal. Within that mix, the Mercedes SLK-class is better than ever, with more choices, and all the cachet that goes with the three-pointed star. Whether the preference is show or go, the SLK is worth a look.
Leather upholstery comes standard on both models, along with a nine-speaker sound system with an in-dash CD player, an antitheft alarm and Tele Aid telematics, which provides emergency response service or direct connection to the nearest Mercedes dealer.
The most popular options are packaged in groups. A premium package ($1,200) includes dual-zone automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, automatic dimming mirrors, variable-rate power steering and an infrared remote that operates the roof. The heating package ($960) adds heated seats and forced-air vents in the headrests. The lighting package ($990) includes headlight washers and bi-xenon headlights with a beam that turns with the direction of the car for better illumination around corners. The entertainment/navigation package ($2,900) adds a stereo upgrade, six-disc CD changer and DVD-based navigation system with integrated video-screen controls.
Nearly all options are available individually, including heated seats ($690), Sirius Satellite Radio ($500), CD changer ($430), upgraded brown Nappa Leather ($400), and run-flat tires ($260). Limited designo packages ($7,950), which offer unique paint and interior color schemes, are available, including Chablis, Graphite and Espresso editions. Those who want the AMG show without all the go can choose the AMG Sport Package ($4,040) on the standard SLKs. It adds the AMG body package, lowered suspension and button-shifted automatic.
The limited-production SLK55 AMG ($61,500) is powered by a 362-horsepower, 5.5-liter V8 with an AMG Speedshift automatic that can be manually shifted with buttons on the steering wheel. The suspension is lowered and the brakes are upgraded to match the extra power. The SLK55 is easily distinguished by its AMG body tweaks and special 18-inch wheels.
Safety features on all SLK models include six airbags: frontal and side-impact bags that protect the head and thorax, and small bags that protect the knees. Active safety features such as ABS with brake assist, which automatically applies full braking force should the driver mistakenly relax pressure on the brake pedal in an emergency braking situation, come standard along with an electronic stability program that helps the driver maintain control by reducing skidding.
Most small, luxury two-seat sports cars present buyers with a choice: They can choose a folding soft top like the Porsche Boxster or BMW Z4, or a fixed metal roof like the Audi TT coupe.
The Mercedes-Benz SLK offers the best of both worlds. Open motoring is the touch of a button away. Yet when the SLK's retractable metal roof is up and closed, this two-seater is bit quieter than its soft-top counterparts and a bit snugger against the elements. The SLK's solid roof also reduces the windshield flex and shimmy present in even the best-built convertibles. This is the tightest, most rattle-free SLK yet.
The new SLK280 generates an impressive 228 horsepower, more than the upgrade engine in the previous generation. Our test car, an SLK350, delivers 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, more than any of its primary competitors.
Combined with the six-speed manual transmission, the SLK350's engine moves this car from pretty around-town cruiser to true sports car. Indeed, with 0-60 mph times in the mid five-second range, the SLK350 is one of the quickest cars in its class. It packs plenty of punch when taking off from a stoplight or accelerating onto the highway. Better still, the new V6s deliver plenty of acceleration-producing torque at any engine speed: down low near idle, cruising at highway speed, or up near the redline. The SLK350 engine is impressively flexible. A jab at the gas pedal enables quick, safe passing maneuvers.
The SLK's rigid body structure reduces shakes and rattles and improves handling. The rack-and-pinion steering is precise, and well suited for point-and-shoot blasts through tight hairpins turns. Unlike the previous generation SLK, the current models seem to relish spirited driving, and do so with no degradation in ride quality. In fact, because it shimmies and vibrates less, the current SLK is much more pleasant than its predecessors for profiling at a leisurely pace.
The ultimate SLK, of course, is the V8-powered SLK55 AMG. This hot rod is intended to sell in the hundreds, and it's priced accordingly. It's the SLK for those who must have the most horsepower, grip and stopping power. Take the SLK350 at its most exhilarating, multiply times two, and you get a hint of the AMG. We wish this model were offered with a manual transmission. Still, its beefed-up seven-speed automatic, with full manual shift control via buttons on the steering wheel spokes, can make for a truly engaging driving experience.
The 2006 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class is Mercedes' best small roadster yet. Its retractable hard top is unique in the class, offering the best of two worlds, and it delivers the cachet many people associate with the three-pointed star. This is a sports car in the purest sense.
Michelle Krebs filed the original report for NewCarTestDrive.com.