Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class Review


2008 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class SLK280 Convertible

Introduced nearly a decade ago as an answer to its European rivals in the luxury small roadster segment, the Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class was the first vehicle to truly popularize the use of a power-retractable convertible top made out of steel panels rather than the more traditional fabric soft top.

Though more complex and bulky, a convertible hardtop design, with its coupelike profile and superior wind and weather protection, does provide significant advantages in the top-up position. Offering more security, as well as a quieter cabin than its competitors' soft tops, the SLK could convert from a closed coupe to an open convertible without leaving the driver seat.

Though suffering from uninspiring handling and questionable sporting credentials for hard-core driving enthusiasts, the original SLK230 and SLK320 were popular with consumers. Improvements over the years kept the first generation competitive, but after seven years on the market the Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class was ready for a redesign.

With a dramatic design inspired by Mercedes' Formula 1 racecars, the second-generation SLK is even more fetching than the original. It's also slightly larger and more powerful than its predecessor, yet still possesses the upscale roadster character that made it so likable over the years. Even better than the added space is the car's redesigned dashboard with its cleaner layout and higher-quality interior materials.

Though most SLK models are inexpensive by Mercedes standards, some potential buyers might flinch at the vehicle's above-average price — and others might prefer the sharper handling dynamics of its German rivals. But for a convertible that sacrifices little in performance and excels at luxury and prestige, we think a new or used Mercedes-Benz SLK is a very good choice.

Current Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class

The current-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class luxury roadster has been available since the 2005 model year. It's a proper sporting roadster thanks to its stiff body structure, rear-wheel drive and available sport-tuned suspension and strong brakes. For power, Mercedes offers a choice of two V6s as well as a muscular V8 from AMG, Mercedes' in-house performance tuner.

The SLK280 features a 3.0-liter V6 that produces 228 horsepower while the SLK350's 3.5-liter V6 produces 268 hp. Either engine can be matched with a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic transmission. The Mercedes SLK55 AMG is the performance model. It comes with a 355-hp 5.4-liter V8 engine stuffed under its hood. A seven-speed automatic is the only transmission offered.

When retracted, the hardtop takes up space in the trunk, but there's still 6.5 cubic feet left for luggage. Inside, the cabin is attractive with soft-touch materials for most surfaces. Soft and supportive seats remain comfortable even after several hours of driving. Keep the windows up while the top is down and there's minimal wind buffeting.

If that's not enough, consider the optional Airscarf system that channels warm air to your neck and shoulders via dedicated registers in the headrests. It actually works quite well; and when combined with traditional seat heaters, the Mercedes-Benz SLK becomes one of the most useful all-weather convertibles on the market.

While the old SLK was more of a boulevard cruiser than a canyon carver, the new SLK delivers solid all-around performance in acceleration, braking and handling. Obviously, the AMG model offers the most performance of the group, and indeed it posts impressive numbers. Even the 280 and 350 models are fun to drive. The SLK's slightly less communicative steering and slower handling responses only become apparent when comparing them directly against this segment's more deliberate sports cars.

Past Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class models

The original Mercedes-Benz SLK debuted for the 1998 model year. Introduced as an answer to the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster in the premium small roadster segment, the SLK's most unique feature was its retractable hardtop roof, which offered more security as well as a quieter ride than its ragtop-roofed competitors. With the touch of a button, one could convert the SLK from a closed coupe to a cool convertible in less than 30 seconds without leaving the driver seat.

Initially, the SLK was available only with one drivetrain, a supercharged 2.3-liter inline-4 sending its 185 hp through a five-speed automatic transmission. But the SLK230's lack of a manual gearbox, along with its anemic exhaust note, made for little excitement among serious driving enthusiasts.

The SLK's second year brought a manual tranny as standard, moving the automatic to the options list. Ever conscious of its buyers' fashion leanings, Mercedes introduced Designo editions in 2000 that featured special colors (such as Copper and Electric Green) along with unique interior trim.

Those who liked the Mercedes-Benz SLK but wanted a more refined power plant had their wish granted for 2001, when the SLK320 bowed complete with a 215-horse 3.2-liter V6. Other good news that year included the replacement of the five-speed manual with a six-cog unit and more power for the 230's force-fed four, with output now rated at 192 ponies.

Perhaps in an effort to quash the SLK's reputation as a "boutique" roadster, Mercedes brought out the muscle-bound, AMG-tuned SLK32 for 2002. The SLK32 AMG brought 349 hp to the party by way of a supercharged 3.2-liter V6. Along with the power infusion, handsome double-spoke 17-inch wheels with performance tires were fitted, along with a massaged suspension, full ground effects and a discreet rear spoiler.

During the first SLK's run, we commented favorably about its distinctive retractable hardtop, its quiet composure on freeway drives and the impressive performance from the AMG variant. Noted downsides at the time included a lack of steering feel and the big blind spots with the top up.


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