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2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350

No room for groceries - or a purse - in this sexy roadster Add to ...

Tenerife is an island of contrasts.

The largest of Spain's Canary Islands is 300 kilometres from the coast of Morocco and the landscape and the roads are diverse; 270 coastal kilometres shift constantly from straight, smooth fast highways to twisty, death-defying narrow mountain roads. It's the perfect place to put the third-generation 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster through its paces.

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Three SLK trims are coming to Canada. An SLK250, which goes on sale in November, an SLK350, which goes on sale in a few weeks, and an SLK55 AMG version, which also arrives in November. Unfortunately, no AMG is up for grabs on our one-day drive route. Only the SLK250 with its 204-horsepower, 1.8-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine and the SLK350 with its 3.5-litre V-6 engine, which delivers 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, are available.

The fuel economy on the SLK350 has improved by 10 per cent compared to the outgoing V-6 engine. Carbon dioxide emissions have also dropped. Our European counterparts get more fuel-saving technology such as an ECO start/stop function, which automatically kills the engine when stopped to save fuel and reduce CO2 emissions. But Canadians won't get the eco stop/start function on any of the SLKs.

The SLK is perfectly at home in Tenerife. Its compact size makes it easy to manoeuvre along tight, narrow roads barely passable by two vehicles. The rear-wheel-drive SLK350 excelled in this atmosphere, able to adapt to the changing roads with confidence. Powerful and fast, the SLK350 can hit 0-100 km/h in 5.6 seconds. It's agile and nimble, whipping effortlessly around serpentine roads in the north, the landscape filled with stunning red rock formations and dense pine forests.

Some Russian journalists on the drive pushed it too far. Taking a corner too quickly, the result was fresh skid marks carved into the pavement and a totalled SLK. But they were lucky. If they had gone off the road at another point, only a tiny guardrail stood in the way of a 2,000-metre drop and not even all the car's safety systems - the roll bars, the pre-safe system, the ESP - would have helped them escape unscathed.

The SLK250 is more at home in the south under the scorching 25-Celcius-plus temperatures and sandy volcanic beaches. Along the switchbacks, the SLK250 struggled at times as its seven-speed automatic transmission reluctantly shifted gears. But on the open roads and highways, it had ample power to overtake slower-moving vehicles.

The latest SLK retains its classic sports car proportions with its long hood, short rear deck and muscular wheel arches. A wide, lower bumper with large air inlets extend out to the sides of the vehicle for a wider, dynamic stance. Funky side air vents mounted in the fender, reminiscent of the early 300 SL of the 1950s, are stunning touches.

A cool innovative feature is the new optional roof, dubbed Magic Sky Control. It's a panoramic glass roof that can switch from light to dark depending on the severity of the sunshine. Press a button and the glass switches shades in seconds. In the light mode, the window screens out UV and infrared rays. The dark setting prevents the cabin from heating up, lowering the heat intensity by up to 80 per cent. The roof is also easy to lower and raise - you can even do it from outside the vehicle with the key fob or you can press a button in the centre console and the roof lowers in about 20 seconds.

Overall, the look is sleek and sexy. And judging by the reaction, especially from many female tourists, it's a hit with women. Many commented on the car's feminine design, especially when the SLK is in red. But not everyone agrees with the assessment. "In my opinion, it's a little more masculine now than its predecessor. But either way it's not important to have it masculine or to have it feminine. It has to be sporty and our new design is really sporty," says Gunter Fischer of Mercedes-Benz Cars.

The inside is luxurious and refined. It has a larger, more prominent face with funky accents such as silver circular vents for a sportier look. The two seats are cozy and comfortable with high side bolsters to keep you secure when taking corners quickly. On the down side, there isn't much storage space in the cabin or cargo area, especially when the roof is lowered. But having my purse crammed beside my passenger's legs is a sacrifice I'm willing to make to drive around in a sporty, sexy roadster like the SLK.

The navigation screen is large and set back so there's no glare from the sunshine when driving topless so it's easy to read at all times. But the drawback is the navigation system itself. It's not the best system on the market. It would often repeat instructions, change routes unexpectedly, or have trouble locating points of interests, such as our hotel. Frustrated, my driving partner and I gave up and resorted to asking locals for directions.

The SLK is a hot commodity and Mercedes hopes this new generation will continue its sales streak. "The SLK is once again underscoring its traditional role as the trend-setter in the premium roadster segment, which it established 15 years ago, …Our roadster has found half a million fans worldwide, making it the biggest-selling automobile in its class. We now aim to continue this success story with the third generation of the SLK," Fischer says. And they're definitely on the right road.

Tech specs

2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350

Type: Two-door, two-passenger roadster

Price: Not available

Engine: 3.5-litre, DOHC, V-6

Horsepower/torque: 302 hp/273 lb-ft

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Not available; premium gas

Alternatives: BMW Z4, Lexus SC, Audi TT, Porsche Boxster, Chevrolet Corvette

pgentile@globeandmail.com

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