2009 Mercedes Benz SLK

Having sold almost a half-million SLKs to date, Mercedes-Benz is revamping the second-generation car to keep it current. In all there are 650 new parts, the bulk of which, new look aside, key on the comfort and dynamic sides of the car’s split personality.

As the first of the current crop of hardtop convertibles (the SLK launched in 1996), the SLK continues to offer the best of both worlds. With the tin-top up you have the comfort, hushed ride and security of a coupe. Hold a button for 22 seconds and the lot folds down into the trunk in an intricate mechanical ballet – at times the different pieces come within a whisker of disaster, of course, they never do.

Mercedes Benz SLK

On a 10C day in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat with the top down, the SLK’s air scarf kept the riders comfortable by wafting a warm breeze (from a vent in the headrest) over the neck and shoulder area. It is the type of driving experience that, even on the worst of days, beats a good day at the office.

When the rear-drive SLK arrives this spring, it will be offered in three flavours: SLK 300 (formerly the 280), SLK 350 and the uber-powerful SLK 55 AMG. The mortal versions are offered with either six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmissions, the AMG comes with automatic only.

The appearance changes are subtle but meaningful – the front bumper has a more chiseled appearance (especially in AMG guise) and the rear apron now has a quasi-defuser built in to it. Add darkened tail lights and larger exhausts tips and you have a more purposeful look. Those enlarged tailpipes also sound the part whenever the gas pedal is flexed – the 55’s throaty V8 positively barks through its quad-pipes.

The SLK 300 comes with a 3.0L V6 that churns out 226 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque (at a low 2,500 rpm). This is plenty of power, especially when teamed with the six-speed manual. The nice part is that the box features a clean snick-through-the-gears gate and a light progressive clutch. As a package it is no slouch – a 6.3 second run to 100 km/h speaks volumes about its ability.

Mercedes SLK 350

The SLK 350 ups the ante to 300 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque. The immediacy it brings to the drive is well worth the extra coin – the 0-100-km/h time drops to 5.4 seconds. It also comes with the larger brakes needed to pull it down from speed. On the drive up through the Southern Alps and over into Italy it proved to be a blast. First, the suspension is such that rough roads pass by without jostling the riders needlessly, push on through a hairpin and it hunkers down with authority. More impressive is the car’s structural integrity – there is not the slightest hint of cowl shake to be found.

The defining factor, however, is the feel and feedback afforded by the steering. The new rack and pinion system has been tweaked to make it more responsive. It is one of the best setups offered on any car. When on the highway at speed there is just enough of an on-centre neutral zone (5-degrees) the car does not feel darty. Dial in a little more steering and the rack tightens to bring a progressively faster response and laser-like precision.

Adding the AMG Sport package to the SLK 350 does a number of good things. First, it adds the 55’s more aggressive look and better tires – P225/40/R18 front and P245/35R18 rear verses the stock P225/45R17/P245/40R17 combination. It also includes steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for the seven-speed automatic. These things work very nicely. In the sport setting (there are also comfort and manual modes) the box holds each gear a little longer, which helps performance. The paddles then allow the driver to drop a cog (or two) to set the car up for the corner without having to take a hand off the wheel. I prefer stirring my own gears, but this thing is good enough it represents the best of both the drive and driven worlds.

In terms of the pure driving excitement, the AMG version is the most enjoyable if it’s a first class adrenaline rush you seek. With 355 horsepower and a tire-shredding 376 pound-feet of torque on tap, this thing moves whenever the driver guns the gas – 100 km/h appears on the clock in a scant 4.9 seconds. It is also noticeably firmer, has even better road manners and much better brakes than the 350. It is as good as any serious performance car that can be purchased for under $100,000.

As for options, there are plenty. There is one, however, that’s a must – a 500-watt harman/kardon, LOGIC7, surround sound audio package that comes with eleven well-placed speakers. Even with the top down in a tunnel, it is proud enough to drown out the extraneous noises echoing around the car. Crank it up and you can actually feel the bass resonating through the body, and it does this without distorting the clarity of the sound.

There is something truly rewarding about driving a car that’s able to out-bass one of those really annoying vroom and boom wrecks. In any form, the SLK has the mechanical hardware to dust these fruitless ventures away from a light – and without so much as breaking a sweat. How sweet it is!

No pricing has been announced, however, expect the new range run from $58,000 for the SLK 300 and top out at $85,000 for the SLK 55 AMG.