Half an SLS for Less Than Half the Price
2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Introduction
Anyone who has ever seen a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Gullwing in person knows the exhilaration of hearing the exhaust note, checking out the car's sexy lines and, of course, checking out its gull-wing doors, but, most of us also know the disappointment of never being able to afford one. While the market for a car pushing $200,000 is quite small, the all-new 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class gives new-car shoppers an equally sexy design with a similar driving pleasure at a fraction of the price. Introduced in July, the third-generation SLK marks more than 10 all-new or significantly updated models for Mercedes in the last two years, and after Mercedes-Benz dropped off its redesigned SLK350 roadster for this weeklong review, we aim to see if a new look and trick technology can help distance the car from its past stereotypes.
Assembled in Germany, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class is only currently offered in the SLK350 designation. With a starting MSRP of $54,800, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 has the highest base price of any of its competitors, but this is due to its lack of a “detuned” base model for now. Early next year, the SLK line-up will get two new models including the SLK250 which will help lower the entry price point and the SLK55 AMG which will inject plenty of added performance into this small roadster thanks to a 415-horsepower V-8. Aside from these future model designations, Mercedes-Benz does not offer varying trim levels for the SLK-Class (or any of its other models), but the SLK350 used for this review came with plenty of options - totaling more than $11,000 - to push the as-tested price up to $67,195 including destination.2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Competition
The niche segment of sporty compact roadsters seems to be a German affair with the main rivals to the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 being the BMW Z4, Porsche Boxster and Audi TT. One of the key factors that might entice BMW and Porsche buyers to Mercedes-Benz showrooms is the fact that the new SLK350 is longer and wider than its predecessor which helps give the car a sportier ride and nimbler handling. Before the new SLK-Class hit showrooms, sales of the compact roadster were just 1,092 through June (down about 20 percent) putting it well under the sales figures for the Boxster and Z4. With the new model now having been on sale for more than a full month, the true test of the 2012 SLK's popularity should be revealed when the August sales figures are released.2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Exterior
Much like the last SLK design mimicked the styling of the SLR McLaren supercar, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 has more than a passing resemblance to Mercedes’ latest high-speed toy, the SLS AMG Gullwing. Up front, the new face of the 2012 SLK-Class starts with the large, upright grille and massive Mercedes-Benz tri-star logo, while the diamond-shaped headlights and front fascia finish off the aggressive new look; LED daytime running lights help make the SLK recognizable from a distance. The profile and rear view of the SLK share even more with the look of the SLS with a long hood, raked windshield and horizontal LED taillights.
Despite all of the styling changes made to the newest SLK, it still offers the retractable hardtop which has defined the car since its introduction. The Mercedes-Benz SLK was one of the first cars to revive the use of retractable hard tops when it was introduced in 1996, and the all-new, third-generation is innovating convertibles once again with the Magic Sky Control roof. Although this test car was not equipped with the trick roof, it did come with the optional ($2,500) Sport Package and $1,070 Lighting Package. The Sport Package is a good hint at what the SLK55 AMG will look like as this package adds a more aggressive body kit and 18-inch, five-spoke AMG-branded wheels.2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Interior
Like its exterior design, the cabin of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 could be a scale model of the SLS from the wide center stack to the round, chrome-trimmed HVAC vents. Contrasting the black exterior color of this test car, the interior was wrapped in a Bengal Red leather which also tacked on an extra $650 to the as-tested price. Adding to the sporty look of the cabin, the driver is welcomed by two large instrument gauges and a flat-bottomed steering wheel, while the rest of the interior features aluminum trim on the instrument panel, center console and door panels.
The retractable hard top can raise or lower in less than 20 seconds by using a switch that hides in its own compartment on the center console, and even with the top down the interior offers plenty of security thanks to a lockable globe compartment and a center console lid that automatically locks with the doors. Even in cooler weather, occupants can still enjoy top-down driving thanks to the optional AirScarf feature which blows heated air through the base of the headrest across the necks of the passengers. With the top up, trunk space is 10.1 cubic feet, but with the top stored in the trunk, cargo space drops to just 6.4 cubic feet which is about big enough for a couple backpacks.
Three options are available for the center section of the hardtop. In base form, the roof is opaque as would be expected, but this test car came with the optional ($500) Panorama Roof which turned the top into a tinted sky light. Finally, one of the SLK's most innovative features is the available Magic Sky Control roof for $2,500 which allows customers to switch between a clear panoramic roof or an opaque roof to keep out the sun light. This technology is very similar to what is offered from Maybach, and while we weren't able to test out this new option, shoppers can add it to their car for $2,500.2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Interior Packages and Options
With no varying trim levels, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 meets customers' needs with a plethora of option packages. Some of the major options on this test vehicle include the Premium 1 Package, Multimedia Package and the Sport Package. The Premium 1 Package adds comfort features like heated seats, AirScarf, harmon/kardon sound system and an iPod interface while Multimedia Package is more of the technology like COMAND with navigation, 10 gigabyte music storage, Sony Gracenote, Sirius Traffic and Weather and an SD card slot. Other options on our test car include $1,070 Lighting Package that adds Bi-Xenon headlights, $970 Parktronic parking sensors, $760 digital dual zone climate control, $500 Panorama Roof and $350 Airguide Windstop.2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Powertrain and Fuel Economy
As indicated by its model designation, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 is powered by a 3.5-liter direct-injected V-6 that produces a healthy amount of power to the tune of 302 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. The added benefit of direct injection allows the SLK's V-6 to deliver more power (up 34 hp compared to 2011) without hurting fuel economy which the EPA rated at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. Although the future 2013 SLK250 will feature a manual transmission, all 2012 SLK350 models send power to the rear wheels through a seven-speed automatic transmission that features three modes: Economy, Sport and Manual. While there are sure to be plenty who will complain about the lack of a manual in the SLK350, each transmission helps give the car a distinct feel that drivers will surely enjoy.2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Driving Impressions
Instead of being a raucous, curve-hugging track car like the Boxster, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 has been tuned to be more of an everyday driver while still delivering a sporty driving dynamic when pushed hard. The engine definitely provides plenty of motivation for the 3,400-pound SLK350, but it is the steering that had us most impressed. In normal driving, the SLK's steering feels just like a luxury car should, but when the speed picks up, the steering tightens up to make the SLK nimble in corners. Another element that helps the SLK tackle tight turns is the beefed up brakes including vented and drilled front rotors.
Despite not having a manual transmission, the SLK still offers drivers who want to shift on their own a true manual shift mode that can hold each gear as long the drivers wishes to including up into the redline; manual shifts can be made with the gear selector or shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel. In Sport mode, though, the SLK is at its fastest with acceleration from zero to 60 miles per hour coming in just under Mercedes-Benz's stated time of 5.4 seconds.2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Safety
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class has yet to be crash tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), but the 2012 SLK350 comes standard with safety features that include eight airbags, active front head restraints, dual integrated roll bars, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist, four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system, traction control, tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) and Electronic Stability Program (ESP). The SLK350 also include the Mercedes-Benz mbrace feature which allows owners to do everything from plan trips to receive emergency assistance in the event of an accident.2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Final Thoughts
If you're a fan of the SLS but don't have a house payment to buy a car, then the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 might be your car. Now in its third generation, the Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class once again reinvents the small sporty roadster segment by adding styling from a supercar and technology similar to one of the world’s most recognized luxury sedans. The 2012 SLK-Class is just the latest new vehicle released from Mercedes-Benz, and it shows that while the automaker is still focused on building some of the best luxury cars in the world, it hasn't forgotten about the fun cars either.2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 Review: Pros and Cons
- SLS-like styling
- quieter, more refined cabin
- stuffed with plenty of luxury and technology
- no manual transmission for the SLK350
- handling still not as good as other premium roadsters
- highest base MSRP in this segment (for now)
Mercedes-Benz provided the vehicle for this review.
Photos by Jeffrey N. Ross