Mercedes SLK350 Convertible Says Call in Sick

While the $55,675 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 convertible makes no promises of practicality, good times are almost guaranteed.

This hot little red roadster is made for the dog days of August. It begs for you to call in sick for a final dash to the Hamptons or an impromptu charge up the Maine coast.

The ingredients are simple. A throwing dart with two doors, two seats, retractable hardtop and a 3.5-liter V-6 shoehorned under the hood, the SLK’s sole purpose is to mess up hairdos and splatter bugs. Good summer fun.

This is the third generation of the tiny sports car, which was launched in 1997 with an automatic hardtop. A metal rather than canvas lid seemed like a wild concept at the time; everybody from Ferrari to BMW uses them now.

At 13.5 feet long and weighing about 3,400 pounds, the SLK is Mercedes’ baby convertible. While the venerable SL also uses a hardtop, its $100,000-plus price tag and bigger footprint demands more justification to buy. Another vehicle might have to be ejected from the family garage.

By comparison, the SLK is more likely an impulse purchase. Move the lawn mower and some boxes out of the garage and you’re halfway there.

With a long hood, canted stance and stunted rear, the SLK has always appeared a bit ungainly. Those proportions — or disproportions — remain. Yet the sharp, angled nose is gone. Instead it gets an upright grill fronted by an oversized Mercedes logo.

Supercar Schnoz

Patterned on the face of Mercedes’s $183,000 gullwing SLS supercar, the sober, masculine schnoz looks surprisingly good on the SLK. Consider it a slice of the design at a fraction of the price.

(The SLS will also be offered as a roadster this year. Figure on a price of more than $200,000. It gets a cloth top in the name of lightness and performance.)

Since the SLK is a just-for-fun buy, it is worthwhile comparing it with competing roadsters. It’s tougher-looking than the BMW Z4 and fresher than the Audi TT. The 2012 model also drives better than both — just edging the BMW and walloping the Audi. But then there’s the mid-engine Porsche Boxster S. Pricier at $59,000-plus, the Boxster remains the best-looking and the most tingle-the-nerves fun to drive.

Still, the SLK isn’t a hard-edged sports car. The V-6 is good for 302 horsepower and while quick, it isn’t rattlesnake fast (0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds).

If you’re looking for more brute force, wait for the SLK55 AMG version. The last model from the German automaker’s performance tuning division had 355 hp.

We’ll also see a four-cylinder version, the first in Mercedes’s line in some time. With 1.8 liters, it is turbocharged and will produce 201 hp. BMW is countering with its own 240-hp, turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the Z4.

Full Throttle

I drove the SLK on a stultifyingly hot day and let it kick up its own wind. Under full throttle, the V-6 is a delight. It makes a deeply resonant, vaguely metallic sound, as if heavy ore were being smelted inside the bonnet.

The SLK350 takes corners smartly. But run over bumps and the entire car has a tendency to rock fore and aft, courtesy of the short wheelbase, tightly sprung suspension and 18-inch tires that came with a $2,500 sport package.

Nor was I enthralled with the automatic transmission. As a seven-speed it should slide between gears like silk on runners, but instead has a vexing tendency to hitch and react a step behind the beat.

I was enjoying the wind swirling about my ears, and found myself more than 100 miles away when the sky blackened and a whiff of electricity ran through the air. Summer storm. I stopped and put the roof up in a hurry.

The Option

Which brings me to perhaps my favorite aspect of the SLK: The roof itself. Too many convertibles feel punishing and claustrophobic with the top up. You lose sightlines and available light. And the metal folding roofs tend to be heavy, upsetting the balance of the car.

My Mercedes had a panoramic roof: A sheath of deeply tinted, transparent polycarbonate. Tap it with a fingernail and it feels like an extremely light piece of plastic. You can see the sky and it lets in light, but not so much as to sunburn or discomfort. It’s a mere $500 option.

If you want to get fancier, opt for the so-called Magic Sky Control roof, which tints the panel automatically at a press of a button, a good parlor trick at 60 mph. It’ll keep you from getting a sunburn.

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 at a Glance
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6 with 302 horsepower and 273 pound- feet of torque.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with paddle shifters.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 20 city, 29 highway.
Price as tested: $65,245.
Best feature: Wind!
Worst feature: Transmission isn’t as smooth as expected.
Target buyer: Beach lovers who want to make the most of their summer.

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