Something that doesn’t happen everyday on MM, a car review. I recently got a new one and lots of people wanted a review. So, here it is... the Mercedes-Benz SLK.
I’ve been saving up to replace my Nissan Cube and was recently pretty set on getting the Range Rover Evoque. After some thought, I realized that what I truly wanted was a roadster. A responsible thing to do? Probably not. But worth doing while still young? Yes.
When it comes to roadsters, one of my all-time favorites has always been the Mercedes 190SL. It’s one of the most beautiful cars in history and an icon of the late 50s. “SL” stands for “Sport Leicht” in German, or “Sport Light”. I’ve always found the name to be odd; the SL class was pretty quick to become a grand tourer, and not a lightweight sports car. It’s also worth noting that my greatest hero, Steve Jobs drove a Silver SL55 AMG.
In 1996, Mercedes introduced the completely new SLK. “SLK” stands for “Sportlich, Leicht und Kurz” or “Sporty Light and Short”. It was also one of the first cars to have a folding hardtop - or Vario-roof as MB calls it. This was a recipe for success but the roadster never received the love it deserved, partly because it wasn't as sporty or intuitive as something like a Boxster. But the bigger problem was that the SLK never looked aggressive enough and drove away male drivers.
In 2011, Mercedes introduced the latest generation of SLK, and addressed the biggest issue - it’s looks. I’ve never liked the SLK in the past but the new one looks very handsome in my opinion. I even prefer it’s looks to the bigger brother SL. It’s angry and prints exotic. People actually take pictures of it when you drive down the road. Don’t call it a girl’s car anymore.
Mercedes says that the design of the latest SLK was inspired by the 190SL. The front grill is has a similar form and the massive 3 pointed star sits on top of the familiar metallic bar. There's also a significant amount of SLS in the design of the SLK, which is certainly a good thing. There is too much chrome for my tastes so I may have to get some of it painted in gloss black in the future.
I’m happy to say that the car has enough presence to park next to a Boxster. The SLK’s strong, muscular lines and it’s wide stance is doing wonders for it.
I found this perfectly equipped 2013 SLK in Seattle and had to take it for a test drive. I wanted to buy it immediately and the fact that I got an awesome deal on it was the cherry on top. If you’re interested in the SLK, I've listed the options on this specific car. Notice how ridiculous some of the pricing is. $325 for some wood trim? $250 for a clock? Seriously?
Trim & paint
Arctic white paint $0
Sport package (AMG wheels, sport body styling, red interior lighting) $2,500
Chrome hood fins $150
Bengal red Nappa leather $1400
Black ash wood trim $325
Lighting package (adaptive bi-xenon headlamps, headlamp washer) $1,390
Panorama roof with Magic Sky Control $2,500
Premium package $2,590 (harmon/kardon sound system, heated seats, Airscarf, IR roof automation)
Multimedia package $2,220 (7” Comand system)
7-speed transmission with paddle shifters $1,510
Dashtop analog clock $250
Airguide windstop $350
Dual-zone climate control $760
Destination & delivery $905
Total $61,370 (before taxes & other fees)
The rear haunches aren’t nearly beautiful as the Cayman but they add a nice touch of sex appeal. I must admit though, the rear is less successful than the front. Almost every Mercedes-Benz products seems to have rears that are too conservative - all the way from the E-class to the SLS.
I’m a fan of short/compact cars and I’m glad Mercedes took the name “Sportlich, Leicht und Kurz” literally. The overhangs are miniscule.
If you’re a BMW/Audi/Porsche/etc fan, you’re probably wondering why I went with the SLK. In reality, I’m a bigger Porsche fan than anything else. However, the SLK completely sold me in terms of livability. The SLK embraces MB’s philosophies on luxury while providing the classic roadster experience. SLK aims to provide comfort all-year long, which is why it has this trick folding roof. It operates in about 20 seconds at the touch of a button. My only complaint is that you can’t be driving any faster than 5mph while operating the roof.
Once the roof is up, the SLK feels like a legitimate coupe. You can see a few hinges with the roof up but it’s not a big deal. Road and wind noise is very well handled on the road and visibility is great.
You can really have the cake and eat it too with the SLK. It’s a brilliant roadster in the summer and a well-isolated coupe in the winter.
The Premium Package includes the ability to automate the roof with the key fob. It’s a handy feature if you get out of the car after forgetting to put the roof up. You have to stand fairly close to the door though - the system uses IR.
Trunk space is reasonable but the size of the opening becomes very small with the roof down.
A very cool - though ridiculously priced - option is Magic Sky Control. It's a panoramic glass roof that changes opacity using an electric current to align particles within the glass in specific directions. It’s a technological triumph but achieves what a $15 shade could do.
The interior of the SLK is the highlight of the experience. This may be my favorite interior out of all the roadsters. It’s premium but not “Baroque” like other Mercedes products. Aluminum is favored over wood and the overall design is simple and logical. Everything is beautifully put together and though I hate to use this word, it’s simply “pretty”.
My SLK has the Bengal red Nappa leather upgrade which is a must in my opinion. The quality of the stitching and leather is on par with Range Rover. Beautiful.
The striking red seats are one of the most comfortable car seats I’ve ever sat in. They're bolstered in all the right places, keeping you glued to the seat during cornering.
The seats have coat hooks built into their backs to carry your jacket when driving.
There is also a first aid kit behind the driver’s seat which can come in handy. It contains mostly gauzes and bandages.
The Premium package adds two crucial comfort features - heated seats and Airscarf. Airscarf is a rather brilliant Mercedes invention that blows warm air behind your neck on colder days. It works really well though the heated seats are enough in most situations.
A feature I was really interested in was the Airguide windstop, another optional add-on. Most convertibles come with mesh windstops that don’t stow away elegantly and reduce visibility. Airguide is mounted to the roll-bars and folds away neatly when you’re not using them. Most importantly, they’re made of clear plastic which doesn’t limit visibility. They significantly reduce wind turbulence in lower speeds but don’t really do anything at freeway speeds.
Because it’s what you look at and touch more than anything else in your car, the steering wheel is quite possibly the most important part of the interior design. Thankfully, the SLK’s flat-bottom steering wheel is great. It’s wrapped in super soft leather and is extra thick for good grip. Steering feel is surprisingly instinctive thanks to Direct Steer, a mechanical system created by Mercedes that adjusts steering ratio depending on the driving situation. The steering wheel also features paddle shifters that are nice and clicky.
All of the switches and knobs feel solid and have a nice tactility to them. It’s the benefit of having a portfolio of premium cars - you have easy access to quality switchgear.
Ambient lighting can be a hit and miss and the SLK does a non-offensive job of it. It matches the interior well and adds a soft red glow at night.
My favorite part of the cabin are the satin aluminum air vents that come straight off of the SLS. I hate dealing with fiddly vents where you can never align the slats. The domes are dampened really well and are adjusted by lightly nudging them. They’re phenomenal.
Here’s another superficial optional extra: black ash wood trim. When you opt for it, the door and center console get covered in this nearly black wood trim that’s hand polished. Strangely, what I like about it is that it doesn’t look like wood. From a distance, it looks like black lacquer which keeps the interior looking modern.
I have very mixed feelings about the dashtop clock. I think it really helps pulls the interior together but it’s also completely useless because the speedometer and navigation system both show the time.
The speedometer is clear and legible and includes a useful center display for displaying various information like tire pressure. If you're wondering what the coffee cup is - every SLK comes with Attention Assist which will alert the driver if it thinks you’re falling asleep. Not sure if it actually works or not.
Surprisingly, the built-in navigation system is very well done. It’s not pretty but much faster than any phone I’ve used. Map data seems to be very accurate too. The information display next to your speedometer can display your next turn and it also shows how soon it's coming using an intuitive "progress" bar. I also like how the system shows what lane you should be driving in to avoid any urgent lane changes. The POI list is also usable and has most major attractions. It’s major weakness is that address input is a bit of a pain in the ass but other than that, it's not bad.
The SLK can be equipped with Parktronic which is a proximity based parking aid that uses sensors on the front and rear bumpers. The visual indicators for the front bumper are mounted on the dash and the ones for the rear by your shoulder. It’s very intuitive and a great convenience feature to have. The system includes guidance for parallel parking but I’ve found it to be too slow and have never gotten it to work properly.
The Mercedes Command interface is controlled using a wheel like its German brothers. It feels nice and clicky but I find the interface to be confusing and illogical. It becomes usable over time but has a pretty steep learning curve. Thankfully, iPod integration is very deep and the car is good at displaying the tags/album art of your music.
The SLK can be optioned with a 500 watt, 11 speaker harmon/kardon sound system. It’s loud, clear and has plenty of power to overpower wind noise when you’re driving with the top down.
My car comes equipped with the 7-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. It is a fantastic transmission with seamless shifts. I also like the tactile gear selector. It’s slides and clicks into place in a very mechanical and satisfying way.
The Sport Package includes these beautiful 18” AMG wheels. The wheels are staggered in width - the rear wheels/tires are wider to provide better power delivery. The SLK also comes with predictive brake priming, where the car brings the brake pads closer to the discs when it thinks you might want to brake. For increased responsiveness, the brakes also periodically sweep off water from the dics when you’re driving in the rain. The brushed aluminum pedals with rubber studs come as standard.
The model I went for is the SLK 250. Out of the models offered in the US, it’s the least powerful. The 1.8L turbo-4 makes 201hp and 229lb-ft of torque. Mercedes also offers a 3.5L V-6 and an (awesome) AMG model with the 5.5L V-8. I had initially thought that the turbo-4 wouldn't be enough power but it’s plenty. The car goes from 0-60 in 6.5 sec which is more than enough for public roads. The SLK 250 is also quite economical and gets 23/33MPG, though I’ve only been averaging 20ish. I may have been enjoying the car a bit too much though.
The car also has the optional Bi-Xenon headlamps that produce a bright, white light. They’re adaptive, meaning that they turn with your steering wheel to show where you're going better. The headlamps also have adaptive high-beam assist, which lowers your high-beam when the car detects on-coming traffic.
There are also a bunch of other frivolous convenience features like automatically folding mirrors upon locking, keyless entry, locked fuel door, courtesy light built to the mirrors and rain-sensing wipers.
So how does everything come together on the road? The car always feels planted and is very easy to drive. Coming from the Cube, the SLK feels like a race car. I’m always shocked that I can take a corner at 50mph and have it feel like 20. It brakes well, corners brilliantly and when you tell it to go like hell, it obeys without hesitation. However, the SLK doesn’t try to be (and isn’t) a raw sports car that you need to tame. It’s a car that you just put into D and let the car cruise down the road with ease. What I really like about the car is that it doesn’t try to imitate other products like the Z4, TT or Boxster. It’s a roadster that is very “Benz” - smooth and effortless. I often feel that cars are becoming too homogenous but this is a true Mercedes-Benz through and through. It’s a car that you can come home comfortably on a rainy Seattle day but also have fun carving up a twisty road in the summer. It’s a cake, and I’m eating it.
The SLK is certainly not the greatest roadster nor is it the best coupe out there. But it offers both in a single, handsome package. If you want the best sports car, get the Boxster. But if you want something that is willing to comfort you on a miserable, rainy day, this could be the roadster for you. As a product designer, I’m fascinated by how emotional ownership of a car can be. I love the SLK. I’m not going to argue that this is the best roadster money can buy, but if you own it, it may be the best car in the world.