The first few versions of the Mercedes-Benz's smallest two-seat convertible leaned more toward boulevard cruiser, than sports car.
In fact, the SLK was actually referred to as a "chick car" in some quarters – the kiss of death among many non-PC male enthusiasts, even Mercedes enthusiasts – and not taken seriously unless it was equipped with a monster-engine and AMG badge.
A concerted attempt was made to change that perception for the third generation SLK, introduced for the 2012 model year.
It all started in the design studios where the baby Benz got a new set of duds with a more masculine bent.
From the prominent three-pointed star in the grille to the long hood and short rear deck, it is obvious this is a Mercedes.
Based on the current C-Class platform it is longer and wider than the previous generation and has a much more aggressive stance, with gaping lower grille openings and the AMG styling package which is standard on all SLKs imported to Canada.
That package includes add-on plastic pieces around the entire lower perimeter of the car. The extended side skirts and front and rear lower valance panels trick the eye into thinking the car is even lower and wider.
Mild or wild
All-new for 2012, the third-generation SLK comes in just two forms – mild and wild.
The base-model SLK 250, equipped with a four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission, is the mild version. It makes the little roadster more affordable and accessible – and at the same time more fuel efficient and more fun.
The starting price for this sharply-styled and well-equipped hardtop convertible is $52,000 before taxes and the inevitable Mercedes add-ons.
The wild version is the SLK 55 AMG, with a 415-horsepower V-8 engine and an $80,500 starting price-tag. But that's a subject for another time.
My test vehicle and the subject of this review was one of the first of the four-cylinder/manual gearbox SLKs to make it across the Atlantic.
The price of style
The first thing I noticed was that it looked really sharp with the hardtop in place. The first thing I did was lower the top, leading to the observation it looked pretty sharp with the top down as well.
A tip of the hat to the engineering that ensured the top folds completely into the trunk, instead of perching on top like a first generation converti-Beetle.
Of course thosetopless good looks come at a price – trunk space.
With the top up there is an impressive amount of storage capacity. But when it is lowered, that space is reduced to the point it won't even accommodate a roll-aboard bag.
A folding and sliding tray in the trunk serves as your guide, along with a warning buzzer. Try to lower the top with the tray in maximum cargo-space mode and the buzzer reminds you to slide it up and out to make provision for the top.
In the proper position the tray also protects objects beneath from being squished or damaged by the lowering top.
Power-operated, the polycarbonate top folds origami-like into the trunk in about 25 seconds. Wind and road noise are all but eliminated with it in place and there is even a sense of greater chassis rigidity, although the SLK feels rock solid with no cowl shake under any conditions.
With the top down and standard Airscarf system blowing warm air unto the back of your head and neck you can enjoy the topless experience under a greater range of ambient temperatures.
Like the body, the interior of the 2012 SLK is all-new. The design team placed added emphasis on refinement.
The steering wheel, instrument cluster, red ambient lighting and abundance of soft-touch materials all contribute to a luxurious and expensive impression beyond that conveyed by the price.
Standard equipment includes the automatic retracting hardtop, automatic climate control, Harmon-Kardon surround-sound audio system with satellite radio, power windows, locks and seats, heated auto-dimming and folding mirrors, heated seats, alloy wheels and tilt/telescope steering wheel.
Along with the new look, the 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine is the big news for the 2012 SLK. This turbocharged, intercooled and direct-injected four can be mated to a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic transmission.
It has slightly less maximum power than the V-6 offered previously, but more torque. And that abundance of torque makes it a surprisingly impressive performer.
Smooth and quiet until prodded, the gutsy little engine needn't be wound to the redline to impress.
With gobs of low-end grunt available from as little as 1500 rpm, thanks to the turbo and direct injection, there is no need to constantly row the gearbox in search of an appropriate gear as is the case with more highly-strung, normally-aspirated engines.
The numbers tell the story. The four propels the SLK from 0-to-100 km/h in 6.6 seconds, which would be more than respectable for a six.
Passing and climbing hills proved a breeze, thanks to the easy low-end torque supply. Down-shifting is all but optional.
I averaged 7.1 litres/100 km over my 350 km test loop, which in some ways was even more impressive for a $50,000-plus car.
Manual transmission impresses
I can’t remember the last time I drove a Mercedes with a manual transmission and approached this one with some trepidation, wondering if the product planners had gone too far in search of affordability.
Those fears disappeared before I got into fourth gear. The low-end power, light and progressive clutch action and light linkage make for a very involving and rewarding interaction between man and machine.
The shift gates were not as well defined as I'd like but that became less of an issue with familiarity and break-in.
Thanks to the new and more-rigid platform, handling has also been improved for this third-generation SLK. The ride is well composed and comfortable but the new suspension and chassis result in a new alacrity, with sharper steering response and less lean.
The third-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK is a significant step forward, even equipped with the least-expensive and most fuel-efficient powertrain.