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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.
The Mercedes-Benz SLK was thoroughly redesigned for 2005 and the objectives were obvious. Where the first-generation SLK was cute, almost dainty, the current one has a more aggressive appearance.
The SLK imitates the Mercedes McLaren SLR road car, which is hand-built in conjunction with the McLaren Formula 1 team and sells for $700,000. The resemblance is even more pronounced on SLKs with the AMG sport package, with its more aggressive air dams and side sills. The wedge-shaped SLK sports a long, sloping hood and a short rear deck with wide doors in between. If the 2006 model is more macho than the first-generation SLK, it's also more cluttered, and a tad schizophrenic, as if two different designers did the front and back. Its face is busy, so there's almost too much to look at, while the back end is clean and sleek.
The design overhaul was not entirely cosmetic, however. The SLK introduced a new generation of high-tech Mercedes paint, which was developed to be more scratch-resistant than conventional paint. The 2006 is larger than the first-generation SLK and the larger dimensions allow for a roomier cabin, albeit still cozy. Trunk capacity increased to 6.6 cubic feet.
The SLK features a retractable roof that folds in 22 seconds. The original design of this roof dazzled crowds when it was first shown at the 1994 Turin auto show, and the current top still draws spectators when operated.
The Mercedes-Benz SLK is a small, two-seat sports car. Though roomier than the previous-generation SLK, the cabin is cozy, particularly with the folding hardtop in place. There's adequate space to keep two good-size occupants from rubbing shoulders, but not much else. Moreover, storage space in the cockpit is limited to the glovebox, door pockets and some space in the center console. With two passengers aboard, purses, briefcases and jackets must be stowed in the trunk or wedged in some fashion behind the seats.
The seats are excellent. Widely adjustable in a variety of directions, they are both comfortable and supportive. Long drives are no problem here. Yet what's most impressive inside this second-generation SLK is the giant leap in the quality of materials used. The rubberized vinyl covering the dash is soft, almost silky, and irresistible to touch. Switches and trim are silver against a dark background, and the buttons have a pleasant feel. The look is carbon-fiber/aluminum, and the ambiance is high-tech in an inviting rather than a steely cold way. Wood trim is absent and only comes with the Vavona wood trim package.
The driver looks at an instrument package that is now standard across the Mercedes line. There are two big gauges, ringed with chrome and surrounded with silver in the SLK, with the speedometer, clock and fuel gauge grouped on the left and a tachometer on the right. The needles in the SLK are white. The gauge faces are bright, legible and as attractive as any in the business.
A prominent center stack divides the cabin through the middle, flowing down around the gear lever into the center console. The stack houses the optional integrated navigation/communication screen and climate controls. Automatic heating and cooling is standard, with built-in sun and pollutant sensors. Dual-zone temperature control is optional.
The navigation and stereo interface takes some learning and familiarity to get comfortable with the adjustments. Some buttons around the screen are labeled; others correspond to menu choices on the screen itself. With some practice, the Mercedes package is at least as effective, and in certain respects more user friendly, than the joystick/mouse system used by BMW and Audi.
The SLK offers several new technology features, and the most intriguing may be the AirScarf system. This amounts to forced-air vents in both seats, just below the headrests in line with the occupant's neck. These heaters are intended to allow the SLK to go topless more often, through a greater range of temperatures. There are three fan speeds and automatic compensation for ambient temperature. At freeway speeds with both the top and widows lowered, one can barely feels a whisper of warm air from the vents. The trick is leaving the side windows up, in which case the flow of air is truly a warming blast.
The retractable hardtop is as easy as it gets. Simply hold the button and 22 seconds later the top is either stowed under a smooth, hard cover behind the seats or back up over occupants' heads. The optional infrared remote control can raise and lower the roof with the key, useful for letting hot air out as you're walking up to the car on a summer day. Plus, it's great for showing off.
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.
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