2006 Mercedes SLK350

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Now this is what they call an extreme makeover. Mercedes' cute SLK roadster has spent its entire life as a respectable and somewhat mousy entry into the sport-convertible market. Even the AMG versions, which were capable of running with Corvettes, wore the same squarish sheetmetal. They were decent cars, but they didn't stand out. They didn't "pop," to use the fashion lingo.

Mercedes took care of that. With a full redesign for 2005, the 2006 Mercedes SLK350 series goes from ho-hum to unforgettable in a single bound. The SLK's revitalization goes beyond the SLR McLaren supercar-inspired styling, as well; this little roadster has been muscled up from the ground up. Ironically, this move comes barely a year after BMW went in the opposite direction with its luxury roadster, softening the aggressive Z3's manners in favor of the arguably less hard-core Z4.

The 2006 Mercedes SLK350's transformation is likely to have much wider appeal than the BMW's. The new, bold design takes its influence from the arrow-shaped cars of Formula One, as well as from Mercedes' flagship, the 200-plus-mph SLR McLaren. The new look was unanimously approved of when we showed off our test car. Mercedes suggests that the new design is intended to be more masculine, but in truth it's prettier than the old car, with deeply contoured fenders, a large Mercedes logo that tunnels up the center of the hood and a purposeful, wedgy look. It's about three inches wider and longer than its predecessor. 17" wheels seem to stretch the fenders. The retractable hardtop is still the SLK's distinguishing feature, and its operation has been modified so it works quicker as well as taking up less trunk space.

Inside, the 2006 Mercedes SLK350 benefits from Mercedes' recent discovery of artistry in interior design. Silver switchgear contrasts nicely with the black dash. The amount of interior space feels about the same as before, but the SLK's edges have been nicely rounded and tapered, and the car wraps around its two passengers more intimately than before. It's cozy for two; on a long trip it might be a bit cramped, especially with the top up. The 2006 Mercedes SLK350 has Mercedes' trademark bank-vault solidity (in spite of a hardtop that occasionally squeaked over uneven pavement), as well as a feeling of denseness. This car is so small that it seems as though every possible nook and cranny has been packed with some bit of technology or necessary equipment. The 2006 Mercedes SLK350 carries a fair amount of it, including a leather interior, nine-speaker sound system, Mercedes' Tele Aid emergency communication system and a gaggle of airbags.

A fancy innovation is Mercedes' available AIRSCARF system, which is just the thing for top-down motoring in fifty-degree weather. AIRSCARF uses special ducting on the SLK's heater to blow warm air from the headrests. It's able to adjust the temperature and blower speed to account for changes in ambient temperature too, allowing for comfortable top-down drives at any speed, in almost any weather.

So, has the 2006 Mercedes SLK350 got the power to back up those sporty looks? The lineup includes the SLK350 and SLK55 AMG. It should be obvious that a car this petite doesn't need nearly 300 horsepower to get itself motivated, and a quick stab of the gas pedal bears this out. The 3.5 liter DOHC V6 engine's 286 horsepower is more than plenty, making the SLK350 a ball to drive. Mercedes' first dual overhead cam engine pulls giddily thanks to variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust sides, and the 2006 Mercedes SLK350 is at its best on the freeway. Step up to the 355-horse, 5.5 liter V8-equipped SLK55 AMG and you shall learn the definition of "stupid fast" while you chase down Corvettes and the odd Learjet. A choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic transmissions is available on the SLK350; the hotter SLK55 AMG only gets the seven-speed. The six-speed manual was the most welcome to our hands, with smooth shifts and ready access to the 3.5 V6' power.

Keeping the wheels on the road is a fully independent suspension, with three-link construction up front and a complex five-arm multilink rear. Compared to the old SLK, road feel is dramatically improved. Just like its looks, this car is less sterile than its predecessor, and much more willing to play. Huge brakes (13" in the front) ensure that the 2006 Mercedes SLK350 can bring itself down from the ridiculous speeds it's capable of, and the big wheels show them off proudly. Mercedes' Electronic Stability Program adds the confidence of stability and traction control as well. This familiar and relatively unobtrusive system intervenes with the brakes and throttle to keep the SLK going in a straight line, and cuts the ignition and throttle when wheelspin needs to be controlled. Front, side and knee airbags also help the 2006 Mercedes SLK350 to retain its title as small roadster safety champ.

It's interesting that in trying to make the 2006 Mercedes SLK350 less of a "chick car," Mercedes played up the looks and made it less utilitarian--the sort of thing you'd expect when trying to boost a car's appeal to women. It doesn't matter what the intent was. We like the new SLK350 regardless of who Mercedes was trying to please. The style and horsepower injection do to this roadster what every manufacturer strives for: they give it soul.

The 2006 Mercedes SLK350 that we drove starts at $45,500. Options like the six-disc CD changer, sport suspension and special paint drove the total to just over $50,000. Was it worth it? Considering that Mercedes kept what was cool about the old SLK and wrapped it in a better, more athletic, and better-looking package, we think so.


Base price: $45,500
Engine: 3.5 liter DOHC 24-valve V6
Drivetrain: six-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 268 @ 6000
Torque: 258 @ 2400-5000
Est. mileage: 18/25

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