2016 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class

When the Mercedes-Benz SLK first hit the market in 1997, it featured a sporty exterior that was at odds with its more luxury-oriented character. Now in its third generation, the latest SLK provides a much better balance between handling and comfort while continuing to offer the versatile hardtop convertible configuration that made the original a hit.

Recent changes
The last U.S.-spec Mercedes available with a manual transmission is going automatic-only for the latest model year. It also gains a more powerful base model dubbed SLK300.

The SLK - which means Sportlich (sporty), Leicht (light) and Kurz (short) - is positioned below the considerably more expensive SL-Class roadster. The SLK was actually Mercedes' first hardtop convertible, predating the SL hardtop.

Design-wise, the SLK looks much like a downsized version of the now defunct SLS AMG Roadster. Both feature traditional long hood/short rear deck proportions along with an oversized front grille and athletic lines. The similarities are even more pronounced inside, where the SLK's upright dashboard, stylish circular vents and elegant (yet button-intensive) center stack seems to be pulled right out of its more expensive sibling.

The standard mbrace telematics system includes a host of cloud-based goodies, including a concierge service, location-based traffic and weather updates, stolen vehicle location assistance, automatic collision notification and more. Available apps add internet browsing, Google local search with street view, Yelp reviews, Facebook access and news reports. Owners can even use an mbrance smartphone app to remotely lock, unlock or locate their SLK-Class.

Unlike the SL, the SLK features a retractable hard-top design that provides a coupe-like look and superior insulation when raised, while taking less than 20 seconds to lower when the sun comes out. Several optional extras are available to make the convertible experience even better, including an "Airscar" system that blows warm air around the driver and passenger's neck and shoulder, as well as a "Magic Sky Control" glass roof panel that can be tinted at the push of a button by re-aligning embedded light-blocking crystals.

With the roof up, trunk space checks in at a respectable 10.1 cubic feet, while lowering it down reduces room to 6.4 cubes.

Performance and Handling
While it obviously can't match the much pricier SLS' performance, the SLK is nonetheless far more engaging than the typical, comfort-oriented Mercedes model. Deft suspension tuning and accurate steering make the roadster a willing partner in crime for backroad blitzes, though it is equally happy playing the role of grand tourer for long-distance highway trips.

The base SLK300 is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo four that makes 241 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 273 lb-ft. of torque from 1,300 to 4,000 rpm. Bolted to a nine-speed automatic transmission that spins the rear wheels, the four-cylinder sends the SLK from zero to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds.

More output can be had by opting for the SLK350, which uses a 3.5-liter V6 with 302 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. Offered only with a seven-speed automatic transmission, the SLK350 is capable of hitting 60 mph from a dead stop in 5.4 seconds.

The SLK300 returns 25 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway thanks in part to a standard start/stop system, while the SLK350 returns 21 and 29, respectively.

Those with a true need for speed can step up to the AMG-tuned SLK55.

Standard and Optional Features
The entry-level SLK300 comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, aluminum trim on the dash, LED daytime running lights, a three-spoke multi-function steering wheel, brushed aluminum pedals, rain-sensing wipers, an electronic parking brake, LED tail lamps, dual roll bars, an alarm, MB Tex upholstery, cruise control, eight-way power-adjustable seats, and Bluetooth connectivity.

Highlights from the 300's list of standalone options include 18-inch alloys, an adaptive suspension, wood trim on the dash, a rear spoiler, adaptive high beams, lane keeping assist, bi-xenon headlights with a curve illumination function, leather upholstery, heated seats, keyless start, Mercedes' Airscarf, dual-zone A/C, and navigation.

In addition to two extra cylinders, the SLK350 brings 18-inch alloys, keyless start, heated seats, the aforementioned Airscarf technology, leather upholstery, and a harman/kardon sound system.

Occupant Safety
Every SLK is equipped with dual front, front knee and side airbags in addition to traction and stability control systems.

A standard "ATTENTION ASSIST" system can alert the driver to the first signs of drowsiness, a factor that causes more than 100,000 accidents a year in the U.S.A steering sensor is coupled to smart software that uses 70 parameters to establish a unique driver profile during the first 20 minutes of driving. Between 50 and 112 mph, the system identifies the erratic steering corrections drivers make as they begin to get drowsy and triggers an audible warning and a "Time for a Rest?" message with a coffee cup icon in the instrument cluster.

Optional is the Pre-Safe Brake system, which detects impending collisions with vehicles or pedestrians and can automatically apply 100 percent of the SLK's braking force to avoid or mitigate the severity of the crash.

Other extra cost-options include a blind spot warning system and a Lane Keeping Assist system, which warns the driver if the roadster begins to drift into an adjacent lane.

Key Competitors
The SLK is pitted against a variety of drop-top rivals, including luxurious but less fun options like the Audi TT Roadster and BMW Z4, the incredibly fine-handling Porsche Boxster and the potent Chevrolet Corvette Convertible.