A frequent argument among automotive journalists involves the ideal time and place to review a new car, given the constraints of time, the elements, and budget. Some contend that cars should be evaluated in their intended environment. Others maintain that a battery of controlled roads and testing procedures provides the best results. There is some rationale to the quixotic fantasy of doing hot laps with a yours-for-the-week sports car, or saving junkyard trips for weekends of testing full-size pickups and SUVs. But such practices breed bad habits, for sometimes, the fantasy is over when Saturday’s Facebook hot topic and Sunday’s burnout champion turns out to be Monday morning’s pretty lousy highway cruiser.
After years of trial and error, my philosophy falls somewhere comfortably in the middle. I leave Manhattan for a secret circuit of roads in coastal Rhode Island that hit the sweet spot of back roads and superhighway and comprise an ethereal, rewarding pleasure. And to truly experience them free of traffic and other distractions, it becomes necessary to wake up at the crack of dawn with the fishermen, the deliverymen, the bakers, and the surfers: the only humans dedicated (read: insane) enough to show their faces before sunrise.
Recently, I took to these roads in a blazingly red Mercedes-Benz SLK250 to find out if a hardtop convertible with a four-cylinder engine and a manual transmission, from a brand with a pedigree for luxury, could stir the driver’s soul. I didn’t have to leave my familiar New York streets before impressions became abundantly clear.
The 250 may be the lowliest of its SLK ilk, but everyone who looks at it sees the shadow of the much more expensive SL. For the SLK buyer, who is likely upwardly mobile — or at least a dreamer — this is not at all a bad thing. It looks like a scaled-down SL in a way that its predecessors have not, from the proportions of the hood to the angle of the headlamps and the design of the wheels. While a new SL comes with a sticker price upward of six figures, the SLK250 starts at approximately $43,000. For denizens of New York City, which itself comes with a high cost of living, the argument is a no-brainer: Buy the car that looks the part for a fraction of the price. In fact, it is etiquette de rigueur to remove the model designation altogether to either play down ostentatious wealth or confuse your neighbors and valets alike.
So maybe, then, they’ll be too busy ogling the gorgeous exterior to pay much attention to the engine note. The badging may say SLK250, but there is a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, good for 201 horsepower, under the hood. The engine note is somewhat coarse, thanks to direct injection, and you’re unlikely to confuse its rorty, raspy tune with the muffled hum of an E-class or the raucous discord of an AMG-massaged powerplant. The six-speed manual, standard on the SLK250, makes swift work of doling out power and dispelling most of the turbo lag, which is present but not a hindrance. A seven-speed automatic is optional, but drivers are rewarded for choosing the six-speed manual: shifts are crisp, clutch action is effortless yet balanced, and the snick-snick of the shifts makes the most of the SLK250’s 229 lb-ft. of torque. The result of this synergy is not a fast car, but rather one with a balanced chassis and a smooth, compliant suspension. While it does not offer the unbridled driving engagement of a Porsche Boxster, it’s a strong competitor for the BMW Z4.
Five minutes behind the wheel on the open road confirms that the SLK250 is also a fantastic car for a road trip. Its cockpit, replete with well-bolstered, infinitely adjustable leather sport seats and Air Scarf — essentially a warm-air vent placed at neckline to facilitate top-down drives in low temperatures — is a fabulous place to while away hundreds of miles per sitting. It does not lack luxurious amenities, and fit, finish, and material quality are exemplary. The COMAND infotainment system, which utilizes Blackberry-style phone controls and a matte-black interface, is as good as it gets, if you do have a destination in mind. The placement of the central joystick, near the driver’s right elbow, however, resulted in frequent switches from the evening news to loud, pumping Kreayshawn on 4-3-2 downshift. And as far as road trippers are concerned, the SLK’s usable cargo space with the top down swallowed a rolling suitcase and assorted knickknacks.
I arrived at my Rhode Island Nurburgring just in time for the best weather June had to offer. To beat the tourists, who spent the daylight hours gawking at the SLK and asking all sorts of questions (“does it only come in red?”) I followed my usual ritual of an early start and was top-down and oceanside by six a.m. At a hilly junction, a scruffy surfer in a wet suit approached me. He propped his surfboard up against someone else’s beaten-up Plymouth Voyager and fumbled for his camera phone as he gesticulated frantically for me not to move and ran over to the car.
“Dude,” he said. “That SL is one sweet ride.”
Et tu, dude? Before I could answer, he was already giving the roadster a once-over. He walked around to the front of the car, stared at the Frisbee-sized Mercedes emblem on the grille, took out his camera and snapped a picture of himself in front of it.
“Actually,” I replied, somewhat bleary-eyed from lack of coffee, and frayed by the crackling of sand kicking through his Tevas, “it’s the latest SLK with a turbo four and a manual transmission.”
Satisfied, with his perspicacious observation and a photo well tweeted, he shrugged his shoulders and gave me the thumbs-up as he scurried back to his cohort of surfers. With no one else still on the road, I put the SLK250 in gear, turned left up the hill, and headed for an early breakfast at a local diner.
The SLK250 has a trick roof and an engaging gearbox, feels like it will last a lifetime, and — above all else — convinces everyone on the road that it’s linked visually to the SL. If you want to go fast, Mercedes-Benz will also sell you a 302-horsepower SLK350 with a V-6, as well as the V-8-powered SLK55, which produces 415 horsepower. Save for wheel packages, aero trim and brightwork, though, all three SLK models are nearly indistinguishable from the outside.
Did someone mention the badge-delete option?