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SLK advances in the European roadster rivalry

October 03, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

For European-sports-car fanatics on a budget, the latest SLK is a wish-list dream come true. Slicker and quicker than the original, this baby Mercedes-Benz has also been updated and refined in just about every way possible.

Over the past few years, it has been fun to watch the Porsche Boxster, Audi TT, BMW Z class and Mercedes-Benz SLK all jockey for position in the entry-luxury two-seater category. Although the designers of each of these German-bred funmobiles takes a unique approach to their craft, the result has been an almost constant game of one-upmanship. One gets a bigger engine, then the rest follow suit. Another gets a leg up on some geez-whiz piece of technology and the others are soon offering it.

It's the SLK's turn at upping the ante. The '05 version begins by making a strong visual impression that goes well beyond its shy and now-retiring predecessor. In particular is the elongated pointy nose with its massive three-pointed-star emblem extending like a beacon from the grille. The snout also mimics that of the ultra-pricey McLaren-built Mercedes-Benz SLR super coupe. Hardly subtle and that's exactly the point: brand identification from five miles away.

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Despite a slightly longer, wider and taller silhouette and a more muscular front end, the car's stubby profile is reminiscent of the previous model.

However, under the spiffy new sheet metal, the platform has been considerably stiffened to improve ride and handling. The suspension and steering components have been similarly upgraded.

Settle into the roomier interior and you'll note the cockpit specialists have been busy there, too. Plenty of shiny metal trim pieces have been applied to the gauges and control switches and one of a half-dozen shades of standard leather trim are yours for the asking.

Of the more unique available features is a three-speed fan that blows warm air through the head-restraint vents in each seat. Your head and neck are kept warm and the SLK's top-down driving experience on cool days is more pleasurable.

When the time comes to protect yourself from the elements, a push of a switch is all it takes to convert the SLK to a hardtop coupe from a roadster. Twenty-two seconds later - three seconds speedier than last year's SLK - all is secure. The folding metal roof has also been reengineered to leave more luggage room when it's down and hidden away.

Although European versions of the SLK will receive a 163-horsepower 1.8-liter supercharged four-cylinder powerplant, North American buyers get an all-new 3.5-liter DOHC V-6. With 268 horsepower on tap, 53 more than the '04's optional 3.2-liter V-6 (a four-cylinder was standard), Mercedes-Benz claims the SLK will hit 60 mph in a rapid 5.5 seconds.

Transmission choices consist of a six-speed manual, or optional seven-speed automatic.

Mercedes says even more performance is on the way after the initial September launch with the addition of the SLK55 AMG model to the lineup. Look for a 362-horsepower 5.4-liter V-8.

With a projected base list price of about $45,000, adding an SLK to your stable might not be all that unreasonable. Not only is it capable of keeping its riders safe and warm throughout all four seasons, its high-end looks and impressive power make it more of a thoroughbred driver's car and less of a dainty dilettante.

To compete with its Teutonic rivals, that's the thrust, literally, Mercedes-Benz and the 2005 SLK had to take.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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