Barricaded against the financial storms, Americans aren’t exactly whistling “Here Comes the Sun.”
Convertible sales have slumped as the economy has suffered, especially for those two-seat summertime playthings that suggest the livin’ is easy. Roll down your depressed block in a new red convertible and a neighbor may smack you. Your brother-in-law may ask for a loan.
After holding steady at roughly 2 percent of the market through 2008, convertible purchases have fallen ever since, to just 1.3 percent in 2010 and 2011, according to J. D. Power & Associates.
Yet automakers keep their most carefree models coming, banking on a time when superegos soar and buyers re-turn, eager to reaffirm the American dream of blowing too much money on a new car.
“Carefree” certainly describes the Mercedes SLK, which for the two preceding generations has been as frivolous as they come — what Paris Hilton might have driven if she hadn’t been able to afford her $450,000 Mercedes McLaren SLR.
From the SLK’s beginnings, Mercedes paid lip service to sports-car values. Still, the original model in particular came off as a distracted debutante, more interested in catchy accessories than in catching Porsches.
Arriving here in 1997, the Mercedes did inspire a wave of convertible copycats with its motorized retractable hardtop. These well-insulated roofs add weight and steal cargo space, but make a convertible easy to live with year-round in the country’s cooler regions.
For the second-generation model, the useful weather gimmick was the Airscarf, with a heater fan in the headrests that would toast your nape and noggin on chilly days.
The new SLK further lowers the bar for technical significance with its optional Magic Sky Control, which turns a huge roof panel from transparent to a dark-blue tint at the touch of a button. But the feature seems overpriced at $2,500, especially when a $50 sliding shutter would achieve much the same result. (Buyers can also choose a standard body-color steel roof or, for $500, a panoramic roof with a permanent tint.)
The Magic Sky trick holds your interest for about five minutes. Fortunately, the car beneath it has finally grown up to command respect on its own terms.
Aside from a somewhat disappointing transmission, this SLK looks and feels like a real Mercedes roadster, not a waffling compromise between performance and luxury. Finally, you won’t mind parking this junior partner alongside its mentor, the roughly $100,000 SL-Class that has been a symbol of Mercedes aspiration since the 1950s.
The SLK’s biggest problem, I’m convinced, was that it was never comfortable in the SL’s shadow, always trying to match that car’s well-bred grand-touring manners, rather than finding its own friskier path.
But recently, Mercedes’s newfound commitment to high performance has produced a grittier sports car: the 563-horsepower SLS AMG, whose gullwing doors trace a direct line to the revolutionary 300SL of the mid-1950s.
And while I’d never suggest that the little SLK can assault the tarmac like the exotic USD $185,000 SLS, I do detect a trace of that supercar’s heady spirit, a sharp metallic tang on top of the usual strawberries and cream.
The SLK’s appealing new body received bouquets from sidewalk critics in New York and Boston. The design nods directly to the SLS with its blunt, extruded nose and supersize tristar shot through with a single chrome fin. The stretched hood and pert bubble of a greenhouse are familiar SLK cues, but the car looks richer and more masculine, with SL-style haunches and a pair of aluminum-trimmed roll hoops rising like pyramids from the rear deck.
The origami roof, so groundbreaking 15 years ago, now folds in 20 seconds, shaving two seconds off last year’s time and five from the original version’s. Also new is the Airguide wind deflector, a $350 pair of clear plexiglas triangles that pivot from the roll bars.
With the top raised, there’s a class-leading 10.1 cubic feet of trunk space, about 20 percent more than the BMW Z4’s. Folding the top reduces the space to 6.4 cubic feet, slightly more than a Mazda Miata’s. You will still have to pack efficiently.
The upgraded interior also adopts SLS cues and philosophy: conservative, genuine luxury that eschews overheated gimmicks. A racy flat-bottom steering wheel and lustrous wood rim could be misconstrued; is this supposed to be a Ferrari or a Lexus? But here, the mixed message works.
A second SLK that I tested featured a $2,500 Sport package that included a more sculptured body, a metal-trimmed steering wheel, 18-inch AMG alloy wheels and “solar red” cabin lighting.
Air flows through four jet-turbine-style metal vents; the console is smartly trimmed in either wood or aluminum. The excellent sport seats incorporate magnesium frames for strength and lightness. Those seats are wrapped in sun-reflective leather — an innovation first offered by BMW — that significantly reduces surface temperatures in sunlight, helping to avoid roasted thighs on blazing afternoons. The SLK is far from cheap, starting at USD $55,685, yet the deluxe cabin helps to justify the price.
The SLK also adopts the latest Comand control interface with a seven-inch screen. New in the SLK, the Attention Assist system monitors driving patterns and suggests a rest stop if the pilot shows signs of sleepiness, like small steering corrections.
Compared with last year’s V-6 model that had the same 3.5-liter displacement, an increase of 2 horsepower (to 302) might seem a holding pattern. But press the gas pedal and the new engine’s benefits — including direct injection and an especially high 12.2:1 compression ratio — are heard and felt.
The new V-6 sets its cylinder banks at a narrower 60-degree angle (versus 90 degrees previously), eliminating the need for a balance shaft to quell vibration. Fuel economy has jumped to 20 m.p.g. in town, 29 on the highway, up from 19/25.
(This March, the V-6 model will be bookended with two new versions: a starter-model SLK250 with a 201-horsepower turbo 4-cylinder, and for power users, a limited-edition 415-horsepower SLK55 AMG with a 5.5-liter V-8. The brutish AMG model will be civilized somewhat by a fuel-saving stop/start system and cylinder deactivation).
Yet the V-6 version is plenty fast for most convertible cruisers. An urgent, galloping rasp accompanies a 5.4-second sprint from 0 to 60 m.p.h., as tested by Car and Driver, and a computer-limited top speed of 155 m.p.h.
And after decades of being comfortably numb, Mercedes has lately discovered something called steering feel: this roadster hugs curves and humps over rough pavement with serene body control, which is nothing new to anyone who’s driven the company’s pricier models.
What is new is the SLK’s sense that the driver should feel the good stuff happening below. That feedback never reaches the level of a Porsche Boxster — there’s still a sense of luxurious Mercedes isolation — but this SLK has a surprising appetite for spaghetti-strand curves.
Too bad the fun doesn’t extend to the transmission. The 7G-Tronic automatic works acceptably up to a modestly sporty pace. It offers the latest functions: skipping past several gears — say, from sixth to third — when you floor the accelerator, or detecting grades to avoid busy shifting on hills. But the transmission is a ditherer when you need to drive assertively. Shifts can be syrupy or abrupt, even in the Sport setting. In the manual paddle-shift mode, the gearbox often downshifts unpredictably, unbidden by the driver’s hand.
On challenging roads in upstate New York, the transmission, along with a too-jumpy throttle, tended to trip up the SLK’s balance; the Mercedes automatic poses no challenge to the lightning-quick dual-clutch automated manuals from Porsche, Audi and BMW. It’s the one area where Mercedes seems to have lost its nerve, tuning the SLK’s gearbox for everyday comfort rather than serious performance. And it’s especially perplexing because, of late, Mercedes transmissions have been uniformly satisfying.
The other disappointment is that unlike the Z4, Boxster, Audi TT or Chevrolet Corvette, there is no manual-transmission alternative. Enthusiasts will have that choice again in the spring, but only with the 4-cylinder, an engine that seemed uninspired when I sampled it in the new C250 sedan.
Garnished with pricey options, the SLKs I tested reached $65,245 and $67,125, roughly in line with the Boxster S, the Z4 sDrive 35i and the more powerful Corvette convertible and Audi TT RS.
In the current bearish market, buying Mercedes’s two-seat hair-tousler might help to lift consumer confidence, at least on your own block. Just don’t show it to your brother-in-law.