Daimler has been wooing female drivers since the mid-’90s with its Mercedes-Benz SLK – effectively a Mini-Me version of the company’s iconic SL roadster.
For the third iteration, however, the German brand is out to balance the gender appeal.
The new approach is embodied by styling that makes no excuses for borrowing masculine design themes – notably the squared-off front bumper with large grille – from the half-a-million-dollar-odd SLS ‘Gullwing’ supercar.
Generation 3.0 almost looks like a hybrid between the boxy first Mercedes-Benz SLK of 1996 and the curvier second generation of 2004, though while suitably attractive the BMW Z4 and new Porsche Boxster would likely get more votes in a compact-luxury-roadster beauty pageant.
The SLK350, launched in August 2011, is the mid-range model after the recent arrival of the V8-powered, $155,000 SLK55 AMG performance variant. At $118,900 the SLK350 sits $36,000 above the entry-level SLK200.
For that not inconsiderable premium over the SLK200, the SLK350 bumps up the standard equipment count with features such as ‘Airscarf’ neck-warming system that debuted on the previous SLK, 18-inch alloy wheels, bi-xenon headlights, larger-capacity (70 litre) fuel tank, larger TFT colour display with integrated satellite navigation, 10GB music register, internet browsing capability, and metallic paint.
Six airbags, stability control, electric parking brake, heated sports seats are among standard equipment shared with the SLK200, while our SLK350 test car came with an optional $3200 AMG Sports Package that includes sportier-looking AMG-badged alloys, LED daytime running lights, red seatbelts and red stitching for parts of the interior.
If you want a more bespoke interior, you can spend thousands more on Mercedes’ ‘designo’ custom range, which offers a range of higher-grade paints and upholstery.
You also get extra performance with the SLK350, of course. While the SLK200 makes do with a 135kW 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbo, the SLK350 comes with a 3.5-litre direct injection V6 good for 225kW of power and 370Nm of torque.
Mercedes says the SLK350 will perform the 0-100km/h in 5.6 seconds but it isn’t just quick on paper.
The V6 endows the SLK350 with strong performance, with the engine gargling a suitably meaty tune as revs rise. Throttle response is a bit dull in the automatic gearbox’s E (for Economy) mode but improves in S(port).
The seven-speed auto does a respectable job though is never quite as instinctive as you’d hope for while the speed of upshifts can’t match dual-clutch set-ups found in rivals such as the Porsche Boxster, Audi TT and BMW Z4.
That makes the paddleshift levers mounted behind the steering wheel – another extra over the SLK200 – all the more welcome for drivers looking for more involvement from a sports car.
That lack of engagement has made previous SLKs a bit of a letdown for enthusiasts but the new version is another sign of how Mercedes is trying to close the dynamics gap – which was once a chasm – to BMW throughout its range.
Forget comparing it to the Boxster, however. While the SLK350 can be entertaining to a point, and the suspension is tautly controlled over bumpy country roads, the Mercedes can’t match the tactility or responsiveness of the Porsche.
Mercedes engineers have made a better fist of the SLK’s steering, too, though again there are shortfalls in terms of a deficiency in weighting and communication.
Surprisingly, the SLK350 doesn’t even ride as well as a Boxster over typical Australian road surfaces, and the lumpy ride detracts from the general driving comfort. And while the SLK is noticeably stiffer than before, the body can still shudder slightly over larger bumps.
Our test car wasn’t fitted with an optional Dynamic Handling Package, so we can’t say yet what effect the adaptive variable suspension has on ride or handling.
We do know, however, that tyre noise becomes intrusive on coarse-chip roads when the roof is up, though wind noise is better contained. Drop the roof and there’s minimal buffeting.
The slick roof operation takes the press of a button and a 20-second wait regardless of which style of detachable lid you pick from three choices: painted roof (as for our test car), panoramic glass roof, or the fancier, so-called Magic Sky Control roof.
It’s more simple science than anything involving chants of "abracadabra", of course, and there’s nothing magical about the $4550 option price. But it’s still clever. Particles sit in the glass roof providing a shaded covering, but by pressing a button to apply voltage to the tiny fragments, they disperse to allow more light through.
It still won’t allow you to open or close the roof if the SLK is moving, though, and it doesn’t change the fact that, when stowed, it cramps the previously useful 335-litre boot compartment (pictured below) to just 225L.
But there’s more space for the elbows of driver and passenger as a result of extra cabin width, and there’s a classier look – with more SLS influences – for the interior.
Some of the dials and switches are not of the quality you would expect from a circa-$120,000 sports car, but otherwise the SLK cabin is a fine place to spend time behind the wheel – and the driving position and seat comfort are excellent whether your mind is on touring or cornering.
And if a terrific audio should be a prerequisite for any drop-top, the SLK’s optional Harman Kardon system isn’t a bad way to spend $1760.
Whether $118,900 is the right investment if you’re in the market for a luxury compact sports convertible is another question. Especially when a BMW Z4 sDrive35is can be purchased for just an extra $1600, an Audi TT Roadster S Quattro starts at $102,000 and the purist’s choice, the Porsche Boxster, is available from $107,500.
The SLK has plenty of qualities that will appeal to plenty of buyers, though – regardless of sex.