The Mercedes Benz SLK is and always has been the pied-a-terre of the company's lineup.
Since its inception in 1996, this two-seat, hardtop convertible has been a smaller, less practical place than one's main residence. It was good for little more than a languid weekend with one's spouse or perhaps a means of rewarding a mistress or offspring still attached to your purse or heartstrings.
For 2012, Mercedes remodeled its bantam roadster to such a degree that Ty Pennington would be proud. The resulting SLK350 is an impeccably well-rounded package that asserts its sportiness rather than merely hinting at it.
This effort is a little overdue. Previous SLKs had a petite curvaceousness that foretold a leisurely demeanor rather than a sporty one.
Driving enthusiasts noticed and demurred in favor of more masculine competitors like the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z4, models that could eat the SLK's lunch when it came to aggressive driving. Meanwhile, the Mercedes' provided only a bit more in the way of unique features or luxury to compensate.
This 2012 SLK drives with an eager tenacity that could lure back a few of those buyers, while heaping on the style and luxury the marque is known for.
At the core of this SLK is a potent 3.5-liter V-6 engine that puts out 302 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.
Mercedes says this 3,400-pound roadster will do 0 to 60 in 5.4 seconds; such acceleration practices reveal a positively sonorous engine as it climbs to a 6,800 rpm redline. Yet it's quiet enough during regular driving so as not to bother the car's occupants.
Unfortunately the same can't be said for the SLK's intrusive exhaust system. Top up or down even the slightest squeeze on the gas causes a raspy sound to dominate the cabin. I'm all for spirited sensory feedback from a sports car, especially under hard acceleration, but having the equivalent of someone open-mouth humming over your shoulder while you drive is rarely appreciated.
This intrusion aside, the rest of the SLK's driving characteristics are appreciable.
Complementing the engine nicely and making its power available to the rear wheels is a seven-speed automatic transmission. Its shifts are succinct whether they're chosen by the car or the driver, who has the option of shifting manually with the shifter or with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The transmission has three modes, the default setting being Eco. Though this term is often synonymous with laggard, sacrificed performance, in this application the Eco mode should really just be regarded as normal. Sport and Manual modes are the other two options, though beware that in Manual the transmission will shift when it sees fit, even if you haven't asked it to.
The transmission certainly is an efficient unit, though. During more than 600 miles of mostly freeway testing, I averaged 26.1 miles per gallon. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the car at 20 mpg in the city, 29 on the highway.
On the road, the SLK's chassis refuses to wiggle with the power top up. But stow it and hit the bumps and you will feel the flex, however furtive, that often plagues convertibles. Otherwise, the car's steering and suspension are nicely balanced and provide a dynamic level of feedback that inspires confidence.
Overreach your skill level and the standard traction control reins you in subtly. Should you really step out of line, wonderfully firm disc brakes are able to briskly stop the car.
All told, handling on the 2012 SLK is more rapacious than its forebears, but a BMW Z4 or Porsche Boxster will probably still out-dance it.
Regardless, at least your dance partner looks better than it ever has. With this iteration, Mercedes wisely avoided the temptation to rely on design gimmicks to make this roadster look like a smaller version of its current supercar, as the company did with the previous SLK.
Instead, the SLK's design is straightforward with a handsomeness born out of more hard edges and sharp lines. It has the proportions of its bigger brother, the SL, just one that shrank in the wash.
Admittedly, the car looks better with the power top folded into the trunk, an operation that takes less than 20 seconds. With the top up, the car's sleek roofline looks curt and almost too small for the rest of the car. The trunk itself can hold a pair of carry-on suitcases and an overnight bag with the top up, or one of each with it stowed.
The inside of the SLK drips with class and elegance. This is an interior that will age far better than many of its occupants. Brushed metal trim conveys this grace, and it's mixed with polished wood and minimal black plastic throughout the dashboard, flat-bottomed steering wheel and cabin.
It's nice to see Mercedes' interior return to a world-class status, but the company doesn't do it on execution alone. The SLK is available with innovative features like the Airscarf ventilation system that will cycle warm air through a vent at the bottom of the headrest for topless motoring on chillier days.
Also available as a pricey $2,500 option is a panorama sunroof that uses an electric current to switch the fixed glass panel from transparent to opaque at the touch of a button. My tester, which came in a shade of lipstick red fit for Liz Taylor's Gloria Wandrous, didn't have this feature. Though it did have a fixed-transparency glass roof as a $500 option.
The rest of the options on my SLK350 brought the $55,675 base price to $63,325. This list of add-ons included a Harman Kardon sound system with six-disc changer, 10GB hard drive and iPod integration; the Airscarf system; navigation with SiriusXM traffic and weather; and heated seats. The only world-class oversight was the lack of backup camera. Convertible or not, a $63,000 car should have one on principle.
All SLKs come with a four-year, 50,000-mile warranty, eight airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with automatic brake drying and brake assist; and stability control.
This 2012 SLK350 still favors elegant touring over hard-core driving, but its palette is more balanced. Although it probably won't out-sport its peers, this latest version elevates it to a legitimate competitor, and it is now a more elegant riff on the sporty two-seater.