In Hollywood, they call it a reboot.
It's when they've made not just a mere update, but a complete rethink. For 2012, the Mercedes-Benz SLK350 gets more than just updated bodywork, chassis and engine; it was created with a different philosophy. The SLK is no longer content with watching its harder edged competitors from afar; this one is aimed more directly at BMW's Z4 and the Porsche Boxster. The last SLK was Batman & Robin... this one is Batman Begins.
The exterior styling is polarizing and decidedly more masculine, and draws heavily from the looks of the $180,000 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG supercar. Opinions are mixed on how well it pulls it off, but the striking Mars Red paint is a good fit. And, starting at just under $55,000 a whole lot less expensive. (Our test car, fitted with the Sports Package, Premium Package and a few other extras, was right at $64,000.)
The SLK is practically a caricature of the classic short rear deck, long hood sports car proportion. The angular cartoonishly short rear has almost zero overhang.
Under the hood sits a new naturally aspirated 302-hp 3.5-liter V-6 featuring direct injection. This engine has a much wider torque range than the outgoing motor and the new technologies give it reduced emissions, increased power and better fuel economy (we saw around 19mpg in spirited city driving).
Paired with the 7-speed automatic transmission, it feels like you're usually in the right rev range all the time with power at the ready.
The biggest surprise of the SLK is the sound. The exhaust note is superb: this just might be the best-sounding V6 on sale today. Sure, it drones a little bit when cruising, but under heavy throttle it goes from a deep bark to a high-pitched wail as the RPMs climb. Trust us — it's incredibly addicting.
Driving the SLK around town is fun and confidence-inspiring. It's just goes, effortlessly, and it's very easy to drive quickly. It rides hard over bumpy surfaces but the payoff is a chassis that's extremely rigid, especially for a convertible. It is perhaps the ultimate point-and-shoot luxury roadster.
The 18-inch 5-spoke alloys fill the wheel arches to the brim and hide beefy 13.5-inch front brakes.
The suspension is surprisingly stiff in the SLK. It's no secret that they're aiming for BMW the minute you start driving over some bumps. It's very well-composed though, and there's very little body roll. The brakes offer solid, direct feel, and do an excellent job of stopping without much effort.
The bi-xenon headlights offer good visibility at night, but the neatest trick is called Active Curve Illumination, which points light where you turn the steering wheel.
Twenty seconds is all it takes for the power retractable hardtop to transform from coupe to convertible mode. The SLK started the folding hardtop craze in the 1990s, and it's gotten even more refined and efficient as the years have gone by.
The roof controls are mounted under a cover just ahead of the armrest. One switch controls the roof, the other operates all of the windows.
Although a prompt on the guage cluster display briefly tells you when the roof operation has begun, there is no message to tell you when its job is done. It can be unnerving, and you find yourself holding the switch for five seconds after the electric motors have stopped whirring just to be sure it's complete.
The folding roof intrudes into the trunk somewhat when it's closed, but not by a huge amount. A cover slides down to protect your belongings from the roof mechanism when it's stowed.
The sculpted, flat-bottom steering wheel is the centerpiece of the cabin. It's well finished and comfortable, with some plasticky paddle-shifters behind it, if that's your thing. In practice, shifting the 7-speed automatic with paddles isn't quite responsive enough to be very enjoyable.
There are beautiful, well thought-out touches throughout the interior. When you turn off the car, the stereo fades out instead of abruptly shutting off. Trivial, sure, but it's a nice touch.
Embedded into each headrest is the optional Airscarf system, which blows warm air onto your neck if you want to drive with the top down when it's cold out. The system has three settings and, in conjunction with the heated seats, works well at keeping you warm. The only drawback is that it blows awfully close to your ears and as it turns out, Airscarf is pretty loud.
Opting for the Sport Package adds something called "Solar Red Direct Ambient Lighting." Which translates to awesome red tubes of light throughout the cabin that light up at night. All of the lighting inside the SLK is LED. The main interior lights cast a bright, completely neutral light, unlike conventional interior bulbs.
Annoyingly, the car beeps loudly and repeatedly for you to put your seat belt on as soon as you sit down. Even if putting your seat belt on is the first thing you do when you get in, hearing it is still unavoidable.
Jewel-like gauge clusters are easy to read and pleasing to look at. With the new V6, the redline is down to 6,800RPM (from 7,200 last year) and the result is improved mid-range power.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 isn't just an update to the model -- it's the Mercedes roadster reimagined. Like all the recent Hollywood reboots, it's much darker, meaner and edgier than the sugar-coated fluff that preceded it. Time will tell if buyers go for the new look and uncompromised driving dynamics, but we think it's a leap in the right direction.