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Golf Life: Mercedes SLK350 Roadster

The littlest Mercedes-Benz has suddenly grown up. Fast.

All new for 2005, the SLK350 Roadster has received a thorough overhaul to give it heavyweight performance in a bantamweight package. In years past, the SLK was something of a novelty in Mercedes's arsenal of high-performance products. Small, cute—perhaps a tad too cute—it was a bonsai version of the larger SL class of two-seaters.

Happily, the new SLK is more balls-out than bonsai. This still-diminutive roadster now comes armed with a jewel-like 3.5-liter V-6 that pumps out 268 horsepower, enough to propel it from zero to 60 m.p.h. in a rapid 5.5 seconds. Those horses reach the rear wheels through your choice of either a six-speed manual transmission or an innovative seven-speed automatic that works brilliantly, delivering crisp shifts that help keep the engine in its peak torque band.

Of course, all the power in the world would be worthless without matching levels of road holding and braking, and here the SLK350 is in its element. Like virtually every Mercedes-Benz ever built, it feels as if it's machined from a single alloy billet, with firm controls, precise handling and good balance. The chassis works hard at high speed, yet it never feels ragged or at a loss of composure.

Thanks to a whole host of high-tech traction aids, including thirteen-inch disc brakes up front, going fast in the SLK350 is a snap, and a lot of fun too. With its short 95.7-inch wheelbase and a curb weight of just 3,231 pounds, the SLK350 enjoys being pushed.

Part of the pleasure with this roadster is the sheer joy of going topless, which Mercedes makes easy. Push one button on the center console and the magic starts: The trunk lid pivots open, the two-piece steel roof folds and lowers into the trunk, all four side windows lower, and the trunk lid closes on top of it all. Going from hardtop to alfresco motoring takes all of twenty-two seconds, and even at 80 m.p.h., the wind buffeting the cockpit isn't bad. The SLK350 is mercifully free of the cowl shake and front-end flutter that plagues many open-top cars from lesser makers.

Fortunately, the redesign resulted in a bigger cockpit, so tall folks can fit behind the wheel. It's still snug, but no longer painful. Styling inspiration was clearly drawn from the company's $452,000—no, that's not a misprint—SLR McLaren hyper-exotic roadster. In fact, the $45,500 SLK is a pretty convincing knockoff of the top-of-the-line SLR: small but muscular, with a windswept appearance that makes it look like it's going fast even when parked.

We're less sanguine about the interior design. The stylists seem to have thrown every shape they could think of into the SLK's cockpit. The dash housing is a slightly flattened oval containing two circular pods that hold the major gauges. The radio and sound-system controls fit in a trapezoid-shaped panel, while the air vents are vertical ovals and the center part of the top of the dash comes to a conical point. But don't think for a second that the interior is at all ugly. It simply smacks of someone trying a bit too hard. In fact, this being a German car, the only feature that fails to deliver high performance is the over-engineered and clumsy-to-use cup holder. And leave your sticks at the club if you're going roofless: Trunk space is at a premium, with just 9.8 cubic feet available with the top up and 6.5 cubic feet with it down.

Such quibbles aside, the 2005 SLK350 is a clear step ahead of the model it replaced. It is fast, fun and affordable—three traits that warm a roadster-lover's heart in springtime.

BASE PRICE/AS TESTED: $45,500/$49,480
ENGINE: 3.5-liter V-6
MPG: 19 city/25 highway
TORQUE: 258 foot-pounds
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed automatic
ZERO TO 60 MPH: 5.5 seconds


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