Certain cars just have it and always will. The 2008 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 is one of them.
The SLK's power to attract hasn't much diminished over time. Having sold 185,000 of its second-generation compact roadsters since the car's launch in 2004, Mercedes seems sufficiently happy with the formula to continue it in a slightly revised form for another generation.
The 2008 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 has a few high-performance tweaks to respond to the challenge of such cars as the Audi TT roadster, BMW Z4 and Porsche Boxster, but for the most part, you'll need to look long and hard to recognize exactly where it departs from its predecessor.
Just in Time for Spring
The U.S. version of the 2008 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 is due to reach our shores in May.
The American model lineup will continue to do without the entry-level Mercedes-Benz SLK200 Kompressor with its 184-horsepower 1.8-liter inline-4, though this car has been a hit in Europe because it combines good fuel economy with an affordable price.
Instead we'll get the Mercedes-Benz SLK300 with its 228-hp 3.0-liter V6. You'll care most about the new SLK350 with its 305-hp 3.5-liter V6. Continuing to top the range will be the SLK55 AMG with its stonking 355-hp 5.4-liter V8. Pricing isn't yet determined, but don't expect any major shift, with the price of the SLK350 likely to be around $51,000.
Find the Difference
The styling changes made to this face-lifted version are slight, to say the least. All the main body panels remain the same, but the exterior mirrors have been enlarged and incorporate stylish LED indicator lights, and the bumpers have been given a chiseled design for a subtly aggressive look.
The front fascia displays the real changes, with new, broad cooling ducts and twin vertical elements in the bumper, accentuating a Formula 1-inspired design theme. The rear gets darkened taillight lenses, an integrated aero diffuser element in the bumper valance panel and sizable trapezoidal tips for the pair of exhaust pipes.
These are not the sort of aesthetic tweaks that exactly jump out at you, which should bode well for the resale value of the existing model. Still, one has to wonder whether they'll be enough to keep this car fresh in the long run. Time will tell.
In the Office
Once you're buckled in the snug cabin, you'll find similarly subtle styling changes, with a three-spoke steering wheel, lightly reworked instruments and a new finish for the center-console switches. There are also fresh color choices, including one with bright red leather upholstery and black ash garnitures for the dashboard.
Since this is a Mercedes-Benz, there is no shortage of gadgets to tempt you, notably a new-generation satellite navigation system with the latest speech-recognition system, plus an MP3-compatible Harman Kardon Logic 7 sound system and new iPod connection (although predictably, few of these features are included in the list of standard equipment).
One worthwhile addition is the SLK's clever Airscarf system, which features ventilation units incorporated into the seatback to blow warm air around your neck. It's the perfect solution for days when the outside temperature is less than tropical and you're in the mood for a spot of top-down motoring.
Naturally, the SLK's appeal will still revolve around its folding hardtop roof, which transforms this car from coupe to roadster in just 22 seconds. It delivers all-weather protection and park-anywhere security, but we love it because it really does encourage year-round top-down motoring, even in the worst of climates. The only real drawback is the limited trunk space, a big issue in a car with so little storage in the best of circumstances. When the top is up there are 10.6 cubic feet of capacity and when the top comes down there are 7.3 cubic feet.
Breaking the 300-hp Barrier
If there's a theme to the new SLK, it's the adoption of a more aggressive personality, and this is reflected in the significant changes made to the SLK350's 24-valve DOHC 3.5-liter V6. A taller 11.7:1 compression ratio is accompanied by more deeply shrouded valves in the combustion chamber and new camshaft timing.
There have also been some big changes to the induction system, with the adoption of a single-stage inlet manifold that feeds air into the engine via a plastic intake tract, a feature that reduces heat buildup and thus lowers the engine's operating temperature.
The result is a 33-hp jump, and the SL350 now packs a muscular 305 hp at 6,500 rpm. At the same time, torque is up by 7 pound-feet to 265 lb-ft at 4,900 rpm.
As impressive as the numbers might seem, the personality change in the engine is what really makes all the changes under the hood worthwhile. There's now a whole new level of throttle response, while a stronger rush of power at the top end extends the redline to 7,200 rpm from 6,800 rpm. As a result, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 feels a good deal more determined than ever before.
Faster Than a BMW Z4?
This impression is backed up by Mercedes-Benz's official acceleration claims, which suggest the SLK350 will hit 100 km/h (62 mph) in just 5.4 seconds. This makes the SLK350 faster to 60 mph than an Audi TT roadster 3.2 by half a second and faster than a BMW Z4 than 0.2 second. In fact, the SLK350 is now on the same performance plain as the Porsche Boxster S.
As with today's model, the European-specification SLK350 comes with a standard six-speed manual gearbox. For many prospective buyers, however, the optional seven-speed automatic will be the only choice. There are shift paddles on the steering wheel, and now this transmission will finally blip the throttle on downshifts.
Mercedes has also tried to make the SLK a sportier drive with its new rack-and-pinion steering, which offers variable gearing, not just variable power assist. When you're going straight down the road, the new steering system is geared very much the same as before. But as you increase the steering lock, the steering effect becomes increasingly more direct. It all adds up to a sharper driving experience, although as before there remains a notable lack of feedback through the steering wheel.
Fitted with standard 225/45R17 front tires and 245/40R17 rears, the SLK350 is now a more rewarding drive than it has ever been. The turn into a corner is crisp, the body control is excellent and the amount of cornering grip is impressive. There's some body shake on badly pockmarked roads, but overall this car's structure is incredibly rigid. It's clear this car's dynamic properties have been elevated to a new level. And as soon as you fit the AMG package with 225/40R18 front tires and 245R35 rear tires, the SLK350's handling gets even better, and without much deterioration in ride quality.
The Enduring SL
The market for premium-price roadsters is one of the most fickle of all. But the enduring success of the SLK proves Mercedes-Benz knows its customers well.
While 2008 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 appears little changed from its predecessor, the mechanical modifications are more substantial than you might expect, giving this car a noticeably more sporting character. While we've only sampled the SLK350, it is clear the rest of the lineup has benefited in the same way.
Bring on the 2008 Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG!
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.