A day out with a car of superior pedigreeImagine a date with an extremely fit young companion in an immaculate suit, who constantly entertains with an enigmatic smile ― it’s that hard to resist the temptation of driving Mercedes-Benz’s new SLK350. And to rendezvous in the public eye is even more interesting, as it continues to invite jealous stares from its equally charming archrival, the BMW Z4.
With its elongated curvy bonnet and prominent tubular headlights, the first impression of my man, the SLK350, is super-sleek ― dandy and masculine. Sharing strikingly similar DNA with the majestic SL series, class obviously runs in the family; the young roadster, introduced in 2004 as a rival for the sexy BMW Z4 ― is younger, more fun and more affordable. With its perfectly manicured liquid black body, it stands out in the gray, dusty world of concrete and asphalt.
Once switched on with a remote-control key that snugly fits into the electric ignition, the engine burst into an exciting purr ― only a beginning of what the sporty roadster would offer on our day out.
The most prominent feature is the Vario-roof technology, a sophisticated, state-of-the-art system that opens the hard-top, folds it step-by-step and stows it inside the trunk. This explains the high rise of the car’s rear, and who cares that the trunk cannot fit golf clubs when 22-second unveiling is a traffic-stopping performance. The only caution from the Mercedes employee was that the driver must allow the full operation to pass, during which the car should be stationary or going slower than 10 kilometers (6 miles) per hour.
The grainy pleather seats in tobacco brown are sturdy; for its compact size, the roadster comes with ample space to stretch, even for a six-foot-two-inch tall friend, who volunteered to chaperone for a couple hours. My passenger, a DJ by profession, was immediately impressed with the heart-thumping bass coming from 11 Harman Kardon Logic 7 speakers. The only drawback, I found, was the car could play only one CD; it wasn’t equipped with a convenient six-CD changer, a common feature in most luxury cars.
The dashboard design adheres to the classic German motor style, and main features remain deliberately analogue. Both the steering wheel and brake, in glossy walnut and black leather, have a good, solid grip which only fine cars offer. The hide-bound purist might disapprove of fancy, unnecessary functions, but a touch of modern technology ― to control the roof, temperature, stereo and telephone ― is all in a relatively easy-to-use control board on the right to please the gadget-crazy generation.
With top-notch sound and snug in the seat with the hard-top open on Seoul’s one fine spring day, I was more than ready for a road test. The powerful six cylinder-engine is made for urban driving, and can instantly sidestep other slower cars. Such a gorgeous dash prompted envious glares, mostly thrown from BMWs, which dominate Korea’s foreign car market. One jealous Jaguar driver tried to race us, but, powerful as the new Mercedes-Benz is, we left our competitor behind. In both drive and park mode, sensor “eyes” in the front and rear are constantly on watch for anything else approaching.
Unlike grown-up sedans that embrace all road conditions, my SLK350 is responsive, but not hysterically so. It acknowledges grated asphalt patches and manhole covers and jumps over large bumps. The feel is not raw as in a manual-drive sports car, but there nonetheless. And because it’s a roadster, it loves speed and achieves it without too much hassle or being too serious. All the driver has to do is to floor it, like a big toy; just be sure your view is clear in all directions. The small rearview mirror takes a few hours to get used to, but with two side mirrors, offers excellent visibility.
Once the top is open, the sound of the music does get diffused from the current of wind blown into the interior. Our long hair got tangled as we sped, which means, without a wind deflector, the aerodynamics are not ideal. The automatic temperature setting was also a little tricky, but seat warmers and warm air from behind the passengers’ neck helps counteract the chilly evening air.
Set on “C” or Compressor mode, the SLK350 is at its most entertaining. On highways, it can easily shoot up to 120 km/h then to an impressively suave full stop exactly when it’s needed. The most exciting part of our date was to feel the very powerful boost of speed on the highway. Pushing way past 4,000 rpm, I felt the engine surge ― it was like a flash at 140 km/h.
When I had to say goodbye to my exhilarating date, I felt wistful, thinking I should have taken the SLK350 for a longer term to push our limits together. Now, only bitter-sweet memories remain.
by Ines Cho