Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Here's a short list of things we couldn't care less about: Camilla Parker-Bowles' wedding dress, Lifetime's movie of the week, Ashlee Simpson's latest single, low carbs and used minivans. On the other hand, Teri Hatcher, Speed TV and German sports cars are on our hits list.
If the German sports car is a 2005 Mercedes SLK350 retractable-hardtop roadster, better still, and we wouldn't complain if Teri Hatcher came along for the ride.
Actually, Mercedes-Benz has totally redone the SLK for 2005, and the results are compelling enough to make you forget ol'-what's-her-name in the seat next to you.
Better Than Before
Any 2005 Mercedes SLK350 review begs a comparison to the previous SLK so let's get that out of the way right up front. The most striking difference is the exterior. While the previous version wasn't bad-looking, it did lack sports car flair. Not so with the new SLK, the wider stance, elongated hood and prominent three-pointed star snout make it look like a baby SLR. It's clearly a more masculine-looking convertible than the car before it.
Although it's not generally considered a sports car must, the SLK350's trunk is more spacious and now incorporates a moving plastic shelf. With the top up, the shelf can be moved out of the way to expand the available cargo capacity. But even with the top folded into the trunk, storage space is still adequate. It may sound silly, but the ability to store some stuff makes the SLK a better all-around car.
53 More Horsepower
The most notable upgrade is perched just behind that huge Benzorrific badge. The SLK now sports a DOHC 24-valve, 3.5-liter V6 that makes 53 more horsepower than the previous 3.2-liter six and 29 extra pound-feet of grunt. With a total of 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque driving the rear wheels, the SLK350 suffers no performance anxiety. Mercedes claims a 0-to-60 time of 5.4 seconds, but the closest we could come was 6.3 seconds. The outmatched supercharged 2.3-liter four has been dropped for 2005.
The slick new engine is hooked up to a six-speed manual transmission. The real beauty of this transmission is not that it's particularly smooth, but that it is perfectly matched to the engine. Launch the car from a stop and it bursts forward with abandon. By the time you hit second gear, it's apparent this is a serious sports car and not just some look-pretty convertible — something we couldn't say about the previous SLK.
Even in heavy traffic, the six-speed combined with the powerful V6 makes the best of a miserable situation. No selected gear ever seems wrong and there's plenty of low-end torque to give the SLK adequate verve without keeping up the revs.
We had a chance to drive an automatic version as well and found it to be a little jerky. The autobox is still a six-speed, but its downshifts can be too noticeable. Virtually none of the power seems sapped by the automatic, but with the manual as good as it is, we'd recommend shifting your own gears if you can.
It's Finally a Real Sports Car
Our test car came equipped with a sport suspension option, which adds $200 to the price and includes a lowered, more stiffly tuned suspension. The ride is a bit firm, but the resulting handling is worth the trade-off.
Top up or down, the SLK feels remarkably composed and solid. Cowl shake is simply not an issue. This car is easily one of the best built and best engineered convertibles on the market.
The steering is nicely weighted, offering just the right amount of feedback without requiring too much effort. The SLK's brakes offer stellar stopping power. From 60 mph, they hauled the car down to a stop in 114.68 feet, but can feel a little touchy in everyday driving. Overall, the Mercedes SLK350 is sharp without being harsh, athletic without being uncomfortable.
Even more thrilling is the stellar exhaust note. Too many luxury-branded "sporty" cars offer a cocooned experience where the driver is isolated from the sounds of the engine. Not so with the SLK. The compelling acceleration alone is enough to get our attention, but the SLK's operatic exhaust puts the official "sports car" stamp on the whole experience.
We also have to give high marks to the SLK350's interior. Whereas the previous version looked as if it was lifted straight out of a sedan (granted, a nice sedan), the new SLK brings its rakish exterior look into the cockpit. The furnishings mimic the awesome SLR's. Two large, round gauges house the speedometer and tach, while trip information and other secondary displays are wedged in between.
The center console houses secondary controls like switches for the power mirrors and a button for the SLK's retractable hardtop. The folding hardtop is a class-exclusive feature and it can be put up or down by simply holding a button. But as cool as it is to watch the hardtop disappear into the trunk, we wish it would deploy a little quicker. Still, it's hard to beat a sports car that offers the fun of top-down driving with the quiet and comfort of a fixed-roof coupe.
The SLK's interior is a pleasant place to spend time, Teri Hatcher or not. There's more room than there used to be, but it can still be a bit cozy. We wouldn't call it cramped, but space is at a premium. However, this is a two-seat roadster so it is what it is. With the top up, there is plenty of headroom, and the seats slide back far enough to accommodate very tall drivers. The seats are comfortable at first but after more than a few hours they begin to feel hard and flat.
Worth the Price?
Unfortunately, our SLK350's as-tested price was $50,000 and for that price the two seats were manually adjustable and not heated.
Our test car was also minus the Airscarf system, a feature that, all by itself, could justify picking the SLK over other, less expensive open-top cars. The system works via small vents near the top of the seats. At the driver's discretion, warm air blows on your neck and ears. It's an ingenious system that makes it possible to enjoy top-down driving when temperatures are in the low 60s.
Sign Us Up
The 2005 SLK350 is five times the car and 10 times the sports car its predecessor ever hoped to be. And like most things in life, if you want the good stuff, it's gonna cost. But you know what they say, you get what you pay for.
System Score: 9.0
Components: Our SLK came with an optional 380-watt Harman Kardon stereo. It costs $1,600 and includes a subwoofer, 11 speakers, surround sound, a 7.1 channel amp, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and a six-disc CD changer mounted in the glovebox.
Performance: An excellent sound system by any measure, this Harman Kardon stereo is virtually on par with top-notch stereos like Volvo's Dolby Pro-Logic system or the Lexus Mark Levinson audio.
The sound is clear and sharp with an appropriate bass-to-treble ratio. Depending on the type of music you listen to, the bass thumps aggressively or rumbles subtly in the background. Highs and mids sound great with no perceptible distortion or "squeaking." The 11 speakers are mounted in all the right places and the cabin is filled with music to the point that it sounds like you're listening in a bigger car.
The system has two minor drawbacks. The automatic sound leveling can be irritating, occasionally getting too loud for the appropriate speed. Also, as good as the sound quality is, it lacks the warmth or natural feel of the Mark Levinson system or even a high-end Bose setup.
Best Feature: Great sound quality.
Worst Feature: Lacks warmth at times.
Conclusion: At $1,600 it should be good; and it is. One of the better factory-installed audio systems. — Brian Moody
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
With the 2005 redesign, Mercedes has completely erased the SLK's fashion accessory status (prior AMG version excepted), and put the car squarely in the luxury roadster hunt. The SLK looks more sophisticated than before, except for the bulbous nose with its split grille. The cockpit is likewise more rakish with its individual instrument pods and artsy door armrests/pulls. And someone deserves a gold (three-pointed?) star — the steering wheel now tilts as well as telescopes! Still, I take a few points off for the low-budget sun visors, unlined trunk lid and outdated glovebox location for the CD changer.
I drove an automatic SLK that replaced the stick-shift version we got initially. Not that I'm complaining — the performance was still intoxicating. Although I noticed a very slight hesitation when the throttle was decked, there was no denying the forceful rush of acceleration that followed. The automatic's rapid yet seamless upshifts kept the power coming without pause.
Although the steering had nice heft and precise action, road feel is still not up to the Boxster/Z4 level. The brakes are similarly a "B+" effort; they're certainly strong but could be a bit more linear in action. But make no mistake, you can have a lot of fun on a twisty road with the SLK — turn-in is crisp, cornering is flat and the muscle-bound powertrain catapults the car down the short straights.
It was while cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway that the SLK truly won me over. This is a sports car that knows how to pamper its pilot and co-pilot. It was 62 degrees out; we had the top down, windows up and windblocker deployed. At 60 mph, it was just amazing how quiet and unruffled the cockpit was — we were able to talk as softly as if the roof was up and the only wind hitting us was a gentle breeze overhead. The toppings on this German chocolate sundae are the "Airscarf" neck-warmer option and the elegant, retractable hardtop.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
Eight years ago Mercedes introduced a two-seat convertible that was supposed to offer sporty looks and performance at less than half the price of the company's SL model. The original SLK was ostensibly a sports car, but it never lived up to the promise of a truly passionate German roadster. The 2005 redesign changes all that, with a more powerful and evocative engine, intuitive steering and sharper handling. The styling is sharper, too, but unlike the Z4 it comes off as cohesive and purposeful.
While the driving experience is much improved, the SLK retains its patented retracting hardtop. For those who want an open-air motoring experience without the associated pitfalls when the weather turns nasty, this vehicle is in a class by itself, at least until the Pontiac G6 convertible arrives (it just got delayed ). And even that car won't offer Mercedes' Airscarf system that blows hot air directly on your neck. Between Airscarf and the heated seats, you can drive this car, with the top down, even when the weather doesn't cooperate. I'll take mine in red.
"We are returning owners of MBZ. We just love the models after the new body design change. And this one has no doubt been an eye catcher! The redesigned size of the car is much better. My husband is 6' and fits comfortably." — Invior8ed, January 1, 2005
"I previously owned a 2002 Mercedes-Benz SLK230. My new 2005 SLK350 is a great improvement in many ways, mostly due to the design improvements. The exterior is much more sleek, though I'm not crazy about the back end of the car. The car is wider, and a taller person can fit in it more easily now. The cheesiness of the interior has been eradicated. The interior looks much more elegant." — Chris, December 18, 2004
"The Mercedes-Benz SLK350 is quite an improvement over the SLK230! This car has power to spare, rides tight to the road and acceleration over the entire rpm range. I've tested the Z3 and Z4 and there is no comparison. It is as fine a car as the SL500 and at half the cost. Mercedes has a winner in the new 350 engine." — Raj3, December 18, 2004
"The car was a lot smaller than I expected. The engine has not enough power unlike the S-Class. It feels more like a Chrysler Crossfire than a Mercedes! In 2 months I had to take it back to dealer 6 times to replace parts." — Billy, December 25, 2004
"I also own an SLK320, and the SLK350 is light-years ahead of the 320. The engine is smooth and the power comes early and just keeps on coming. Passing power is awesome. The interior features make this look like a mini-SL for $40K less. The car is a blast to drive and the airscarf extends top-down driving well into autumn." — mbslk350, October 11, 2004
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