For most folks, Mercedes-Benz automobiles represent the hallmark of prestige. Enthusiasts aren't always so easily impressed, however. Where genuine performance and luxury are concerned, a lofty image can be as much a liability as an inducement.
And so it seems that, just in the nick of time, Mercedes has buffed the image of two important models in its line-up of cars-the SLK-Class roadster and the C-Class sedans/coupes. Both were getting long in the tooth; and rivals found it increasingly easy to poach their respective turfs. For 2005 M-B has retaken the initiative with makeover models meant to restore Mercedes' reputation for style and sport-this time at the affordable end of the pricing spectrum.
Affordability is relative, of course; but at a base price of $45,500, the SLK roadster remains Mercedes' so-called entry-level sports car. This is the model, remember, that wowed the world in 1997 with an origami-folding roof that transformed a hardtop coupe into a topless roadster with a whiz and a whir.
Alas, the novelty eventually wore off to reveal a very tiny two-seater with only moderate performance credentials. What's more, among the testosterone set, the original 2.3-liter supercharged four-banger simply wasn't a match for the likes of Porsche's Boxster or BMW's Z3/Z4 roadsters. To the everlasting chagrin of M-B partisans, the first-generation SLK devolved into what became commonly-if a bit unfairly-known as a "girlie car."
No longer. The new SLK350 both looks and feels like a stunner. Borrowing in equal parts from the atmospherically priced SL-Class roadster and the insanely priced world of Formula 1 racing, SLK's styling is pointedly aggressive. A sinister slope of the hood scarcely masks a shark-like personality, whereas underhood resides Mercedes' first-ever application of a dual-overhead-cam valvetrain for its V6 engine. Variable valve timing, moreover, ices the cake.
The result is impressive output of 268 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque-the latter peaking for a wide swath of the powerband from 2,400 rpm to 5,000 rpm. That's a lip-smacking gob of power for a 3,200-pound go-getter. Accordingly, SLK sprints zero-to-60 in well under six seconds.
It does so in unmatched style. First, there's the fully independent suspension with stability control that nurtures confidence with its precision and responsiveness. Then, there's a choice between the hot-dog six-speed manual transmission or an unmatched optional seven-speed automatic with dual overdrives. These credentials restore SLK's reputation for engineering sophistication. Compared to rivals from Porsche, BMW and Infiniti, SLK now carries itself like an overlord among whippersnappers.
The flip-fold hardtop remains, of course; only now it furls and unfurls faster. The interior remains small, but it's no longer cramped; and trunk space of almost 10 cubic feet is generous in the category.
The most clever interior feature by far is Mercedes' new AirScarf scheme for directing warm air to the necks of driver and passenger via ducts in the headrests. AirScarf even adapts automatically to changes of vehicle speed and outdoor temperature. When all those topless SLKs start sun-worshipping in January and February, you can bet it's because their drivers have traded Burberry plaids for SLK AirScarves.
2-door, 2-pass.; 3.5-liter DOHC V6 w/ vvt; 6-sp. manual; 268 hp/258 ft.-lbs.; 18 mpg/city, 25 mpg/hwy w/ premium; trunk: 9.8-cubic feet; base price: $45,500; as-tested, with four-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, ESP stability control, AM/FM/6-CD audio, front/side/knee airbags, leather, 17-in. wheels: $48,240.