2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK350

Mercedes builds a roadster with grand-touring ambitions

2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK350
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Two-seater sports cars are the sort of indulgent fun that will most likely be ignored for the next few years. This is unfortunate, as it’s exactly the time that Mercedes-Benz has tweaked its small roadster line to make it more attractive for buyers, and to keep it current compared to other new introductions.

FAST FACTS

1. The SLK350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine that makes 300hp and 266 ft-lbs of torque.

2. Until the new BMW Z4 arrives later this year, the SLK is the only car in its class with a retractable hard top.

3. It’s available only with an automatic transmission, albeit a 7-speed one.

So what we have here is a facelift and mild tweaking of the second-generation SLK that originally debuted in 2004, which was in itself a huge step forward compared to the original. Already a highly accomplished athlete, the latest SLK shows that it’s still one of the more attractive entries in the class.

Designers spent some time cleaning up the front bumper and air dam, mimicking even more the company’s Formula 1 racers. The three-point Mercedes-Benz star is even more obvious now. In the back, the SLK now sports a rear diffuser, trapezoidal exhaust pipes and darker taillights. The side-mirrors are also new, incorporating the LED turn signals as on most other products in the range.

MID-RANGE SLK350 IS JUST RIGHT

While there are three engines available in the SLK, the revised 3.5-liter V6 is the best compromise between the just ok 3.0-liter V6 in the SLK300 and the crazy 5.5-litre V8 in the SLK55 AMG. Featuring a number of tweaks to increase power and fuel economy, the $50,950 SLK350 now features 300 hp and 266 ft-lbs of torque. Mated to the familiar (and standard) seven-speed automatic, the 350 can run from 0-60 mph is just 5.4 seconds.

To its credit, the SLK isn’t only quick in a straight line. The chassis now features the company’s Direct Control suspension settings, and all SLK350s come with 17-inch wheels and tires, and the new variable ratio Direct-Steer System, which changes the number of turns and effort required to go lock-to-lock, depending on the vehicle’s speed and other factors.

This means that at low speeds, the SLK turns in very well, is nicely predictable and inherently a better handling automobile than previously. It communicates its actions clearly through the new three-point steering wheel.

Braking is strong and predictable, helped immensely by standard ABS with brake assist, and Mercedes-Benz’ ESP is there to help if you overcook it into a corner.

AMG TO THE RESCUE

For those itching for more corner-carving performance, ordering the $2,500 AMG Sport package should be the first option to check, seeing as it includes lightweight 18-inch AMG wheels, tighter suspension settings, paddle-shifters for the automatic gearbox and a more aggressive front air dam, side skirts, rear apron and trunk lid spoiler.

As with most Mercedes-Benz models, the options and packages available to make the interior truly luxurious are long and exhausting. The $3,550 Premium package includes key fob-activated remote roof opening and closing, eight-way power adjustable sport seats with lumbar support and three-position memory for the driver's and passenger's seats, auto-dimming rear-view mirrors and rain sensing windshield wipers. You also get an iPod/MP3 Media Interface, Sirius satellite radio, and some funky ambient illumination of the center console and footwells, entry/exit lighting and a universal remote transmitter.

The $2,980 Multimedia package includes Mercedes-Benz’ COMAND system with 4 GB hard drive-based navigation with real-time traffic and 6.5-inch LCD screen, an 11-speaker 500-watt Harman Kardon audio system. Even with the roof down, the stereo has more than enough power to rock out your favorite tunes crisply and clearly.

For those living in nastier climes, the $990 heating package, which includes multi-stage heated seats, a cloth wind blocker and the AIRSCARF system that flows warm air down your neck from the seatback, will help you extend your top-down investment much further into the Fall. As long as it’s not raining, the SLK is happy in near-freezing weather, but should the need arise, you can raise the two-piece folding metal hardtop in under 20 seconds.

Other options worth considering are HID headlights with washers ($1,030), and dual-zone climate control ($730).

THE (STIFF) COMPETITION

When it comes to competition, the SLK350 is right in the thick of things. Its traditional German rivals all have models within a couple thousand dollars that are hugely attractive and extremely capable. The $47,500 Audi TT-S now features a more powerful 265-hp version of its awesome 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, and while on paper it’s down on power to the Mercedes, the Audi is arguably a much more involving car.

Also, the fantastic 310-hp Porsche Boxster S is only a few grand away at $56,700, and is easily the performance king in this segment. And while the new-for-2010 BMW Z4 has yet to be evaluated, the promise of a 300-hp twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine and folding metal hardtop mean it’s aimed squarely at the SLK.

THE VERDICT

However, the SLK is the vehicle that can most easily double as a comfortable long-distance cruiser. It feels as solid as its larger SL sibling, and could easily pass as the best GT car in the segment. And for those who want a four-season sports car, this Mercedes-Benz’ hardtop trick is its trump card.

PLUS

Visual appeal of AMG Sport package
Folding Hardtop
Airscarf system on cold mornings

MINUS

Pricey, especially given stingy standard equipment
No manual transmission option
Better performance options in this segment

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