Dan Frio, Automotive Editor
The cars of Mercedes-Benz have typically traded visceral thrills for a kind of velvet force, a refined solidity at triple-digit speeds. This car company's highway bruisers shrug off road imperfections even as they carry passengers in hushed isolation. Small wonder that Mercedes-Benzes are coveted by plutocrats of all persuasions.
Though it's far from grand in exterior proportions, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 expresses the company's customary design attributes, so the baby SL feels every bit as formidable as its stablemates. Trading the blunt, racing-style grille of its SLK predecessor for a more upright smile, the 2012 SLK350 shares the same look of muscular tension as the upmarket SL and beyond-market SLS.
The exterior design is also the face of livelier engine and chassis performance, as the new SLK350 is a quicker and more impulsive version of itself. But that's not to say it's exactly a sports car. Despite sharper tailoring, the 2012 SLK350 is still meant to be simply lighthearted fun rather than sports car serious. You'll trace sharper arcs in the corners and feel more of the road in an Audi TTS or Porsche Boxster. The BMW Z4 also accelerates and stops a little faster, and adds just a bit of toughness besides.
But even while it's a bit too refined to be a true sports car, the 2012 SLK350 is certainly one sporty Mercedes.
A direct-injection 3.5-liter V6 powers the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 with 302 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. The power goes to the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control via paddles on the steering wheel or a lever on the center console. Should you wish for a true manual gearbox, wait for the forthcoming SLK250, since its turbocharged 1.8-liter inline-4 engine will be matched with a six-speed manual transmission.
Once you dip into the SLK350's throttle, the engine's torque carries you along until the engine begins to uncork at just 3,500 rpm, accompanied by a delicious tenor drone from the dual exhaust.
And it's not all just exhilarating sound. In Edmunds testing, the SLK350 dashed from a standstill to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. And with big 13-inch brake rotors up front plus wide tires front and rear, the SLK350 stops itself with similar authority. Mashing the brake pedal halted the car from 60 mph in 113 feet. And all this performance is complemented by 20 city mpg and 29 mpg on the highway. A 300-hp V6 that gets almost 30 mpg on the highway? Sign us up.
The SLK350 is a willing performer on back roads, and it offers a measure of predictability that encourages you to take advantage of what's on offer. This is still a Mercedes-Benz, though, so its personality is suited to all-day cruising, not just quick blasts around the block. The ride is supple while the control responses are deliberate, so you're aware of refinement, not raw speed. For example, the steering is quick enough, yet it also isolates you from the feel of the road, a characteristic choice made by a car that seeks to balance performance with comfort.
Our only real dynamic complaint with the SLK350 is its abrupt throttle action, as if it's trying too hard to persuade you that it's a performance car. It's easy to give the SLK more power than you intended, so you find yourself wrestling with the consequences. This is most pronounced in the SLK's Sport setting, and only slightly mitigated in Manual mode when you are shifting for yourself. The Economy setting might seem slightly lazy in comparison, but it actually suits the nature of the car much better.
Inside the cabin, the SLK350's seats are lightweight, sporty units mounted fairly upright in the short-coupled cockpit, yet they offer bolsters and power adjustment in all the right places. They're also built for the long haul, so you remain comfortable behind the wheel and arrive free of fatigue.
Optional for the SLK350 is AirScarf, a heating system built into the seats that blows warm air onto the neck and shoulders of both driver and passenger. An extravagance, perhaps, but one drive beneath fall foliage on a brisk day will justify the price. And when you've got a convertible hardtop that deploys with such refinement as this one — 18 seconds to lower it, 19 seconds to raise it again — you'll be more willing to indulge your every whim when it comes to top-down motoring. With the top down, the trunk offers a useful 6.4 cubic feet of space, enough for a large suitcase or two smaller weekend bags.
The SLK350's convertible hardtop can even be ordered with a moonroof — a choice of two different moonroofs, in fact. One has a fixed tint for protection from solar heating, while the other has variable tint called Magic Sky. The press of a button sends an electrical charge through the film that tints the glass of the Magic Sky, and the film darkens for protection from the sun. Here in Southern California, the tint does a decent enough job, but we still kept a hat in the car for motoring during the sun's peak hours.
The latest generation of Mercedes-Benz's COMAND electronics interface in the SLK350 represents another noticeable step forward, a matrix of logical menu steps and easy connections. An eight-way rotary dial on the console between the seats falls easily to hand, complete with "back" and "clear" buttons. We were able to easily pair a Bluetooth phone, select music and enter destinations in the navigation system. The optional 7-inch color display also offers a new three-dimensional "bird's-eye" navigation view and a better sense of distance for the route ahead.
Design/Fit and Finish
For a car that can easily break the $60,000 barrier once it's equipped with the usual options, the SLK350's interior seems oddly out of place. The fit and finish is superior, so the panels and compartment doors feel solid. Buttons and switches require the right amount of effort to convince you that they'll last a long time. But at the same time, the plainness of the overall design architecture feels like something from another time and place. In particular, the carbon-fiber motif for the instrument faces says racer, not elegant.
But these are small picks at an interior that otherwise excels thanks to fine leather-upholstered seats and steering wheel, door panels with a nice variety of textures and even color-contrast stitching, and soft, comfortable touch points like armrests and door panels.
Who should consider this vehicle
Given a bolder design that emulates Mercedes-Benz's thoroughbreds, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK looks as if it's trying to shake off its image as a profiler's car. Thanks to improved handling, power and a sturdy open-top chassis, the SLK350 should appeal to drivers on both sides of the X chromosome. Although it's not a raw performer like the Porsche Boxster, the SLK350 can still thrill, whether it's in a fast corner or during a long stretch of full-throttle motoring on the interstate.
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