In the “Happy Days” 1950s, a mild debate broke out over the definition of a sports car. It happened as the original two-seat Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird made their debuts.
After all was said and done, the consensus was that the Thunderbird, lacking true sports car attributes, was a “personal” car, while the Corvette, which also was bereft of most of those distinctions, was a sports car.
The two-seat Thunderbird disappeared after just three years but the Corvette morphed into one of the best sports cars in the world.
Neither of the original cars would measure up to the average compact economy car today. But the distinctions between sports and personal cars still exist, though at a way higher level.
Consider the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 two-seat hard top convertible. By almost any standard in recent history, it could easily qualify as a sports car. Nevertheless, in today’s context, it more easily fits the description of a personal car. You are more likely to see it cruising around the streets of Miami Beach than competing on a race track like, say, a Porsche Boxster.
With its retractable hard top, the SL350 is the third generation of a luxury touring car that first made its appearance about 15 years ago. Among the Mercedes faithful, it is the spiritual successor to the 190SL of the late fifties and early sixties, which also was a personal car but more of a sports car than the original Corvette.
The 2012 model offers plenty of performance: 302-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine with direct fuel injection mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode that can deliver zero to 60 miles per hour acceleration in 5.4 seconds with a top speed of 155, according to the factory specifications.
Yet, perhaps acknowledging the SLK’s boulevardier image as well as the burgeoning attention to fuel economy, Mercedes next year will offer the SLK250, which will be powered by a turbocharged 201-horsepower, 2-liter four-cylinder engine. It will be available with the seven-speed automatic along with a six-speed manual gearbox.
For now, however, buyers will have to be satisfied with the more powerful and less economical SLK350, which, of course, is no punishment at all. Besides, the SLK350, despite its considerable muscle, is no slouch on fuel economy, delivering 20/29 miles to the gallon on the government’s city/highway cycle.
On the road, this new SLK offers instant punch accompanied by musical exhaust sounds that would appeal to any enthusiast. In the automatic mode, shifts tend to be tentative at times—a condition easily corrected by using the manual-shift paddles on the steering wheel. On downshifts, the transmission can skip gears for quicker response—from 7th to 4th gear, for example.
The suspension system is set up for a decent compromise between handling and ride. The SLK350 handles confidently and it tends toward mild under-steer, meaning the car wants to push straight ahead around turns and it is difficult to break rear-end traction. At the same time, the ride is compliant enough to handle rough surfaces without unsettling the passengers.
Sports seats with substantial seatback bolstering hold both the driver and passenger in place. However, the driver’s seat does not have enough fore and aft adjustment for taller drivers. If you try to move the seat farther back, it forces the seatback into a more upright and uncomfortable position. Eventually, you have to find a less-than-satisfactory compromise.
The SLK350 comes with a full complement of safety equipment, including the Mercedes “attention assist,” which monitors the driver’s movements and issues a warning message, “Time for a rest,” if it detects nodding off.
A unique feature, consistent with the SLK’s luxury orientation, is the so-called Magic Sky electro-chromic roof. It is a piece of polycarbonate material that, with the touch of a switch, rearranges molecules to allow less or more light into the passenger pod. It costs $2,500 and, given the fact that the SLK is a steel-top convertible, is little more than an expensive novelty.
The top itself is an engineering tour de force. It raises or lowers in about 20 seconds and does not completely wipe out trunk space as some other hard tops do. Top up, there’s 10 cubic feet of space; top down, there’s still more than six cubic feet. However, unless the items are very small, you have to raise the top to get at your luggage.
With the top down, the SLK can be ordered with two different types of wind blockers to minimize buffeting in the interior. One sits between the two headrests; the others are individual transparent blockers that swing out from behind the headrests. With the top up, the SLK350 is as tight and quiet as a coupe, with minimal wind, road and mechanical noise.
Base price of the SLK350 is $55,675. However, there’s a long list of options that quickly boost the sticker. The test car, with the Magic Sky roof, dual climate control and the Mercedes Airscarf system, which blows warm air onto the necks of driver and passenger for comfort on chilly days, checked in at $71,930.
Model: 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 two-seat convertible.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 302 horsepower.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.
Overall length: 13 feet 7 inches.
EPA trunk volume: Top up, 10 cubic feet. Top down, 6 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,397 pounds.
EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 20/29 miles to the gallon.
Base price, including destination charge: $55,675.
Price as tested: $71,930.