Although the 2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 looks tiny, the car is filled with much more tech and horsepower than you would expect. Mercedes-Benz updated the little roadster for the 2009 model year, giving it new styling cues, improving the engine, and loading it with its newest raft of cabin gadgets. The result is a car that may not be the most practical, but scores big on fun.
The SLK350 is a roadster with a fully powered retractable hardtop. This top compromises trunk space pretty severely, but letting in the sun becomes convenient and easy. Styling changes emphasize sport, with a more pointed nose and a diffuser in back, but that doesn't make the SLK350 an exceptional sports car. Although we found it enjoyable to drive--especially fun on mountain roads, its sportiness seems diluted in favor of comfort.
Test the tech: The 65 mph iPod
One of the key tech options in our 2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 was an iPod port in the glove compartment, which came as part of the Premium package. This port was mounted next to an auxiliary audio input, and other audio sources included a six-disc in-dash CD changer that read MP3 discs and had Sirius satellite radio. As we've seen different levels of iPod integration on different Mercedes-Benz models, we decided to focus on this feature.
The iPod plugs into a port in the glove box.
To test the interface, we plugged in an iPod and put an MP3 CD in the changer, for comparison, then drove onto the freeway. We got into the flow of traffic, which was moving on the plus side of 65 mph, and started choosing music from the iPod through the car's interface. The iPod itself was stored away in the glove compartment, the connection to the car keeping it charged. To operate it, we had to reach across the instrument panel to a set of four directional buttons with an enter button at the center.
With the iPod chosen as our audio source, we pushed the down arrow button to get into the menu options at the bottom of the screen. Among these four menus, the one labeled Music let us into the main iPod screen, with options for playlist, artist, album, song, and genre. Although we had to reach across the navigation buttons, we found we could glance at the menu and select with only brief distraction from the road ahead.
We have to drill down through a number of menus to play music from our iPod.
We chose artist and were shown a list of artists on the iPod. Selecting one of them, we were shown, after a slight pause, a list of that artist's albums on the iPod. Selecting an album led us to the actual song list. Drilling down like this is a bit tedious, especially as we looked back to the road between each selection. It was worse when we chose a genre, as that led us to artist names, then albums, and then a song listing. Each menu had a folder icon at the top and bottom, letting us navigate back up through the library menus.
Having to drill down through menus like this is potentially dangerous. What we would like to see, a common feature on MP3 players, is an option to play all music at the top of each menu listing so, for example, you could choose the genre Jazz, then choose to play all music classified as Jazz. MP3 CD navigation was simpler. You browse through the folders on a disc, and as you can burn MP3 CDs with only one level of folders, it is potentially safer since it eliminates the need to drill through so many menus. We were also disappointed in the time it took the system to load lists of music from the iPod.
In the cabin
As we would expect from a plus-50-grand roadster from Mercedes-Benz, the interior of the 2009 SLK350 is designed for luxury. All surfaces except the buttons are soft. And although it's a roadster, you don't have to put the top up to stay warm. Our SLK350 had Mercedes-Benz's Air Scarf feature, which blows warm air on your neck from a vent in the head rest. We took it out on one particularly fog-bound and clammy day, San Francisco in the summer, and drove for hours with the top down, and the heated seats and Air Scarf kept us perfectly comfortable.
The vent in the headrest blows warm air on your neck, making the car comfortable to drive with the top down in cooler weather.
Mercedes-Benz's newest navigation system, which we saw in the C300, is hard drive-based, making route calculation and map refreshes quick, but we didn't have the navigation option in our test car. Likewise, the SLK350 can be customized with a Harmon-Kardon Logic7 audio system, which we've been impressed with in other models, but our test car only had the stock audio system.
The audio quality of the stock system, though full, suffered from shrill highs. We played a variety of music through the system and were generally impressed with the frequency range we could hear, and the good separation that made bass, mid, and treble notes distinct. But as we turned the volume up, the highs became unbearable as the speakers turned what should have been a clear high vocal into an eardrum-piercing note. The system handled bass-heavy tracks without rattle, but the Logic7 system seems a necessary upgrade.
The standard Bluetooth hands-free system lets you import your phonebook and keeps a record of recent calls.
The SLK350 also comes with standard Bluetooth hands-free cell phone integration. We were initially frustrated to find we couldn't pair a Samsung phone with the system. Checking the Mercedes-Benz Web site, we found that the car is compatible with most Nokia and Motorola phones, along with various BlackBerry models and the iPhone. We successfully paired it with a BlackBerry and found the call quality to be good. The car let us easily import our phonebook contacts, and kept a record of recent calls. And we finally had a use for the keypad Mercedes-Benz puts on the dashboard of most of its models.
Under the hood
The SLK-class is available in three versions marked by their engines, from the 3-liter V-6 SLK300 to the 5.5-liter V-8 SLK55 AMG. The 2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 that Mercedes-Benz squeezes 300 horsepower at 6,500rpm and 265 foot-pounds of torque at 4,900rpm out of. Although the SLK350 is a small car, the horses don't translate to rocket ship power. It moves fast and smooth, but we didn't get the blast in the back we expected. During one drive on a two-lane highway we started to pass a line of cars, but when oncoming traffic appeared, the SLK350 didn't have the guts to keep us confident in the maneuver. We did make it to the front of the line, but had to consider slotting back into the line before our intended spot.
Even though modern engines are clad in plastic, Mercedes-Benz at least makes it look good.
The engine feeds its power to the wheels through a seven-speed automatic transmission that keeps shifts very smooth. Through a little technical wizardry, the transmission exerts a little throttle when it downshifts to keep the engine speed matched to the gear. Our car had the standard seven-speed transmission--a sport version is available, complete with paddle shifters. The automatic transmission can be put into Sport mode at the push of a button, or you can manually shift by pushing the shifter from side-to-side. The manual shifts were tighter than a normal slushbox, but they didn't feel exceptionally sharp. We concluded that our test car, lacking the Sport package, was tuned more for a fun, luxury ride than hard-core driving.
The steering communicated this feeling as well. It is responsive when you want it, but it isn't twitchy, letting you drive without having to constantly adjust. Because of the car's small size, we felt we could throw it around readily, and it seemed perfectly amenable. The back end would slip a little in hard cornering, but not in a way that wasn't correctable. Mercedes-Benz dials back the tech in the steering a little, relying on a mechanical system for its variable power steering.
The C/S button at the front of the shift gate switches the transmission from Comfort to Sport.
Mileage with the SLK350's engine is an EPA-rated 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. We came in around the middle of that range, at 21.3 mpg for a mix of city, highway, and freeway driving. Mercedes-Benz derived more efficiency from the engine by raising its redline and increasing the compression. Emissions ratings weren't available at the time of our review.
The 2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 goes for a base price of $50,825. Our test car included the $2,950 Premium package and the $990 Heating package, which brings in the Air Scarf system, taking the total to $54,765. Given our choice, we would also add the Multimedia package, which includes the Logic7 audio system and navigation, for $2,980. When shopping for a roadster in this price range, we would also take a long look at the Audi TT, a car with better handling due to its Quattro all-wheel-drive system.
For the SLK350's cabin tech rating, we have to take a little bit on faith, as our test car didn't have all the options available. Fortunately, we've seen the newer navigation system in the C300 and have heard the Logic7 in several Mercedes-Benz models, letting us extrapolate a little into the SLK350. With the Multimedia package, the car would exhibit some impressive tech, although nothing over the top. As for performance tech, we like the seven-speed automatic transmission and the refinements Mercedes-Benz made to the engine. It's not a barn burner, but the car is well balanced and fun to drive. But it is a lot of money for a car that can only carry two people and minimal luggage with the top down.