Double Take

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2006

Two years ago, the first car reviewed on these pages was a Mercedes-Benz SLK. It was a cute, fire-engine red two-seater with a forgettable wedge shape. One person at a flea market commented that she didn't think she'd ever seen one. That's not the kind of comment Mercedes-Benz would care to advertise.

The SLK I wrote about then was not a great sports car, and didn't enjoy a lofty sales position. But it was that rarest of rare: a hardtop convertible that offered the best of both the ragtop and hardtop types.

It had problems, however. Foremost was a lack of interior storage and trunk space. With the hardtop up, trunk space was adequate for two people's luggage-barely. But when the top lowered, it bent and folded into that trunk space, leaving room enough for a shaving kit.

My wife and I got around the challenge by leaving the top up on the interstate as we traveled to a North Carolina vacation destination. Once we reached our cabin, we unloaded the trunk and lowered the top.

Fast-forward two years and another Mercedes-Benz SLK 350 arrived for testing. This one will turn heads, with its restyled design featuring a bold front end that shouts, "I'm a Mercedes-pay attention!"

Indeed, after driving it half a block, I encountered a man in a delivery van who rolled down his window and shouted, "I'll trade ya. Right now." He grinned, and I had my first proof that this SLK held new appeal.

The older one didn't have a sufficiently muscular look to satisfy the macho ideal of some men. It became known in some circles as a "girl's car." That label is also attached to the New Beetle convertible and the Mazda Miata. But the 2005 SLK, redesigned with chiseled lines, has a decidedly more masculine look to it. Women love it, but so do men.

Another problem the older SLK had was that it was underpowered. Yes, it would get up the North Carolina mountains, but without much authority. That has changed.

Our tested SLK 350 came with a 265-horsepower V-6 under its front hood, coupled to a seven-speed automatic transmission-that's right, seven. No V-6 has ever had a seven-speed automatic before. What an easy-to-drive combination; it will zap zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds. That's plenty fast!

Both the front and rear suspensions are of the independent variety, and the car exhibits sporty handling. During high-speed cornering it remained flat and stable, never even squealing the fat ZR-17 tires on the beautiful 17-inch aluminum wheels. Our test car did have an optional $200 sport suspension system, however.

Standard are 13-inch brakes on the front and 11.4-inch ones in the rear, meaning this car will stop in as short a distance as just about anything on the road.

The retractable hardtop sets the SLK apart from most sports-car competitors, with only Lexus offering a similar model. From top-up to fully stored takes 22 seconds. Mercedes brags of this, but it seems painfully slow in the real world. Some convertible tops can be easily dropped at stoplights; an SLK driver might think twice before starting this dance.

With the top up, no one would guess that this was a convertible. The entire passenger compartment is part of a safety cage and is well insulated, so the effect is one of riding in a fixed-roof car. That cannot be said of any other convertible besides the rival Lexus. Most ragtops are noisy inside with the top up, blustery with the top down.

The SLK, as is the case with many quality convertibles today, offers a windscreen that will intercept wind pouring over the windshield, deflecting it from the passenger compartment. But just in case a cool wind does reach a driver or passenger, the SLK is the first car to offer neck heaters. That's right, warm air blows on your neck. Ahhh.

Our SLK began life at $45,500, but our tester had many extras, including a top-quality audio system and GPS navigation system, that brought the final price to $54,400. Frankly, with a car of this quality, it pays to get all the luxury touches.

And speaking of pays, the SLK has the best value retention of any sports car. You'll get more back at resale or trade-in with this SLK than with either pricier or cheaper sports cars.

Fuel efficiency from the V-6 was decent at 19 city and 25 highway. In a week of testing, the SLK came very close to those EPA estimates.

When it comes to safety features, Mercedes-Benz takes a backseat to no automaker. The tiny SLK has dual front air bags, head and thorax air bags built into each seat, and knee air bags for both driver and passenger. A sensor detects whether a passenger is present and discharges air bags on that side only if needed.

It comes with what is called the Electronic Stability Program, a way of saying it senses when a driver is in trouble and tries to help out. It also has first-class antilock brakes and pre-tensioning seat-belt restraints.

Behind both driver and passenger are built-in roll bars. Note that in some cars these are not advertised as roll bars, since they won't support the car upside-down during a rollover. These will. They're of the quality found in racecars.

Just in case, there are crumple zones front and rear.

But it still has that one Achilles heel: There's not much storage or baggage space, and almost none with the hardtop stored. That makes the SLK a great around-town car, but of limited use for long vacations.

Try as I might, I couldn't find much not to like about the new Mercedes-Benz SLK. The old one was a charmer; the redesigned one is even more appealing. As tested, it's about as good as it gets among two-seat models: safe, efficient, beautiful, comfortable, luxurious, fun, a status symbol and a good value.

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