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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class

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The rear-wheel-drive 2009 Mercedes-Benz SLK55 AMG is powered by a 5.4-liter V8 that pumps out 355 hp and 376 lb-ft of torque. A seven-speed automatic with manual control is the only available transmission, and it's the SLK55's weakest link. Manual downshifts aren't rev-matched, and overall responsiveness is disappointing. At the test track, our SLK lunged from zero to 60 mph in a fleet 4.9 seconds and blasted through the quarter-mile in 13 seconds flat at 108.8 mph. It might have been quicker still with grippier tires, as wheelspin was a limiting factor in the first two gears.

On the road, the AMG version of the SLK55 is essentially a modern-day Shelby Cobra, albeit with a thick layer of luxury slathered on top. The Benz's basic formula comes straight from that icon's playbook: Start with a capable compact roadster, stuff it to the gills with a honking V8, sharpen the suspension and proceed to scare the living daylights out of people. Cars don't get much more thrilling than a top-down SLK55 at full throttle, engine roaring, landscape blurring, speedometer needle spinning clockwise at an impossibly rapid rate. With an as-tested weight of 3,474 pounds, the feature-laden SLK55 is hardly an elemental sports car, but only the most depraved horsepower fiend will find its acceleration wanting.

When the straights turn to curves, the SLK55 remains in its element. The new-for-2009 "Direct Steer" variable-ratio steering isn't hyper-responsive, but it's crisp enough, and there's a reassuring heft that builds as cornering loads increase. Body roll is negligible, and there's plenty of grip for spirited driving on public roads. However, we found this short-wheelbase Benz was best at nine-tenths or less — push it to the limit and the SLK55 gets squirrelly.

Our best panic stop from 60 mph in the SLK55 took 115 feet, which isn't particularly impressive for this class. Nonetheless, the Benz's binders feel imperturbable under all conditions — "autobahn brakes," as our track driver put it. Against EPA fuel-economy ratings of 14 mpg city/22 highway and 17 combined, we averaged just over 17 mpg — remarkable considering that the gas pedal was frequently pinned to the floor.