2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO
An elegant, graceful well-integrated bit of machinery
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS
The third generation of Mercedes-Benz's SLK-Class sports car is here, with significant changes. Most apparently, where its immediate predecessor celebrated Mercedes-Benz's involvement in motorsports with Formula One-inspired front styling, the 2012 edition takes a nod to the company's considerable heritage with, in company with the premium SL-Series and AMG SLS supercar, styling cues that go back to the 300SL and 190 SL of the 1950s.
But that's outside. Note that there is nothing even remotely "retro" to the newest SLK except those styling cues. Today, the SLK may be to the SL as the 190 was to the 300 fifty-plus years ago. But both are far more advanced, comfortable, well-appointed, and quicker than their illustrious forebears. In any sort of comparison, a 2012 SLK350 will be at least the equal of or better than the legendary mid-50s 300SL "Gullwing", never mind the 190 - nearly 60 years of engineering, materials science, and electronic technology will see to that.
The SLK was an immediate success when it debuted here in 1998, offering mid-level sports performance from a 180-horsepower 2.3-liter supercharged engine in a stylish package with a retractable convertible hardtop. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if it seems now that hardtop convertibles outnumber soft-tops, the trend started here.
The original SLK was sprightly and nimble, and power was increased with the availability of a 3.2-liter, 215-hp V6 later. Partway through the second generation came a 3.5-liter twincam V6, providing more serious performance. The third-generation SLK350 also has a 3.5-liter V6, but it's a completely new engine. Direct fuel injection and multi-spark ignition give it not only more power -- as in 302 horses worth -- but better fuel economy and lower emissions. The seven-speed multi-mode automatic transmission has also been massaged for smoother and more efficient operation.
It's still compact outside, a plus on a tight road or when parking, but there's a surprising amount of room inside, and the folding top converts from coupe to roadster or back in about 20 seconds. Despite its performance potential, the SLK is a luxury sports-tourer at heart, with plenty of room in the trunk, even top-down, for a long weekend for two and the comfort to make that trip as long as desired.
I've just finished a Fall week with a 2012 SLK350 that was perfect for discovering the car's year-round potential. One day it was 90 degrees - top up and AC on, works quickly thank you very much! Then a perfect 75, top down, AIRSCARF neck heat and seat heaters as the sun went down, life is good. Then 60 and the first rain of the season. No problem, snug, warm, and dry inside. If I was a bit nonplussed by the performance at first, with the transmission mode selector in default "E" (for economy), changing it to "S" (sport) or manually shifting unlocked its inner beast. And with E for normal traffic, I still saw a 21-mpg average.
Watch TACH's promo video of the new SLK
APPEARANCE: It's been a while since Mercedes-Benzes were known as conservatively-styled "doctor's cars". The SLK is anything but conservative, and almost as exciting to look at as to drive. Yes, it pays serious homage to its illustrious ancestors -- if you've got heritage, why not celebrate it? -- but there is nothing old-fashioned about it. The twin "power domes" on the hood and wide, low air intake with a single crossbar and the three-pointed star logo harken back to the SLs of the `50s in basic concept, but are more stylized here. The HID headlight clusters with LED running lights are definably contemporary. Top-up or -down, it's athletic without being muscle-bound, with classic proportions and taut lines. The roof top panel is solid in standard trim, but a fixed-tint "Panorama Roof" or "Magic Sky Control" variable-tint roof panel is offered. My test car had the Panorama Roof, which gave a pleasant airy feel without wind. Or sunburn. The Sport Package includes AMG panels for the front air dam, side sills, and rear apron, and AMG 18-inch forged alloy wheels.
COMFORT: Spoken here. Being the entry-level Mercedes-Benz sports car is no reason to skip on the comforts and conveniences that have given the brand its deserved reputation.
SAFETY: As ever, safety is not compromised by the SLK's convertible body. Twin roll bars are behind the seats, and extra-strong windshield pillars add further protection. As does safety-cage and crumple zone construction, one of many Mercedes-Benz innovations long ago and widely copied. There are eight airbags, frontal, knee, side torso and head for both passengers. The "Attention Assist" system uses a steering sensor and special software to identify the sort of erratic steering inputs made by a drowsy driver. If detected, a warning message is given. Strong four-wheel antilock disc brakes with Brake Assist and adaptive braking are further enhanced by the ESP stability control system.
RIDE AND HANDLING: It may have all of the comfort of a luxury car, but the 2012 SLK is a sports car at heart. Its unibody structure has increased torsional and bending strength compared to the previous generation, and its MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension makes intensive use of aluminum to reduce unsprung weight and so quicken suspension and handling response. Sprung weight is reduced by use of aluminum for the front fenders and hood. The standard suspension calibration is appropriately firm, but never harsh, and steering effort is appropriate for the mission of the car. The result is a driver's car that is a true joy to drive hard -- and it's just as happy cruising slowly through city traffic. For those with a desire for more high-tech ability, the Dynamic Handling Package includes continuously-controllable multi-mode electronic suspension and torque-vectoring braking.
PERFORMANCE: The SLK may be the "baby" of the current Mercedes-Benz sports car lineup, but that doesn't mean it's slow. Compared to the AMG SLS, maybe -- but then what isn't? Compare, instead, to a 1955 300SL Gullwing, a car that was as close as possible in its day to a street-legal pure racing car: 300SL - 2500 lbs, single overhead cam 3.0-liter inline-6 with 240 hp @ 6000 rpm, 0-60 in a touch over five seconds, top speed 160 mph*. SLK350 -- 3400 lbs, dohc 3.5-liter V6 (with variable cam phasing, something not possible in the distant past) with 302 hp @ 6500 rpm and 273 lb-ft of torque from 3500 through 5250 rpm. 0-60 in 5.4 seconds, top speed electronically limited to 155 mph. That says plenty about the SLK, and even more about the original SL. There is one important bit of correspondence between the 300SL and the SLK350 -- direct fuel injection. That has been the norm in diesel engines since the beginning, but the racing 300SL and the road car evolved from that were among the first to use it with spark ignition. That was mechanical, complex and expensive. Now it's electronically-controlled, integrated into the engine management computer. The result is specific power output reached only by pure racing engines of the 300SL's day and low emissions and reasonable fuel economy. EPA rating is 20/29; I got 21 overall. Compare that with the 300SL's 9/15 and don't mention the exhaust emissions. A major component of the SLK's performance and economy is the seven-speed automatic transmission. Lower low gear ratios, higher high, and closer steps between allow both acceleration and economical highway cruising. Default E(conomy) mode emphasizes economy, S(port) increases the shift points, and adaptive shift logic in both allows the transmission software to learn the driver's style. For maximum performance, manual mode offers quick paddle-actuated shifting. There's plenty of torque at low revs, all the better to loaf around town or on the highway. But the engine really comes alive, with six-cylinder music and a great push, as it's revved. * from "Sports Cars in Action" by John R. Bond, Henry Holt & Co, 1954
CONCLUSIONS: The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SKL350 combines elegance and grace with plenty of raw power when wanted. But it doesn't have a split personality at all, it's a well-integrated bit of machinery.
2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350
Base Price $ 54,800 Price As Tested $ 67,565 Engine Type aluminum alloy DOHC 24-valve V6 with direct fuel injection and variable cam phasing Engine Size 3.5 liters / 213 cu. in. Horsepower 302 @ 6500 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 273 @ 3500-5250 rpm Transmission 7-speed multi-mode automatic Wheelbase / Length 95.67 in. / 162.76 in. Curb Weight 3397 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 11.2 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline Tires Pirelli P-Zero F: 225/4ZR18 92Y R: 254/35ZR18 92Y Brakes, front/rear vented cross-drilled disc / solid disc, ABS, ESP, EBD, BA standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 20 / 29 / 22 0 to 60 mph 5.4 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Diamond White Metallic paint $ 720 Bengal Red premium leather $ 630 Premium 1 Package - includes: iPod/MP3 media interface, AIRSCARF neck-level heating system, SIRIUS satellite radio, harmon/kardon premium sound system, heated seats, IR remote roof operation $ 2,590 Lighting Package - includes: headlamp cleaning system, bi-xenon headlamps with Active Curve Illumination $ 1,070 Multimedia Package - includes: COMAND system with hard-drive navigation, 7-inch high-resolution LCD screen with 3D map views, enhanced voice control system, 10GB music register, 6-disc DVD/CD changer, Gracenote album information including cover art, SD card slot, SIRIUS Travel and Weather $ 2,150 Panorama Roof (with fixed tint) $ 500 Sport Package - includes: Sport Bodystyling, 18" AMG 5-spoke wheels, direct ambient lighting in Solar Red, Sport Package Code $ 2,500 Digital dual-zone climate control $ 760 Parktronic parking guidance $ 970 Destination and delivery $ 875