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2009 Mercedes SLK 350 Roadster

Published February 23, 2008


NICE, France—You won't read this expletive in any Mercedes-Benz newspaper ads. Or hear any of the carmaker's earnest staff here actually utter the derogatory phrase.

But there's no getting around the fact: its SLK roadster is, well, a chick car.

The highlights from the mid-cycle refreshing of the 2009 SLK tell the story. Styling for "added sportiness," a new "high-revving" six-cylinder, updated steering for "outstanding agility and tangible fun" — looks to me like the German automaker is trying hard (once again) to break its roadster's hardened stereotype.

When the two-seat rear-wheel-drive SLK 230 Kompressor debuted 11 years ago, it sent a message to driving enthusiasts that Mercedes's priority was style over substance; form over function — like choosing high heels over high-tops.

Whatever, the first-generation SLK ended ended up being a sales success for Mercedes. Yet the absence of critical acclaim the German automaker sought was the prime motivation for the more masculine second-generation SLK. It arrived in 2005 with McLaren SLR supercar-like looks, punchier V6s, a real honest-to-gawd manual transmission and the only V8 in its class, in the SLK 55 AMG.

Once again, sales success ensued. So you would think that Mercedes would be happy with its SLK. But, but …

Four years on, and here's Mercedes (again) asking if its SLK Roadster is man enough to take on more hard-core roadsters like BMW Z4s and Porsche Boxsters.

The familiar three-model lineup, with a couple of V6s and a V8 engine, continues for '09. Mercedes-Benz Canada is saying expect "aggressive" pricing when the new SLK goes on sale this April. Translation: don't expect increases over a price range that spans from last year's $60,500 SLK 280 to the $67,000 SLK 350 to the $87,500 SLK 55 AMG.

For marketing reasons, last year's base model SLK 280 badge now reads 300. Except for an estimated 0.4 L/100 km drop in fuel consumption (to 9.3 L/100 km for the manual and 9.1 L/100 km for the automatic, based on European model estimates), its 3.0 L V6 with 228 hp and 221 lb.-ft. of torque remains unchanged. As does the range-topping SLK 55 AMG's 5.5 L V8, rated at 355 hp and 376 lb.-ft. and 12.0 L/100 km.

The biggest changes for '09 can be found under the F1 racecar-inspired hood of the SLK 350. Traditionally the most popular SLK in Canada, its heavily revised 3.5 L V6 gains 33 hp over its predecessor, up to a nice round 300 hp. Torque is also up too, by 7 lb.-ft. to 266.

Six-cylinder SLKs receive a six-speed manual transmission as standard fare. There's also an optional seven-speed automatic with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters that's mandatory on the torque-rich AMG model.

Mercedes says the brutish 55 AMG is still the quickest SLK at 4.9 seconds from 0-to-100 km/h. But the biggest performance gains come from the new SLK 350. It isn't far behind the V8 model at 5.4 seconds with either stick or automatic, and costs $20,000 less.

Mercedes clearly doesn't have to be worried about the SLK 350 getting smoked at stoplights by bicycle couriers anymore. It's now equal to a Porsche Boxster S, quicker than an Audi TT Roadster 3.2 by half a second and a BMW Z4 3.0i by 0.2 of a second.

When compared to last year's SLK 350, you discover the new model's Direct-Steer system is much quicker at turn-in. It takes a few hairpins to learn not to oversteer the large diameter wheel, and there's still not as much feedback or as much fluidity as a Boxster S. But it does make the SLK 350 more involving to drive.

Driven hard, the SLK 350's body control is rigid, grip from its front 225/45, rear 245/40 17-inch rubber tenacious. The elements have always been there — rear-wheel drive, balanced front/rear weight distribution, rigid chassis — but the SLK 350 now returns a driver's efforts with more feedback than ever.

And it performs all of this with a ride quality that won't rattle your fillings.

Now, if you're already a fan of the SLK's cosseting ways, don't get your lederhosen in a knot. For '09, Mercedes has added new standard and optional features that have little to do with lowering lap times.

There's a new three-spoke steering wheel, driver instrumentation, and trim and upholstery finishes. More interesting for techno geeks and music lovers is a new optional Entertainment Package with MP3-compatible Harman-Kardon Logic7 surround sound system, Sirius satellite radio and new-generation satellite navigation system with voice recognition.

And, of course, there's always the SLK's signature piece of hardware: its hardtop roof, which still takes only 22 seconds to flip from coupe to convertible. Keep in mind, when the top's erect there are 300 L of trunk capacity; lowered, it drops to 208. Soft luggage for that weekend away is highly recommended.

For many current SLK owners, the Mercedes roadster's styling alone may have them writing the cheque to Mercedes, whether it drives like Lewis Hamilton's McLaren Mercedes MP4-23 Formula 1 car, or a wobbly shopping cart. Whatever I, or anyone else, may say about its ability to trounce a Boxster S on a race track is likely moot.

Taken on its own merits, the 2009 SLK 350 Roadster is a well-built and well-engineered car. With its newfound class-leading performance, more-than-competent road handling, updated cockpit features and — of course — that folding hardtop, the Mercedes is the luxury roadster to live with on a day-to-day basis.

Chick car stereotypes be damned: if anyone argues with you, just hit 'em with your purse.

Travel was provided to freelance reviewer John LeBlanc by the automaker