What I'm Driving At

She's got almond eyes, Bugatti wheels, and a gorgeous pair of "power domes" perched on the hood. She's nouveau-retro, with a dashboard full of classic, pale VDO gauges blushing burnt-orange at twilight. Handsome checks bedeck the console in a tastefully modern swish of pattern between the sporty leather seats. But upon closer inspection, the high-tech checks of woven carbon-fiber are mysteriously faux. With Mercedes-Benz's striking new SLK roadster, things are not always what they seem. The ambiguity both seduces and nonpluses. A wind-in-your-hair, two-seater roadster by every conceivable definition, the SLK can pose as a coupe with her hat on. A marvel of thingamajig engineering, the mechanical hard-top flips, folds, and stows itself in the trunk the way a valet might bundle a cashmere into a cedar chest. There's even a lacy piece of lingerie that straddles and straps to the headrests to prevent gusts from blowing too much muss into hair-dos. But the muss is what the fuss is all about with a roadster--or it should be. And, besides, the gauzy mesh of this wind baffle obscures the mirror's rear view. Strip it off; go ahead. Abandon yourself to the wiles of the wind and the charms of the open road.... Except, wait a minute; there's a five-speed automatic transmission where the sporty manual shifter ought to be. No matter, say Mercedes' engineers: A clever electronic brain in the transmission is designed to "learn" a driver's shifting preferences and, if appropriate, can "respond like a manual transmission operated by a skilled driver." Alas, the SLK seemed more than a little perplexed about what to do when I got behind the wheel. Of course, it's not the first time that a stranger -- even a friend, for that matter -- has had difficulty figuring me out. Try as I might to suggest that we uncork the performance every now and again, the car treated me to smooth yet shallow short-shifts almost every time. With all due respect to her good taste and intelligence, I finally wrested away a modicum of control for the gear changes. In town, tapping the shifter manually into and out of third, fourth, and (rarely) fifth allowed me to manage my preferences for myself. For the temptation to exploit the SLK's performance potential is strong. The tell-tale whistle of the supercharger is a siren of seduction: It gilds what is, for Mercedes, an uncharacteristically guttural sound coming from the SLK's little four-cylinder engine. Unlike the effortless ease with which the larger SL roadsters spool their power out of V8s and V12s, the SLK motor is a scrappy little street fighter--an automotive Carmen whose bark and whine urge the car shamelessly toward crescendo. It doesn't hurt that the SLK looks the part. The pert, kicked-up haunches, the inexorably forward slope of the rounded-lozenge profile admit a tacit aggression. Those two voluptuous nacelles bulge out of the hood like a sheet-metal decolletage; but -- down, boy! -- they're intended strictly to evoke M-B's golden-era 300SL and 190SL roadsters of the '50s and '60s, respectively. Short overhangs fore and aft of the wheels punctuate the styling with breathless brevity. There's a mechanical engineering point here too. The SLK's compact "tub" -- the inherent shape of its chassis and cabin -- is race-car stiff, and that is no mean feat for a topless roadster. Suspension members thereby have a firm foundation for their roadholding articulations, which needless to say are entirely independent at all four corners. The wide, low-profile tires track squarely through the full range of cornering attitudes, yet the wheels deflect smoothly over bumps without rattling the "tub" or jarring its occupants. Most entertaining of all is the steering. On-center feel is reassuringly precise. Then, as the corner approaches, the steering wheel seems to bank rather than merely turn into its new trajectory. With the top down, it's hard to believe that you're not actually flying. Some aspects of the car, though, do bring you back down to earth. Although comfortably roomy for seating, there are some annoying limitations of space. It goes without saying that the trunk has more important things to do than tote luggage, since that's where the top spends its flip-fold hibernation. (Actually, when the top is up, there are more than 12 cubic feet of boxy stowage in there.) A more irksome compactness is the proximity of the cruise-control lever to the stalk for turn-signals and wipers. Even my stubby little fingers hit the former in their quest of the latter--almost every time. As a result, during one interstate-driving instance, I ended up decelerating quite unexpectedly when all I had intended was to signal a lane-change to the left. But the SLK radiates charm beyond any such foibles. It is a tiny car brimming with the luxuries of largesse. An optional cell phone, for example, is hard-wired under the center armrest; "smart" buttons over the rear-view mirror "teach themselves" how to operate remote activators for garage doors, driveway gates, or eaves' lights. Twin rotary thermostats for driver and passenger effect "personal zones" of comfort. When the dreaded wind baffle is in place, it's even possible to regulate the sky, so to speak, since the mesh is almost as effective at keeping air-conditioning (and heat) inside the cockpit as it is at keeping turbulence out. Ultimately, the SLK presents itself as a softer, gentler sort of sports car. It's the Cindy, Christy, Naomi, Isabella of roadsters, whose charm and presentation are more likely to suffuse at a fashion runway pace. Leave for Bond, James Bond, the shark-gilled BMW Z3; let the reincarnations of James Dean have their go at Porsche's steroidal new Boxster. Mercedes has taken a different approach with its new SLK--an approach at once both silky and slick. Not for nothing, I suspect, has Mercedes elected this car to showcase its innovative system for disabling the passenger-side airbag when a special child-safety seat is in place. I expect that more than a few trophy wives with babes in swaddling clothes will adorn the cockpits of next year's SLK crop. In the remainder, the babes will probably take the wheel all by themselves.

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