The Mercedes-Benz SLK350 is the smaller and less-expensive of the marque's two-door roadsters. The SLK350 features a retractable hardtop that shuts out the weather when up and allows for the freedom of open-air driving in just 20 seconds. In price and performance the SLK350 competes with the Audi TT, BMW Z4, and Porsche Boxster.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK features fresh looks inside and out and a new engine, though the platform isn't substantially new.
Initially, a new 3.5-liter V6 is the only engine available. It replaces another 3.5-liter V6, but adds direct engine and changes from a 90- to a 60-degree configuration, which is the ideal design geometry for a V6. Horsepower and torque are up slightly, but fuel economy is improved by 12 percent. The lone transmission is a 7-speed automatic that can be shifted manually with steering wheel paddles.
Due in early 2012 is the SLK250, which will feature a 201-horsepower turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder. Following soon thereafter will be the SLK55 AMG, which will get a new 415-horsepower 5.5-liter V8.
In basic V6 form, the SLK350 is quite quick, but not as fast as higher end models from its competitors. The new engine has a pronounced exhaust note that is probably the rawest aspect of the car.
Handling is impressive, though not quite as sharp as that of the Porsche and BMW competition. The steering isn't razor sharp just off center but it gets quicker as the steering wheel is turned thanks to Mercedes-Benz's Direct Steer. It's a great system that aids handling in sharp turns. While the Boxster and Z4 may be sportier, the SLK is the most comfortable car in its class, with a quiet, stable ride.
Inside, the SLK offers the typical high-quality Mercedes-Benz cabin featuring an attractive design and top-notch materials. Room is good for all but tall drivers, who will want more seat travel. The folding hardtop limits trunk space, but there is still enough room for a weekend away.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 delivers agile handling, ready power and a smooth ride. Driving enthusiasts, however, will be better served by the Porsche or the performance version of the BMW.
Standard equipment includes leather upholstery, air conditioning, interior air filter, cruise control, 8-way power seats with lumbar adjustment, power tilt/telescoping leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, heated power mirrors with turn signals and driver's side auto-dimming, power windows, power locks, remote keyless entry, AM/FM radio with 6-disc CD/MP3 changer, HD radio, auxiliary input jack, Bluetooth audio streaming and wireless cell-phone link, mbrace assistance system, trip computer, rain-sensing wipers, universal garage door opener, automatic headlights, theft-deterrent system, cloth windscreen, sport-tuned suspension, rear fog lights, and P225/40R18 front and P245/35R18 rear tires on alloy wheels.
Options start with Premium Package 1 ($2,590), which includes heated front seats, AirScarf neck-level heating, a Harman Kardon sound system, an iPod interface, satellite radio, and remote control for the retractable roof. A Multimedia Package ($2,150) adds a navigation system with voice recognition and real-time traffic information, the Mercedes COMAND control screen, an SD card reader, and a 10-gigabyte music hard drive. A Dynamic Handling Package ($990) adds a Sport button to control an adjustable suspension. A Sport Package ($2,500) comes with red interior ambient lighting, AMG wheels, and more aggressive AMG-designed front air dam, side sills and rear apron. The Distronic Plus Package ($2,685) includes Pre-Safe crash safety system and adaptive cruise control. A Lighting Package ($1,090) adds adaptive bi-xenon headlights with washers, and a Wood Trim Package ($990) brings Burl Walnut wood interior trim and a wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel. Stand-alone options consist of front- and rear-obstacle detection ($970), dual-zone automatic climate control ($760), Keyless Go keyless access and starting ($650), a glass panel roof ($500), Mercedes' new Magic Sky Control roof ($2,500), a Plexiglas windblocker ($350), illuminated door sills ($700), and the AMG alloy wheels ($500).
Safety features include dual front airbags, side airbags, knee airbags, active head restraints, roll bars, tire-pressure monitor, Attention Assist, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, traction control and electronic stability control.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK features the classic sports car silhouette, with low stance, long hood, and short rear deck. The design, which appeared on the high-performance 2011 SLS AMG, takes cues from the 1955 190SL, with a pronounced, upright grille. The large grille features the Mercedes star, which can be interpreted as the front view of a propeller, and it is flanked by bars that look like airplane wings. Daytime running lights are standard, and self-cleaning, adaptive bi-xenon headlights that point into turns are optional.
The car is 1.5-inches wider this year, 1.5 inches longer and it sits a half inch lower. The front fenders sport side gills which are new to the SLK, but are recognizable from the larger SL-Class. The rear end features an integrated trunk spoiler and LED taillights. The overall look is more masculine, which is just what the SLK needed.
The retractable hardtop is easy to operate, but it doesn't work while the car is moving as similar tops do on some competitors. It goes up or down in a tidy 20 seconds. The top is offered with a body-color roof panel, an 80-percent tinted clear panel or the new Magic Sky Control roof. This industry first option features a tinted film with particles that can be charged. Press a button to send a charge through the film and it reduces the tint to 80 percent, letting in lots of light. When uncharged, the particles flatten out, increasing the tint to 95 percent, darkening the view above considerably, and helping to keep the car cool on a hot day. Magic Sky Control is a cool little innovation, but at $2500 it's more of a curiosity than a wise option choice.
Like other Mercedes models, the SLK interior is replete with top-notch materials. There are no hard plastic surfaces or wide panel gaps. The dashboard, armrests and center console are all soft to the touch, and the design is made more interesting by contrasting colors. Real aluminum or burl walnut wood trim add to the look, as does the red ambient lighting included with the Sport Package. The gauges, which feature gray numerals on a white background with aluminum trim rings, have a classy watch-like quality. These gauges straddle a digital display that shows trip computer, outside temperature and other vehicle information.
Like other luxury cars, the SLK features a central control interface. Mercedes calls it COMAND, and it uses a rotating knob on the center console to control the communications, navigation and entertainment functions. A series of buttons on the center stack makes getting to each area easier, but it will still take awhile for the uninitiated to get used to the system. It may be a bit complex, but it eliminates the need for many hard-to-find buttons. After several turns in various Mercedes, we've gotten used to COMAND, but it took longer to learn than BMW's iDrive system did.
Appropriate for a sports car, the seats are comfortable, supportive and have thick enough bolstering to keep occupants in place in fast corners. Head and legroom are plentiful for average size occupants, but tall folks might want more seat travel. You won't want to put the seat back all the way because it rubs up against the rear bulkhead and causes an annoying squeaking sound. Cool weather comfort is aided by the available AirScarf system, which blows warm air on passengers' necks. It's a bit of a help on a cool day, but it won't make you want to drive with the top down when it's under 50 or 55 degrees outside.
The retractable hardtop does a good job of shutting out noise when up, and visibility is good with the top up, too. The SLK offers two types of windblockers. The standard cloth windblocker works just fine and an optional version with two fold-down Plexiglas wings works just as well while offering better rear visibility. Neither version, however, will shut out enough wind to make cell phone calls possible at highway speeds when the top is down.
While the top takes up some trunk space, the SLK has a decent 6.4 cubic feet of cargo volume. As we found out, that is just enough to hold two pieces of carry-on luggage and two laptop bags.
The 2012 SLK350 is legitimately sporty, but it competes with cars that are even sportier, namely the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z4 sDrive35is.
We drove the 2012 SLK350 on North Carolina's famed Tail of the Dragon and found it to be an ideal car for this technical 11-mile stretch that features some 300 turns. It carved through the corners like an Olympic slalom skier and had just the right amount of power to sprint from one turn to the next. We torture-tested the brakes with two complete turns through the Tail (down and back twice), but they never faded or warped. Most production car brakes would struggle in such conditions.
With its low stance and short wheelbase, the SLK350 dives readily into turns. When pushed through switchbacks, it rotates nicely, without a tendency to plow forward. It also stays very flat through corners, and gathers itself quickly to head back in the opposite direction. It's a good car for an autocross.
Just off center, the steering isn't razor sharp, but thanks to its Direct Steer system, it gets much more responsive in tight corners. This variable ratio system becomes quicker the further off center the steering wheel is turned, making it easier to rotate the car through the 180-degree switchbacks found on the Tail of the Dragon. It's a great system, but we still prefer the Porsche Boxster's steering, which is sharper and offers more feedback.
The SLK structure isn't changed appreciably for 2012, but it didn't really need to be. There is very little cowl shake with the top up or down. The SLK doesn't feel as solid as the Porsche. Ride quality, on the other hand, is more compliant over bumps, making the SLK easier to live with on a daily basis.
The 2012 SLK350 marks the debut of an all-new engine for Mercedes. Though it displaces the same 3.5 liters as last year's V6, it is more powerful, more responsive and more fuel efficient. Power is available at all speeds with broad rev ranges, so sprinting ahead of traffic and passing will never be a problem. Throttle response is tuned more for comfort than outright performance. It tips in smoothly but doesn't feel dull. The engine note is prevalent, especially at full throttle. It's a raspy, somewhat flatulent note that isn't as cool as a V8 rumble. Still, we thought it fit with the car's sporty character.
While the SLK350 is quick, it's not as quick as some of its competitors. Zero to 60 mph takes 5.4 seconds in the SLK. The Porsche Boxster S and BMW Z4 sDrive 35is are sub five-second cars. Those looking for more power in the SLK will have to wait for the upcoming SLK55 AMG with a reported 415-horsepower 5.5-liter V8. Those who want to save money in the SLK will want to opt for the forthcoming SLK250, which will feature a 201-horsepower turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder.
The 7-speed automatic works well in everyday driving and aids fuel economy, but it's meant for a passenger car, not a sports car, and we found it lacking for this car. It's one of the major reasons the SLK isn't as sporty as some competitors. When you start to push it during performance driving, shifts in Drive feel slushy. Sport mode holds gears longer to make power more readily available, but the shifts still aren't quick. You can opt to shift it manually via the steering wheel paddles, but it takes its sweet time engaging that next gear. The dual-clutch automated manuals offered by the competition crack off the gear changes much quicker. To compound the issue, Mercedes doesn't offer a manual transmission, which is just wrong for a sports car.
In a class with some impressively sporty competition, the Mercedes-Benz SLK is competitive, but it gives up some performance for a smooth ride, reactions that aren't quite as sharp, and a transmission that fits better in an S-Class than in a sports car. The new engine offers an impressive balance of power and fuel economy, and the looks are more masculine than ever. Prices continue to rise, though, making the SLK350 a less accessible deal than it was in the past.
Kirk Bell filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Mercedes-Benz SLK350 in Tennessee and North Carolina.