I got one last glorious sun-dappled Sunday morning to test out the new Mercedes 280 SLK. I put down the top and took it north on Pennsylvania Rt. 170 along the West branch of the Lackawaxen River, one of the most beautiful stretches of road on the East Coast. I felt like one of those playboys in 1960s movies they filmed driving through the Alps. The radio was playing rousing Chopin mazurkas and the whine of the engine periodically burst through the music as the car strained to maintain speed up the steeper hills.
Driving that terrain on that morning would have been wonderful in any convertible, but what raises the SLK above competing models is its styling. It's a beautiful car, with the long hood, wedged aerodynamic shape, squatty rear end, and raked windshield -- the classic elements of sports car design.
The high pitched whine of the engine just adds to the retro feel. In the parking lot of a Border's bookstore one evening, I parked the 280 next to a new Chrysler Crossfire, which is based on an earlier version of the SLK (see BW Online, 11/2/05, "Chrysler's Deutsch Treat"). To me, the Crossfire, with its ridged hood and more radically sculpted body, looked gaudy next to the SLK's classic lines.
The SLK is one of the bright spots in struggling Mercedes' (DCX) lineup right now. While Mercedes' overall U.S. unit sales are off slightly, SLK sales jumped 117%, to 9,473, through the end of October, vs. the same period last year. It's a niche product, but a hot one.
But is the SLK 280 -- the version of the two-seater, rear-wheel-drive roadster with the smallest engine -- likely to be exciting enough for most buyers? The SLK line was completely redesigned last year, and for the 2006 model year, Mercedes added this "economy" version of the car with a relatively powerful three liter, 228-horsepower aluminum V-6 (up from a 2.8 liter basic engine previously).
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Whether to go with the base model is a critical question because Mercedes are so pricey. The '06 SLK 280 starts out at $43,675 ($45,085 with an automatic). Of course, it comes with a lot of standard features, including a cool hard top that retracts automatically, 16-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and a nine-speaker CD/radio.
But by contrast, the basic BMW Z4 roadster -- which, granted, has a smaller engine, vinyl upholstery, a manual top, and fewer standard features -- starts out at less than $35,000. And SLK prices rise rapidly as you move up: The more powerful SLK350, which has a 3.5 liter, 268 horsepower V-6 engine, starts at $47,775. The powerful AMG version of the car with its huge 355 horsepower engine costs over $61,000 (see BW, 6/6/05, "Lithe Tiger").
The SLK 280 is plenty of car for most buyers. I personally like the feel of a Mercedes: Every one I've ever driven -- including some old ones -- had a similar solidity and quietness that's very appealing. The cabins also tend to be cleanly and tastefully designed, and the SLK's cabin is no exception.
The sharply raked windshield gives it a roomy feel, and there's a cool, retro cowling over the instrument cluster. The driver's seat was supportive and still comfortable after several hours on the highway. The downside is that interior storage is especially scant -- the CD changer in my test car took up the entire glovebox.
The instruments are easy and intuitive to use (I can testify to that, because my test car had no owner's manual). In fact, I suspect a lot of people buy this car just to get the power retractable top. You just push a little toggle knob down to open it and up to close it. It's all automatic, even the latch, and it only takes about 20 seconds. The only possible hitch is that you have to close a little tray-like drawer that creates an area over the trunk space into which the top retracts. However, a message appears on the instrument panel if you forget.
The snugness with which the hard top and glass rear window fit into the trunk is a feat of engineering because it leaves a reasonable amount of luggage space -- big enough for a long weekend, if you pack carefully -- when the top is down.
The SLK weighs just over 3200 lbs, nearly 300 lbs more than the BMW Z4, but with the three-liter engine it's quite quick. Steering and handling are more sedate than in, say, a Porsche Boxster, which is in the same price range, but the SLK is sporty enough for most people (see BW Online, 10/25/05, "Porsche's Entry-Level Dream").
I BRAKE FOR KITTENS.
I can't say, though, that I'm a huge fan of the seven-speed automatic transmission. It has two more speeds than usual, but it doesn't seem to gain much efficiency from this technological refinement. It seemed a little racy to me at times, and the SLK's fuel economy isn't outstanding. It's rated to get 27 mpg on the highway and 20 in the city and it uses expensive premium gasoline.
The SLK comes with tons of standard safety features, including front and side airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, stability and traction control, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes. I know from experience that the brakes are more than adequate: One night, going fast, I came upon what looked like a black and white kitten crouched in the road. I slammed on the brakes hard and could feel the ABS working -- there were several chirps as the tires dug into the pavement but no skidding. Fortunately, the kitten turned out to be a plastic bag, anyway.
All in all, the SLK 280 is an elegant little roadster that's fun to drive and beautiful to look at. Just keep in mind: Beauty usually comes at a price.