Sportlich, Leicht, Kompakt. If your German is as spotty as ours, that stands for " Sporty, Light, Compact," and it's telling that those are the three letters used by Mercedes-Benz as an adopted moniker for the small hardtop/convertible coupe that it released all the way back in 1996. Thing is, it never really stood out as any of those things: Sporty, but certainly not powerful. Light, but, at a hair over 3,000 pounds, far from featherweight. Compact? Sure, a 94-inch wheelbase sounds about right, but the car has gotten bigger with every successive generation and has never seemed small behind the wheel the same way as, say, a Mazda MX-5 Miata.
If the Mercedes-Benz SLK350 isn't a quick and nimble little sports car, what is it? It's been a sales success for the most part, peaking in 2005 with 11,278 units sold in the United States, though those numbers have fallen in recent years. And it's also been labeled time and time again as a so-called "chick car." Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but those two words are a veritable death knell to the heads and hearts of driving enthusiasts the world over (though curiously the Miata has largely earned an exemption).
With keys to the latest 2012 SLK350 in hand, we pondered this latest compact roadster from Mercedes-Benz with a critical eye. Has the SLK grown into a proper sporting mount, or does it still wear the dreaded chick-car stereotype? As it turns out, the answer is a little bit of both.
To many buyers, the most important styling aspect of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK is the massive three-pointed star emblazoned on the front grille. That grille is in the shape of a rounded trapezoid, mimicking the brand's latest design ethos and making the little SLK look a lot like the trendsetting CLS and its bigger brother, the SL, which itself was redesigned for the 2013 model year.
Moving backwards from its angular front fascia, what we see are mostly straight lines without a lot of surface detailing. The hindquarters of the car cut off rather abruptly behind the rear wheels and eschew the straight-edge character of the rest of the car in favor of several gently sweeping curves. To our eyes, this roadster's best view is from the front, and it gets less and less harmonious as you move back from there. Still, the SLK commands a striking presence with its manly schnoz and massive square-jawed maw.
The SLK commands a striking presence with its manly schnoz and massive square-jawed maw.
Styling comparisons can easily be drawn from the old 190 SL and later 230 SL to the new SLK350, especially since all of these droptops feature gigantic silver star-shaped emblems pointing the way forward with an intersecting horizontal chrome bar, bracketed by prominent headlights.
If the exterior pays homage to its historic models of yore, the latest SLK's interior is a thoroughly modern place to spend some time. Front and center in the dash, when properly equipped, is a seven-inch LCD screen that's used for entertainment functions and the navigation system. Mercedes' integrated wheel-shaped joystick controller, located behind and to the left of the automatic gearbox shift lever, is used to control all the functions of the in-dash screen, as it's not touch sensitive.
When equipped with the Premium Package, audio choices abound, from the expected CD player, AM/FM and XM satellite radio to streaming Bluetooth. Also on tap are USB and SD card slots, both of which allow the driver to sort their music libraries by various categories such as artist, album or song – a nice touch made possible by the integration of the Gracenote database. There's also 10 gigabytes of internal hard disk space for music storage. Eleven Harmon Kardon speakers combine to pump the jams loud enough to drown out the ever-present wind and road noise common to convertibles with the top down.
The SLK allows for top-down motoring even when the thermometer isn't cooperating.
Below the big screen are physical buttons for the audio and navigation, and further down still are buttons and dials for the climate control system. There are some unique features that Mercedes has included to aid in driver and passenger comfort with the top down, most notably the neck-level heating system that MB cryptically calls Airscarf. This system, with its vents located behind the two seats, combined with the Airguide wind blocker, allow for top-down motoring even when the thermometer isn't cooperating with your daily commute. In one nod to retroism, the four in-dash HVAC vents are large, chrome-ringed circles similar to those on the SLS AMG. Though they don't exactly match the rest of the cabin's plain-and-simple sophistication, we like the way they look, and they certainly work well enough.
Nestling into the eight-way power driver's seat is a comfortable affair once a suitable driving position is secured – made easier by the power tilt and telescoping steering wheel – and visibility is as good as any other car in its class. The leather seats look good and their contrasting stitching adds some visual flair. The view ahead is straightforward with two round gauges displaying engine speed and road speed and a digital driver information screen in between.
One other noteworthy feature of the SLK's cabin is that its retractable hardtop is optionally available with a large pane of glass that can alter its level of transparency to let more or less light into the cabin. Magic Sky Control, as it's called, is a trick bit of technology and can be controlled electronically from inside. Considering that the ability to stow or deploy the top at a moment's notice is what this car is all about, the Short Cut below shows it in action.
Finally, it's time to hit the Start button.
The SLK350 has all-new engines for 2012. Our tester was equipped with a 60-degree V6 displacing, as its name suggests, 3.5 liters. Featuring direct injection, the mill cranks out 302 horsepower at 6,500 RPM and 273 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 RPM. That ought to be plenty of power, and indeed it will capably scoot the SLK350 to 60 miles per hour in 5.4 seconds, according to the automaker.
In practice, however, the V6 powerplant is a bit soulless, quietly going about the business of providing forward thrust to the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic gearbox with the requisite steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. There's enough power on hand to get moving in a hurry, but it's delivered in a workmanlike manner, and it doesn't exactly sing beautiful music into your ears, either. It's more of a soothing hum than an upbeat soundtrack.
The V6 is a bit soulless, quietly going about the business of providing forward thrust to the rear wheels.
Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 highway, and we managed to record figures in the low 20s over its week-long stay in our garage. We're eager to sample the new SLK250 and its 201-hp turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder to see if that downsized engine adds a dose of driving fun and improved efficiency. A row-your-own manual gearbox would certainly help yield more driving enjoyment, as well.
If the engine doesn't seem like it was initially intended for sports car duty, the chassis makes up for it. Mercedes-Benz has dropped its Direct-Steer system into the 2012 SLK350, which automatically varies the steering ratio based on how far you turn the steering wheel. It works well, making low-speed maneuvering an easy affair while still offering direct feedback and good road feel at higher speeds. The car's ride remains comfortable over rough pavement, never sending harsh jolts through to the passengers, and the 225/40 R18 front and 245/35 R18 rear provide plenty of grip, though it's impossible to say what the actual limits are since the stability control cannot be fully disengaged.
Single-piston sliding calipers front and rear aren't exactly top-spec equipment these days, but they get the job done well enough, and we somehow doubt the average SLK buyer will require anything more powerful. A track toy the SLK350 is most definitely not.
What the SLK350 is, however, is a mighty fine steed with which to soak in the sun for a weekend getaway for two. It's stylish, powerful enough to have fun and offers the best possible option for sun worshipers: that aforementioned retractable hardtop.
Pricing for the 2012 SLK350 starts at $54,800. That sum doesn't include many of the niceties that will no doubt be demanded by most buyers, however. For instance, Magic Sky Control will cost an additional $2,500. Want heated seats, satellite radio, an iPod interface and Airscarf? That's all part of the $2,590 Premium Package. And if you add the Multimedia Package that includes navigation, you'll be out another $2,150. Our well-equipped test car rang in at $68,545. Checking every available option box will put the SLK350 easily over $70,000.
Is the latest SLK350 a chick car? Depending on your definition, we'd have to say that yes, it is. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. If you're looking for tip-top driving dynamics, it's best to elsewhere. Like, for instance, at the Porsche Boxster. Or, if you don't care so much about dropping the top, the BMW 1 Series M Coupe or M3, or perhaps even the Audi TT RS. But if you're looking for something suitable for relaxed strolls with your significant other or even somewhat quick jaunts through your favorite local set of twisties, the SLK350 will do quite nicely. And let's be honest, the massive Three-Pointed Star up front is, in many circles, considered much more chic than chick.
The massive three-pointed star up front is, in many circles, considered much more chic than chick.
We did have a very nice time with the 2012 SLK350, enjoying it for what it is instead of pining for what it isn't. And while your author tends to prefer genuinely sporty sports cars over more casual encounters, the allure of a well-sorted and sophisticated convertible is just as strong today as it was way back in 1955 when the first Mercedes-Benz 190 SL rolled off the assembly line.