I don't feel particularly poetic when I test-drive a car.

Oh sure, a car might — if I'm lucky — send my mind into flights of literary fancy. But having driven thousands of new cars, few factory-fresh rides actually take me to this hallowed ground that resides in an admittedly remote corner of my cerebral cortex.

Certainly I wasn't expecting this from the redesigned 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350. Blame it on my first test drive of a 1998 SLK, when a headlight fell off the car at highway speed. That only added to my dislike of the car's stubby, blobby shape, which was festooned with retro styling cues. What's worse, the SLK was an adequate roadster, but a mediocre sports car.

When redesigned for 2005, the second-generation SLK was a marked improvement despite its soft lines and that odd proboscis upfront. But its personality still made it unsafe to drive if you were born with a y-chromosome.

So I was genuinely surprised by this third-generation model, which is the first SLK worth recommending.

You might think it's merely the styling and, to these eyes, this is the first SLK that's downright fetching, channeling the finest styling cues of the first SLs and expertly marrying them to a modern Mercedes design aesthetics. The grille seems as if it came from the new SLS AMG Gullwing, while the side sculpting recalls the new E-Class and C-Class lines. The back still seems a bit stubby.

But overall, this car has a lot more testosterone in its genetics. You can tell once you've strapped yourself inside and twist the ignition fob.

That's when one of three engines spring to life. The entry-level SLK250 has a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 201 horsepower. Next is the SLK350 and its 3.5-liter double-overhead-cam V6 that produces 302 hp. Finally, for the power hungry, there's the SLK55 AMG, with a twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V8 engine good for 415 hp.

I opted for the middle child, the SLK350, because it seemed the best balance of power, fuel economy and price.

With that decided, the next question was where do you drive a German roadster that's bred for devouring the autobahn at triple digit speed? After all, we chafe under the tyranny of the double nickel speed limit and money-grubbing, small-town sheriffs waiting to empty your wallet.

The answer: take it to your favorite country road. You know the kind, the one with two lanes of endless gray ribbon that ends at the horizon and is divided by a dotted yellow line and a crystal blue sky is as large as your driving passion. Or one with twists and turns that glimmer in the distance like a desert mirage, its siren song tempting you indulge your right foot.

Who could resist?

The country music played softly like a roadside lullaby as the blacktop unfurled before me. Sure, Wagner would be more appropriate, but this was North Carolina, not northern Germany.

But listening to music is beside the point, despite the SLK's excellent Harman Kardon audio system. It's the intoxicating snarl of the SLK's engine, mated to the seven-speed transmission, that provides a mechanical melody.

And what a sweet song this roadster plays. The gearing is perfect, unloading mountains of torque that allows you to bring the tail around, tires howling, just before the electronic nannies kill the fun.

The ride is firm, the steering properly weighted although somewhat lacking in feel. It almost feels like you're strapping on an engine, rather than driving a car.

The cockpit is a cozy place for two people. Making it an alfresco experience takes holding the roof lever down for less than 20 seconds. Once that's over with, you'll find that the wind rustles your hair just enough to make people wonder what you've been doing. My advice? Give them a mischievous smile.

If it's raining, you can still see the sky, thanks to the Panorama roof, a $500 option that replaces the steel roof with a glass one. If you choose it, consider another option, Magic Sky Control, which varies the opacity of the glass roof.

Another worthwhile nicety: Airscarf, which places a vent at the bottom of the headrests to blow warm air on the nape of your neck. It's part of the Premium 1 Package that also adds the previously mentioned sound system, satellite radio, heated seats and other goodies. It's a decadent treat.

But the poetry ends once you lift the trunk lid. While cargo room is adequate with the roof up, it's stingier on space than an airline overhead bin with the roof folded. Pack lightly.

The 2012 SLK350 is a powerful road machine, one that you'll want to drive, appreciate and use up. You can't help yourself.

It possesses the essential essence that separates the great rides from the merely satisfactory, the thrill rides from the no-frills appliance.

Yes. It's that good, something I never thought I'd say about an SLK, especially in 1998.



—Engine: 3.5-liter DOHC V6

—Wheelbase: 95.7 inches

—Length: 162.8 inches

—Weight: 3,397 pounds

—Cargo space: 6.4-10.1 cubic feet

—EPA rating (city/highway): 20/29 mpg

—Fuel consumption: 24.3 mpg

—Fuel type: Premium

—Base price, base model, excluding destination charge: $42,500

—Base price, test model, excluding destination charge: $54,800

—Price as tested, including destination charge: $65,245



Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at larry.printz@pilotonline.com.


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