Mercedes-Benz has a long, proud motorsports history, producing some of the most incredible racing machines and desirable sports cars in history. So it’s gratifying to see that the carmaker has now produced a compact roadster that’s a worthy heir to that heritage.
Mercedes-Benz cars have worn their national colors, following the tradition of gentleman sports car racing (in the case of Mercedes that meant silver for Germany, a shade which brought the Mercedes cars the nickname “Silver Arrows”).
But the compact SLK roadsters of old always seemed something of a pretender to this title. If the 1998 SLK was a Silver Arrow it was one taken from a child’s toy bow and arrow set.
The new SLK is different. It wears bold, muscular styling that is visibly influenced by the line-topping SLS sports car. It succeeds in echoing that car without the unsaid, half-hearted message that, well, I really wanted an SLS, but an SLK was all I could afford.
Mercedes’ AMG performance subsidiary has tuned some very fast SLKs in the past, and the second generation SLK wore styling that aimed to mimic Mercedes’ lightning fast Formula One racers, but all this effort fell somehow flat.
No SLK, not even the AMG versions, was taken seriously as a sports car. Indeed, the SLK has mostly been viewed as a woman’s car. This was probably partly due to the styling of the first car. But it could also have been the indirect result of the SLK’s technical innovation of a folding hardtop convertible roof.
Others had done such roofs previously, most notably Mitsubishi with its 3000GT. But the SLK was the first to enjoy popular sales success, which was likely driven by the feeling of security that a rigid roof provided.
Now, however, even the affordable Mazda Miata offers a folding hardtop convertible to allay such fears and those of urban dwellers and anyone else who is reluctant to park a canvas-topped car on the street.
So why spend $68,000 on a compact roadster from Mercedes-Benz when a Mazda Miata pretty closely matches it in terms of appearance, capability and specifications for one-third the price? For the same reasons one might buy the Mercedes E-Class midsize sedan rather than a Honda Accord — refinement and pedigree.
Consider the SLK’s Magic Sky Control roof. It’s a glass skylight in the rigid convertible roof whose opacity is adjustable. Press a button and the glass is clear, yielding a light, air cockpit with the roof up. But in scorching sunlight another touch of the button tints the glass to block 95 percent of the sunlight.
The cabin is swaddled in leather and wood everywhere you look, all of it well-executed and finished, in contrast to some of the budget furnishings of the earliest SLKs.
Contributing to the SLK’s poor reputation has been its inept handling. It deprived the SLK of the driver’s car reputation enjoyed by competitors like the Porsche Boxster. Even if men did drive exactly the same way as women, they imagine they need to be able to win a race at any time, and they knew that the SLK wasn’t up to playing Bullitt through the streets of San Francisco (neither were the Mustang and Charger that performed the iconic movie chase scene, but that fact is lost in the mythology of the ages).
To underline the point that the new car does handle with the precision and control sports car buyers demand, Mercedes chose to debut the new SLK on the western North Carolina road known as the Tail of the Dragon.
In the Tail’s 318 curves I found that the SLK was notably composed from one turn to the next. The brake pedal provided similarly confidence-inspiring feel, allowing the driver to stomp hard on the brakes and then smoothly taper deceleration to nothing while bending into the curve. These aren’t traits earlier models enjoyed, so they’re welcome additions.
However, the SLK350’s standard seven-speed automatic transmission is predictably confounding when the car is driven briskly. The transmission, like virtually all automatics, is prone to downshifting too many gears and doing so at inappropriate times, interfering with the driver’s intent.
Mercedes current SLK customers will surely never notice, but if the company is serious about making inroads into Porsche and BMW’s customer territory then allowing the driver full control over the transmission is a must.
The real problem here is that Mercedes provides three shift modes for the SLK: comfort, sport and something interestingly labeled “manual,” which automatically changes gears under most circumstances despite its name. If a company puts a “manual” mode on its transmission and mounts shift paddles on the car’s steering column, it needs to shift only when it is told to do so.
Thankfully, the entry-level SLK250 — which will be powered by a turbocharged, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine when it debuts later in the year — will be offered with an actual six-speed manual transmission in addition to the optional seven-speed automatic.
Past Mercedes manual shifters have reflected the company’s disinterest in such proletarian equipment, so I can only hope that the execution of the manual transmission’s shifter will be better than that of the automatic transmission’s manual mode.
The SLK250 will have the advantage of a four-cylinder’s exhaust note. That sound will never rival that of say, a V12, but it can sound pretty racy in comparison the sometimes flatulent sounding V6 in the SLK350.
So if the SLK250 with manual transmission can deliver the full sport driving experience as thoroughly as the SLK350 delivers the luxury roadster experience, then these newest Silver Arrows will have truly pierced the target’s bullseye.