2014 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.

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 SLS AMG Roadster, Mercedes' shapely $200,000 supercar. 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 SLS, 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.

Enhancing the SLK's sporting credentials is the availability of a six-speed manual transmission on the entry-level SLK250 model. The only U.S.-market Mercedes to offer a stick shift, the SLK250 is powered by a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 201 horsepower and 229 lb-ft, sufficient output for a mid-six-second zero-to-60 mph sprint.

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 gearbox is optional on the SLK250), the SLK350 is capable of hitting 60 mph from a dead stop in just over five seconds.

Fuel economy is rated at 22/32 city/highway and 23/33 mpg for the manual- and automatic-transmission SLK250 models, respectively. The SLK350 returns 20/29 mpg.

Those with a true need for speed can choose the 415-horsepower SLK55 AMG (its overview can be found here).

Standard and Optional Features
The entry-level SLK250 comes standard with leatherette upholstery, an eight-speaker AM/FM/CD/HD radio stereo system with an AUX input, automatic climate control, power-adjustable seats with driver memory functionality, Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming, cruise control, full power accessories, auto-dimming rearview mirror and 17-inch wheels.

The SLK250 offers an optional Premium 1 package with heated seats, the AirScarf system, an 11-speaker Harmon/Kardon stereo with satellite radio and an iPod interface, and remote roof activation.

The SLK350 is fitted with all of the niceties from the Premium 1 package in addition to 18-inch wheels.

The optional Sport package brings 18-inch AMG wheels, an aggressive bodykit and interior ambient lighting. The Dynamic Handling package includes an adjustable suspension and upsized brakes.

Extra technology can be added with the Multimedia package, which brings a navigation system with Mercedes' COMAND interface, voice command functionality and six-disc CD changer. The Lighting package includes adaptive bi-xenon headlights with a washing system.

Highlights from the stand-alone options list include upgraded leather upholstery, a glass roof panel (available with dimming capability) and parking sensors.

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.