2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK
Base price: $54,800
As tested: $65,805
MPG: 20 city/29 highway (Premium fuel)
- Much-improved new look
- Sharper handling, more power
- Cool new features
- Still a small car, inside and out
- Options are expensive
- Misaligned dash vents
By Jim Prueter
The first thing I noticed about Mercedes-Benz’s newly restyled third-generation SLK roadster is that it no longer looks like the 98-pound weakling it was when it was introduced for the 1997 model year. Over the years, the small, upscale SLK had to contend with the fact that it tended to be labeled adorable, bordering on “Hello Kitty” cute, which, of course, eliminates a segment of the market that desires a more masculine sports car.
Though the SLK hasn’t shared the prodigious proportions of its upmarket, muscular SL Roadster sibling, Mercedes’ designers went to great lengths to develop a car that’s less cute and has broader appeal. While it still rides on the same 95-inch wheelbase, the design notably echoes the style of the SL, a twinning brand strategy that isn’t any different than what BMW and Audi have been doing with the “one-look, three-size” product offerings with the 3, 5, and 7 Series BMW models and Audi’s A4, A6, and A8 models.
Outside, a new grille in front of the headlamps is taller, more upright and split by a horizontal chrome blade. New headlamps incorporate a thin strip of LEDs, providing daytime running lights. Fog lamps on either side of the lower grille opening are beaded LEDs and mimic the SL’s look. There are also new wraparound tail lamps, again nearly identical to those on the SL.
Inside, the SLK’s cabin is small and requires some contorting when entering and exiting the vehicle, especially for taller individuals. Those over six-feet tall can forget about any semblance of driving comfort. We like the looks of the new dash with its retro, shelf-like shape and the attractive flat-bottomed, 3-spoke steering wheel. We also like the instrument cluster with its gauge-within-a-gauge execution, but found the off-center placement of the two air vents above the central 5.8-inch color screen display aesthetically awkward.
As with most vehicles when first introduced, there’s new technology that comes along with it. During its debut in 1997, the SLK was the first compact two-seat convertible with a retractable hardtop that Mercedes called the “vario-roof.” Then in 2004, Mercedes added the popular “air scarf” neck-heating feature that allows for pleasurable top-down driving in cool weather by blowing warm air through headrest vents.
The big design feature for the 2012 restyled SLK is an all-new optional glass roof panel in the folding hard top that Mercedes calls the “panoramic vario-roof with Magic Sky Control.” Basically, it’s a fixed, tinted glass roof that darkens with the touch of a button, providing protection from the sun’s intense heat. The way it works involves microscopic light valves embedded in the glass film that align when activated by a small electrical charge. In either light or dark mode, the electrochromic glass blocks both UV and infrared rays. Mercedes says they also treat the leather interior to reflect the sun, reducing seat temperature by more than 18 degrees when in direct sunlight.
Airguide Windstop is another new feature intended to reduce the amount of wind turbulence in the cabin during top-down driving. However, the $350 option is nothing more than two clear, plastic, triangular-shaped panels that swivel out from behind each headrest and didn’t appear to affect cabin turbulence when used at varying city and highway speeds.
Initially, the SLK-Class will only be available as the 350 model, powered by an all-new 302-horsepower, V-6 engine and a standard seven-speed automatic transmission. Mercedes has announced two additional SLK models that will be introduced shortly. First is the SLK250, powered by a 201-horsepower, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine and paired with a choice of either the standard six-speed manual or optional seven-speed automatic transmission. There’s also a high-performance SLK AMG variant, powered by a 415-horsepower, V-6 that has just been announced, but the cost and release date is not yet available.
We found the new SLK350 to be an excellent and highly entertaining driving machine with a tight chassis and sure-footed handling, even if the suspension leans toward the comfort side. The 302-horsepower pulled strong, and we achieved a 0-60 time of just 5.5 seconds. The engine exhaust notes resound with delightful audible pops and burbles on upshifts, and the power comes on smooth, strong and steady, making you want to drive even faster.
Standard safety gear includes a total of seven airbags: two-stage dual front, driver and passenger knee, new door-mounted head airbags, and thorax airbags. Also standard is electronic stability control, dual integrated roll bars, and the new “Attention Assist” drowsy detection monitoring system. The Attention Assist warning system is aimed at combating driver fatigue by alerting the driver both visually and audibly that it’s time to take a break when a deviation from normal driver behavior is detected.
As of the time that this review was written, the SLK has not been crash tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
The new SLK is a fun car and a blast to drive thanks to its improved power, performance handling, and unique features. Whether or not the new design shifts the SLK from “cute” into the same league as its more masculine competitors, we’ll let the market decide. I will say it looks significantly better than the outgoing model.