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car review

2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK.

Rightly or wrongly, Mercedes' compact roadster, the SLK, has become something of a chick's car.

Maybe it's because of its comparatively small dimensions and manageable proportions - who can say? What determines what is or isn't a chick's car makes no sense anyway, as some of the nicest packages in the industry have been tagged with this label - think of the Mazda MX5, VW Beetle Convertible and, more recently, the new Fiat 500. Chick car - schmick car.

Nonetheless, Mercedes' stylists have beefed up the appearance of the new, third-generation, 2012 SLK, as well as giving it a bit more performance. Power is now delivered via a new "M-276" 3.5-litre V-6 engine that develops 302 horsepower and is mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission with shift paddles. This is up slightly from the previous model, and the new engine appears to have the edge on its predecessor in terms of fuel economy, emissions and performance. It will take the new SLK 350 from 0 to 100 km/h in under six seconds, with a 210 km/h top speed, and a fuel economy rating of 8.8 litres/100 km combined.

Stylistically, Mercedes is describing the new roadster as being more muscular than before, with "a close visual link" to the awesome gull-wing SLS and, to a lesser extent, the CLS. It does look more butch than it used to, with a new front-end treatment, tasteful side air vents and slicker aerodynamics. This is a nice-looking car.

It's also a convertible, with a fold-away solid roof that disappears into the trunk in about 20 seconds. You can still carry luggage back there - maybe a couple of soft bags and a camera case - but the SLK 350 is not primarily designed to haul gear. This is an open-air, two-seater sports car, with the emphasis on fun, not practicality.

The top is controlled via a console-mounted lever and is six kilograms lighter than it used to be. Should you choose, you can order the Magic Sky option, which is essentially a built-in solar panel that can switch from a darker to a lighter opaqueness - or vice-versa. It's part of an options package that also includes a navi system, upscale leather upholstery and various other odds and ends. It's a nice touch and helps to cool things down in the cockpit. "You feel like you're driving with the top down, even when it isn't," Mercedes' product manager, David Sherrard, said at the Canadian launch in Calgary.

Mercedes is offering an impressive variety of trim and interior combinations with the new SLK-class: everything from Mocha Brown, to Bengal Red, to all-black and on and on, with available wood trim or brushed aluminum. Mercedes tends to spend a lot of time on the interior ambience of its models, and the new SLK 350 definitely makes you feel like you're riding in an upscale automobile. Despite its modest dimensions, there seems to be plenty of elbow room and the ergonomics are sensible and easy to understand. The steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, in particular, are usable and add to the driving experience of this car.

Can't be as positive about the paint choices, however. For some reason, Mercedes has decided to offer a Glacier Grey matte finish option that, well, looks tacky. Cars that cost this much should shine and glow, and the matte paint job looks unfinished - as if the car is waiting for another coat of real paint. But here's the thing: it costs an addition 10 grand and can't be polished. Perhaps Mercedes should have taken a page out of Harley-Davidson's note-book here; it introduced matte finish on some of its bikes years ago, and buyers have stayed away in droves.

For its mid-$66,000 base price, the new SLK 350 comes with the usual roster of modcons and convenience features. Power heated seats, climate control, power mirrors and all the usual stuff are standard issue, but you can also get little goodies such as a parking guidance system, a suspension system that continually and automatically adjusts itself and a turbulence-killing feature known as Airguide. This consists of small clear plexiglass panels that are mounted behind the roll-bars and can be adjusted to control the flow of wind. (Note to Mercedes: if you want the SLK 350 to appeal to red-blooded males, this is the kind of thing you have to keep to yourself. If you don't like wind turbulence, don't buy a convertible in the first place, don't you think?)

And we mustn't forget one other intriguing feature: Attention Assist. Used elsewhere in Mercedes' lineup, this is a system that, well, let Mercedes explain it: "Attention Assist observes the driver's behaviour and, at the start of every trip, produces an individual driver profile that is then continuously compared with current sensor data. This permanent form of monitoring is important for detecting the floating transition from awakeness to drowsiness and for warning the driver in plenty of time. The system is active at speeds of between 80 and 180 km/h."

During the vehicle launch, the Attention Assist did activate itself fairly regularly, but it seemed to be totally random, when the road ahead was completely clear and there was absolutely no need for a warning of any kind. Whatever.

The 2012 SLK-class is available at dealerships now and, later on in the year, we'll be seeing a 250 version, as well as a high-performance variant from AMG.

2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350

Type: Two-seater sports car

Base Price: $66,500

Engine: 3.5-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 302 hp/273 lb-ft

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic

Drive: Rear-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/ 100 km): 10.3 city/6.9 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: Porsche Boxster, Audi TT, BMW Z4, Nissan 370Z