- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

Who says convertibles are just for warm, sunny days?

Not Mercedes-Benz, which sells two convertibles, each with a well-insulated, coupelike hardtop that retracts with the touch of a button.

Indeed, the newly re-engineered and redesigned 2005 Mercedes SLK offers an industry-first electronic neck scarf to keep cold drafts away from passengers who want to enjoy the fresh air on slightly chilly days.

The optional system works by blowing heat out of vents in the head restraints directly onto riders’ necks. It’s so sophisticated it automatically adjusts for changes in the car’s speed and in air temperature.

The new SLK also is more powerful, sportier and a bit larger than the first-generation model introduced in 1997.

Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the 2005 SLK is $46,220, up from $40,320 for the base 2004 SLK, which had a smaller and less powerful engine.

The SLK’s four-cylinder engine is gone now, at least in the States where the base engine is a new 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 with four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing for both intake and exhaust valves.

This required separate camshafts, giving Mercedes its first V-6 with dual cams for intake and exhaust functions.

The base SLK is called the SLK350 now — denoting the 3.5-liter V-6 — while the top SLK is the SLK55 AMG, which denotes the 5.5-liter V-8 in this model.

The test SLK350 had palpable power that came on quickly whenever I touched the accelerator. With a six-speed manual transmission, the car felt sporty and sprightly, rather than heavy and plodding.

Peak torque is 258 foot-pounds between 2,400 and 5,000 rpm. But a driver can tap 87 percent of the torque in the lower range of 1,500 rpm, which means there’s no sluggishness when pulling away from stoplights and stop signs.

The engine sounds good, too — confident and smooth.

The top SLK55 AMG has a hand-built, 355-horsepower V-8 that generates 376 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. Its starting MSRP, including destination charge, is $61,220.

A retractable hardtop, like the ones found on the SLK and the more expensive Mercedes SL, provides the security of a hardtop when you have to park in the city, for instance, along with the easy freedom of a convertible.

And you don’t have to wait long to make the transformation from coupe to convertible. This year, the SLK top is faster than before, taking just 22 seconds to go up or down.

Many people buy Mercedes convertibles because of the reputation for safety.

Over the years, the company has been at the forefront of adding new safety technology — for example, bringing antilock brakes to consumers way back in 1978.

The new SLK is upgraded in safety, too, adding knee air bags to help position passengers safely during a crash.

There also are new head-thorax air bags in the backs of the seats that deploy above the tops of the seatbacks during side crashes. They’re designed to provide head and neck protection much as a curtain air bag would in a car with a permanent roof.

Brakes have larger front and rear discs this year, too. Other standard features include traction control and electronic stability control to help avoid skids.

The SLK has a new chassis for a more sophisticated ride. The test car, with optional sport suspension that lowered the car, wove through mountain twisties with impressive composure.

It also responded swiftly when I wanted to change lanes and felt well balanced and predictable in its motions, even in emergency maneuvers.

I did notice road bumps just about all the time, but they were not conveyed in a jolting, harsh way. Rather, the car felt well-connected to the road.

Steering was crisp, but not so sensitive that it required constant vigilance, and I never noticed any shaking or shuddering of the windshield or dashboard, which sometimes occurs in convertibles.

Best of all, I liked the new styling of the SLK. The hood is long and the car bears a striking resemblance to the awesome Mercedes McLaren SLR roadster that sells for more than $450,000.

Be sure to look at the SLK paint job. There are tiny ceramic particles in the paint that form a protective surface that’s designed to be three times more resistant to scratches. It’s also been shown to retain a glossy appearance better.

Don’t expect the interior of the new SLK to be too much larger than the old one, though.

While the car is about 3 inches wider than before, it still can feel a bit confining when two large adults are in there, and reported hip room hasn’t changed from the previous car.

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