Argue if you want in favor of the Porsche Boxster's no-compromises chassis, or the BMW Z4's now-outed closet speed freak. The SLK holds its own: it grips and grunts with its own visceral pulse--and hot-lapping the volcanoes and valleys of Spain's Tenerife Island proves that it's still a three-way arms race. And still a very small, very exclusive club.
With a new model comes an evolved look heavily influenced by the SLS AMG gullwing and the CLS four-door. A compact roadster like the SLK doesn't have as much room to let those styling themes play out in a purely elegant way, but there is a solidity and clarity to the new look that rises above the convertibles that came before it. From the front quarters, it's a more mature look than the under-detailed, first-gen car, and a welcome step back from the overstyled second-generation roadster. The new front end sits taller, though: look at the SLK from the side and you can read the brutalist effect of new pedestrian-safety regs in its blunt grille and squared-off headlamps. The roof blisters over the body's wedge in a bare little bubble, same as ever, and tapers off into teardrop taillamps that create the most cohesive view--the one from behind. It's best when the roof is tucked in and the metallic twin peaks of the seat backs stand up at attention.
The cockpit's lost most of the metallic studded buttons that confused drivers, but it's traded them for more conventional black switches that still need to be learned before that first long road trip. The center stack reverts to a softly rounded, aluminum-clad look, capped by an LCD screen for audio displays. The screen goes high-resolution in vehicles equipped with COMAND, the wheel-driven controller that rests just under the driver's right wrist. Meaty metallic ribs flare from the flat-bottomed steering wheel, which has its own set of buttons for secondary controls like voice, audio and navigation, and metallic tubes house clean analog gauges remixed with some LCD readouts for the usual trip and gear functions.
By early next year, the SLK will once more be a three-act power play. The turbocharged, 201-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine also found in the 2012 C-Class sedan arrives in February of 2012 in the SLK 250, likely as a 2013 model. With a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic option, this version could hit 60 mph in 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph, Mercedes estimates. Though it hasn't been confirmed or spec'ed out, an SLK AMG is a sure bet, probably powered by a 5.5-liter V-8.
When it launches this summer, the SLK 350 will have exactly one drivetrain to select from. It's a 302-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6, streaming out power through a seven-speed automatic to the rear wheels. The V-6 is a grunter, with the typical six-cylinder tenor that either dazzles you or leaves you wanting for a straight six, or better yet, a flat one. With a 0-60 mph time of 5.4 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph claimed by Mercedes, it's playing in the same awesome ballpark as the Boxster and Z4, though it falls shy of their aural come-ons.