As a great man at Mercedes-Benz once said, “you can’t expect people to understand your value if you don’t tell them your worth.” True indeed; and since 2011 marks the 125th anniversary of the automobile which was first conceived by none other than Mercedes, a bevy of re-engineered and re-invigorated products have been unveiled by the German automaker from Stuttgart. Now in its third generation, the all-new 2012 SLK-Class gets a swing at bat. Question is, what will it do with the opportunity?
To familiarize ourselves with the driving dynamics and new technology features of the “two for one” SLK — after all, it is a coupe and a roadster – we headed to the country strong region of Knoxville, Tennessee at the enchanting and modernly rustic Blackberry Farm. Cruising around the acclaimed 4,200-acre property with the retractable hard-top down in joyous Smoky Mountain weather provided visions of what life could have been like in the 50s and 60s when proud owners such as Alfred Hitchcock, Yul Brynner and Zsa Zsa Gabor took their 105-horsepower 4-cylinder 190 SL out for country spins. As the spiritual successor to the SLK, it was only befitting that Mercedes provided a 190 SL on site for the auto media to get reacquainted with.
The small-car coupe and roadster market is one that relies on the emotional state of mind of the intended buyer. It’s typically not your first purchase, and definitely not the only vehicle in the driveway. If the economy is up, then most likely SLKs and their competitors (Audi TT, BMW Z4, Porsche Boxster) will move quickly off the lot. During downspins like the financial crises a close few years ago, the segment is going to take a drastic dive. Quite naturally, such polarity can lead to either supplementary dealer inventory or simply more demand. Last year Mercedes walked away with 7% of the lion’s share.
The SLK-Class was introduced to the world 15 years ago and was the first of its kind to offer a groundbreaking steel vario-roof, which made the light, short and sporty vehicle a double threat in the industry. Now, when the top is up the SLK cabin is as quiet as a true coupe. Though when it’s down and the windscreen is in place, the interior is almost as quiet as soft-top cabriolets when their top is up. The phenomenal design engineering has led to 500,000 worldwide SLK sales since its introduction in 1996. In fact, demand was so strong during that period that Mercedes literally sold out of the 1997 coupe/roadster before it arrived at dealerships. Impressive.
Today’s 2012 SLK350 is 1.5 inches longer and wider, .5 inches lower and built from a new aluminum and magnesium structure. The styling is a bit more contemporary both externally and internally. Mercedes-Benz product managers said that’s what consumers were demanding. The new design language is most notable with the front fascia whereas the company backtracked from the second generation’s sharpened SL themed snout. The hood and 3-pointed star lay upright and visually feel a bit elongated like the SLS AMG. Key upgrades include a new direct injection 3.5-liter V6 with 302-horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque allowing the little guy to sprint from 0 to 60 mph is a quick 5.5 seconds. A new 7-speed automatic transmission features a cadre of fuel saving technologies that help the SLK350 achieve 20 city / 29 hwy mpg. It also has 18” standard rims, standard daytime running lights, dual exhausts and LED rear lamps with an impressive 60 LEDs in each. The SLK250, coming February 2012, will feature a direct injection 1.8-liter 4-cylinder turbo engine with 201-horsepower and a 6-speed manual transmission.
Of course many SLK updates were attributed to the convertible theme and its conveniences and fun-to-drive benefits to the driver. For one, the top drops two seconds faster than its predecessor (within 20 seconds) due to added magnesium materials. Two, an oddly named MAGIC SKY CONTROL technology has been introduced as a pricy $2,500 option and allows the driver to darken/tint or brighten the roof’s glass panel at the touch of a button. This is one of three total options including the standard body-color polycarbonate panel and the optional panorama top.
During our test ride through the steep and winding roads of the Appalachian Mountains and the ecstatic 11-mile and 313 turn “Tail of The Dragon” we were able to appreciate the guilty pleasures of putting a $54,800 roadster to its limits. Its price tag is $1,500 more than second generation SLK, but represents a 3% increase in value. A sports suspension is standard and kept the vehicle balanced and flat in and out of those hairpin turns. Power was good as well, but you need to set the transmission in manual mode to get the most out of its torque. In sport and automatic mode the SLK paused slightly when accelerating abruptly. Mercedes said the software programming was geared towards economical mileage. I’m betting an AMG variant will solve this dilemma. For added performance opt for the $990 Dynamic Handling Package which enhances the SLK with a torque vectoring variable-adjustable suspension.
We chose a black SLK with the optional two-toned red/black leather interior for our morning commute. SLKs with the Sport Package were taken first by my media colleagues. Only focusing on styling (no performance enhancements) it improves the SLK with AMG body cladding, a set of sport 18” wheels, an ambient lighting package, and checkerboard finished gauges. The two-seater was far more comfortable than my 6ft 230-pound frame expected. An e-brake replaces the prior hand brake and the cockpit inherits the COMAND central control unit. Navigation was right on target and never steered us wrong. A super sporty steering wheel with thumb imprints and redundant controls is standard. The SLK also includes eight airbags, cool swivel vents that open and close by a soft tap right or left, and a powerful Harman Kardon audio system which turns your little convertible into a concert hall.
When traveling long distances pack light since the SLK fits one normal-sized carry-on suitcase and two handbags conveniently. My drive partner’s luggage had to be transported in a separate vehicle. As well, the luggage has to be placed and removed when the top is up, not when the retractable top is lowered and stacked.
The 2012 SLK represents open-top driving at its highest level in this compact segment. The V6 hums along gracefully as you tap into its energy at the right shifts. Feeling a little chilly? Make sure to follow the lead of 98% of the customers who purchase this vehicle and opt for the AIRSCARF system. It converts outside cool air into warm breezes around the head and neck area. Now breathe deep and floor it!