Review: 2008 Mercedes SLK55 AMG

2008 Mercedes SLK55 AMG – Click above for high-res image gallery

It sits there, all tension and sinew, ready to pounce on lesser cars. Start it up and it barks with a clear V8 voice that thumps off the neighbor's house, setting them discreetly peeking from behind their lace curtains. This is an SLK? Oh yeah. No longer a blocky Benz with dwarfism, the SLK55 AMG ripples with muscle and delivers speed like a spin kick to the temple. A bad-ass Mercedes, indeed.

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Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

Of course, the SLK55 AMG is still relatively small – about the size of an MX-5, with a bit more nose. Ignoring the hand-built 5.5 liter V8 for a moment, there's plenty of Mercedes-ness to make you happy, if that's your thing. COMAND is without humor, but tries to compensate by having lots of buttons and a clunky GUI. Once you figure out how to work it, COMAND isn't actually that bad, but we'd be plenty happy paying more to just get the ease and simplicity of single-function switches for commonly used items and stripping out all the multimedia gimcrackery.

Leave the nav and the Harman Kardon stereo at the dealership. As nice as that stuff is, even a fully loaded iPod plugged into the glovebox-mounted interface will go unused from the first moment the smart key is twisted around clockwise. Corvettes sound like this, hot rods too. But a Mercedes? The muscular voice AMG has bestowed upon this roadster is even more of a surprise than the Jaguar XK's rorty tone. The multitudinous speeds in the automatic transmission are slapped around by wheel-mounted paddles, and the snappy sport shift mode is the one to use. Fuel economy? Who cares? For the record, the EPA thinks it'll do between mid-teens to mid-twenties; numbers which assume you'll be able to keep your boot out of the throttle. Not bloody likely.

A sharp two-tone color scheme of black and red leather adorned the eight-way power seats in the SLK55 we tried. The black outer and red inner cowhides are also accented by black alcantara, and the comfortable seats have built-in neck warmers to complement their heaters, making alfresco motoring possible into deepest Autumn. The beltline is high, though, so while the seat feels good on the rump, us shorties would like a little more height from the power adjustments. Overall, materials and fit and finish seem right on the mark for the price Mercedes wants.

When the weather does turn frosty or moist, or you need to arrive at your destination without that windblown chic look, the SLK deploys a folding hardtop that doesn't eat up the entire trunk, but does make loading and unloading difficult when stowed. Convertibles aren't introverted cars, and the SLK55 does draw a certain amount of attention to itself by virtue of its bold styling and assertive sounds. Power tops can also be good for drawing crowds once you've reached your destination, and the nicely trimmed top in this Benz is definitely conspicuous in action.

It's hard to gripe about a car that has a great V8 wallop underhood, heroic brakes, prodigious grip, and even brings a dash of style to the typically serious idea of a German car, but we do have a few complaints. Let's start with an ongoing problem for many European cars. Cupholders. German cupholders are often the most amazingly engineered things that manage to utterly fail at holding a cup. Such is the case with the SLK. Not only is the cupholder a flimsy apparatus with about a demitasse of capacity, its location up high on the center stack and in front of dash vents is not ideal, either. Also poorly located is the cruise control stalk. It was located exactly where your hand expects a blinker stalk (that's located lower), and it makes for some excitement halfway through a slow, residential turn. You think you've been holding the blinker down, but no, you've been telling the cruise to accelerate, and it really lays on the throttle halfway through the turn. Whoa.

Dynamically, the ride is stiff, but not tooth-rattling. There's a suppleness missing from the chassis that large rollers and Z-rated rubber help agitate. Those 18-inch wheels wrapped in 225/40s up front and 235/35s in the rear do serve up enough grip to get you in serious danger if you suffer from an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation. Overdo it, and a tap of the firm brake pedal squeezes cross-drilled rotors up front with four-piston calipers, and two-piston calipers in the rear. We never got the SLK frisky enough to engage the stability control, but it's there. Looking at how much of the V8 hangs over the front axle's center line, we'd surmise that the SLK's at-limit behavior is resolute understeer that can be cajoled into powerslides with the throttle. Oddly enough, there's a bit of road feel that comes through the rack and pinion, a recent development at the house of Mercedes. It's no BMW, with that brand's delicate finesse, but it's not some numb, slow recirculating ball steering box like Benzes of yore. They're getting there.

While the roughly 3500 pounds isn't featherweight, we were surprised to learn the SLK was that light. Maybe it's the solidity of the R171 platform, but the SLK feels substantial – more like it weighs 4,000 pounds. It's likely a combination of the structure and its tuning that leads to this impression, were the suspension less flinty, the angry little AMG might have felt lighter on its feet. The price, too, starting at $65,000 and reaching the $72,000 of our test unit, is surprisingly lighter than you'd guess at first. No, it's not inexpensive, but it's surprising to see a Mercedes rocket in Corvette territory. Just like the 'Vette, there's so much power and capability here that it's easy to scare yourself, and that fright can be addictive. The ability to turn 0-60 runs in the 4s will transform even that guy with the tweed porkpie hat into Rat Fink.

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Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

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