Pros: Marvelous retractable hardtop; an engine for every occasion; unruffled high-speed demeanor; capable handling; high-quality interior; great fuel economy
Cons: Arguably awkward styling; golf bags won't fit in the trunk with the top down; you could get a lightly used SL for the same price
What's New: Aside from minor equipment adjustments, the recently redesigned SLK-Class is unchanged for 2013.
It's easy to forget, but the 2013 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class traces its roots to the car that invented this segment.
We're talking about the "compact retractable-hardtop roadster" segment, of course, and the first one of those was the original SLK-Class, a late '90s product that, at about half the price of the iconic SL roadster, offered top-down Mercedes status to the slightly less filthy-rich masses.
Now, initially, the SLK had a problem: Although it was the size of a mildly overgrown Miata, it handled more like an SL; which is to say, it wasn't exactly a sports car. But we have to give Mercedes credit. After weathering much criticism in this regard, they got their act together, imbuing the second-generation SLK with sports-car-like reflexes. That capable character fortunately carries over to the current third-generation SLK, which was redesigned for 2012. Heck, Mercedes even continues to offer a manual transmission with the base engine, a rare sporting treat in this day and age.
In other respects, the SLK is the consummate luxury hardtop convertible, as long as you don't mind driving a pint-sized car instead of something like the relatively imposing SL. Indeed, that's the only real compromise the SLK demands. If you're looking for a small roadster with a grand-touring pedigree, the SLK is hard to beat. If you'd rather cruise the boulevard with a little more substance, however, perhaps a lightly used SL for the same price is in your future.
But let's be honest: As long as you're prepared to drop this kind of coin on a convertible with two seats, it's hard to go wrong. And you could do a lot worse than the first compact luxury roadster to offer a retractable hardtop, especially since Mercedes has now had about 15 years to perfect the SLK-Class's appealing formula.
Comfort & Utility
The 2013 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class comes in three trim levels distinguished by engine: SLK250 (4-cylinder), SLK350 (V6) and SLK55 AMG (V8).
The SLK250 starts with niceties such as 17-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, aluminum interior trim (wood is optional), MB-Tex synthetic upholstery, 8-way power seats with memory, a power tilt-telescopic steering column, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink, a 5.8-in central display screen, Bluetooth phone and audio and an 8-speaker sound system with an auxiliary input (but no direct iPod connectivity).
The SLK350 adds 18-in alloy wheels, auto start-stop, leather upholstery, remote hardtop operation, the Airscarf neck-heating system, heated seats, an 11-speaker Harman/Kardon audio system with satellite radio and an iPod/MP3 hookup. Note that most of these features are available on the SLK250, either stand-alone or via the Premium 1 package.
The SLK55 AMG goes all-out with unique 18-in wheels, an AMG appearance package inside and out, a dash-mounted IWC analog clock and sport seats with special stitching. Fork over an extra $4,750 and you can enjoy the AMG Handling package, which includes a performance steering wheel, a 174-mph top speed, a limited-slip differential, an AMG performance suspension and a different 18-in wheel design.
Notable options across the lineup include a translucent panorama roof with "magic sky control" sun-filtering technology (optional on lesser SLKs), the Mercedes COMAND interface with a 7-in display screen, a hard-drive-based navigation system with digital music storage and dual-zone automatic climate control.
In our interior evaluation, we noted that SLK's dashboard design seemed relatively conservative. That's a matter of personal taste, of course, but for what it's worth, we were reminded more of old school Mercedes roadsters than more recent products like the SL-Class or even the previous SLK.
In any case, the cabin is appropriately snug for a roadster, with supportive seats (yes, even the standard, non-sport design) and controls close at hand. Ergonomics are typical modern Mercedes: There are lots of buttons and interfaces to decipher initially, but there's a logic to it all, and you'll get the hang of it.
As for interior materials, they're simply excellent. There was a time when Mercedes may have intentionally dumbed-down the SLK's interior to differentiate it from the SL's, but those days are long gone. This is a premium environment through and through, surpassed only by the new Boxster's cabin. In other words, the rest of the world has some catching up to do.
We'd be remiss not to mention the SLK's power-folding hardtop, which folds neatly behind the seats at the touch of a button -- and in under 20 seconds. Color us impressed. We just wish that a couple golf bags would fit in the trunk with the top down. Unfortunately, they don't, so you can't motor al fresco to the golf course with your playing partner.
By the numbers, trunk space is decent, with the top up at 10.1 cu ft, but it shrinks to 6.4 cubes with the top down.
We could kvetch about how many of the SLK's desirable technology features are optional, but you know, that's just the German way. It's probably time we made peace with it. So here's a rule of thumb: If you want a new SLK with the kind of technology features that are generally expected at this price, you're going to have to pay extra.
But know that if you do ante up, you'll be getting top-notch tech, from the excellent knob-controlled COMAND interface to the navigation system backed by an 80-gigabyte hard drive with music storage. And to Benz's credit, the excellent Airscarf neck-heating system is standard on all but the SLK250.
Plus, the more we look at the standard-versus-optional features, the more we like the idea of getting a base SLK without all the bells and whistles. It seems more in keeping with the compact-roadster experience. How's that for a rationalization.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The SLK250 features a turbocharged 1.8-liter inline-4 rated at 201 hp and 229 lb-ft of torque. That may not seem like much, but remember that the SLK is a pretty small car, so it doesn't take much to make it feel swift. Also, the 250 is the only SLK that offers a 6-speed manual transmission. The rest feature a mandatory 7-speed automatic.
Nonetheless, you might feel like 201 horses aren't enough for your new Mercedes roadster. We understand that, and apparently Mercedes does too, because it offers plenty more power for those so inclined.
First up is the SLK350, which sports a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. Seeing as this is the standard engine in the E-Class luxury sedan, we'd say it's more than enough motor for something the size of an SLK. Indeed, the acceleration is strapping at just about any speed. Most folks will find it to be more than enough.
But the good folks at Mercedes, bless their hearts, offer one more engine for the truly deranged: the 5.5-liter V8 that powers the SLK55 AMG. Cranking out 415 hp and 398 lb-ft of torque set to a truly stirring soundtrack, this V8 turns the SLK into a modern-day Shelby Cobra. The philosophy is the same: Take a diminutive roadster and stuff it full of as much V8 as the engine bay can handle. For the lucky few who upgrade to the SLK55, the V8's insane rush of power will never get old. We promise.
People don't generally have fuel economy in mind when shopping for a pleasure craft like the SLK, but for what it's worth, this Benz sips fuel like few other roadsters we can think of. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the SLK250 returns 23 miles per gallon city/33 mpg highway with the automatic transmission. The manual is right behind at 22/32 mpg. The SLK350 checks in at a still-solid 21/29 mpg. And even the SLK55 is fairly frugal, garnering a rating of 19/28 mpg.
The SLK-Class comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, 10 airbags, active headrests, aluminum roll bars behind those headrests and a slew of computer-driven safety systems, including a driver-drowsiness monitor.
Every SLK also comes with the mbrace2 safety telematics suite, which connects your car, computer and/or compatible smartphone to both cloud-based and GPS technology, enhancing emergency response times and the like.
Like most luxury vehicles of its ilk, the SLK has not been subjected to any crash tests on American soil.
At speed, the SLK could almost pass for an SL. That's how stable and composed it is on the highway. And unlike big brother, the SLK feels at home on twisty roads too, attacking corners with an enthusiasm that we have not traditionally associated with the 3-pointed star. Naturally, the SLK's truncated wheelbase makes it less compliant over rough pavement, but the structural rigidity is exemplary, so you can put the top down anytime without worrying about shakes and rattles. Moreover, Mercedes has decades of experience with convertible aerodynamics, so you can count on minimal wind buffeting in the cabin. Keep the top up, though, and the SLK morphs into a high-speed luxury cruiser, permitting conversation in normal tones at virtually any velocity.
Other Cars to Consider
BMW Z4: As a compact hardtop roadster, the Z4 is really the SLK's only direct competitor, but it's a formidable one, featuring silky-smooth turbocharged engines and styling that's more pleasing to our eye.
Porsche Boxster: The redesigned 2013 Boxster still uses a vinyl soft-top, so it lacks the SLK's serene top-up character. But serenity is hardly the point of a Porsche. What Boxster gives up in refinement, it reclaims in pure driving pleasure.
Chevrolet Corvette Convertible: The Corvette is in between generations as of this writing, which means there are likely great deals to be had on the outgoing C6 Corvette Convertible. From a bang-for-the-buck perspective, we certainly couldn't blame you for going with the 'Vette.
Call us deranged, but the SLK55 AMG is the one that calls our name. You might think the other motors are sufficient (and in truth, they are), but trust us, you'll think twice after giving that V8 a workout.