The good life (motorized edition)

Warren Brown
Columnist October 21, 2011

It is good to be rich, if only to be able to afford this week’s subject automobile: the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350 roadster.

It is car as art — as impractical, yet as necessary, as Michelangelo, Picasso, van Gogh. It is its own excuse for being, a luxurious ode to driving for the sake of driving.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

Ill suited to the mentality and spirit of a recessionary economy, it can provoke envy and hatred, engender cruel insults. “He must be a drug dealer.” I heard that on a clear day with the SLK350’s retractable hardtop down.

I’m not a drug dealer. Nor are most of the people who actually buy this car. Seventy percent of them are professionals and business owners. Thirty percent are comfortably retired, or have embarked on lucrative second careers. An estimated 79 percent of them are college graduates with at least one year of postgraduate training. Their median age is 56 years. Most are men. Their median household income (half earn less, half earn more) is $160,000 a year.

Many are married. Many are not. They enjoy and can afford beautiful things even in our currently dour economy. The SLK350 is one of those things. Tax them. But don’t hate them. Drive the car once. You will understand their passion and their need to indulge.

Push the engine start/stop button, a part of Mercedes-Benz’s optional “Keyless Go” system. There is an immediate response from the car’s 3.5-liter, gasoline-direct-injection V-6 engine (302 horsepower, 273 foot-pounds of torque). The sound is more purr-thrum than it is varoom — robust, authoritative, but not the least bit adolescent or undesirably macho. It plays well in quiet neighborhoods.

Tap the accelerator. Power flows smoothly to the rear wheels via a seven-speed automatic transmission that also can be operated manually via shift paddles on the steering wheel.

What is happening inside the engine is so fascinating, it deserves attempted description. An advanced, multi-spark ignition fires up to four times in a millisecond — a super-fast bang, bang, bang, bang that burns gasoline more quickly, smoothly, more completely, producing more power than an engine spark system with one big bang occurring at a slower rate.

An accelerated, thorough fuel burn is aided by the SLK350’s high-pressure, direct-injection multi-micro sprays of gasoline into engine combustion chambers. It is almost like burning compressed natural gas, a comparison I make because that is what it feels like — a car accelerating so smoothly and quickly, it feels as if it’s running on compressed natural gas instead of gasoline.

Yet, and here is a happy thing, the 2012 SLK350 comes to us without a gas-guzzler tax, a graduated federal excise tax from $1,000 to $7,770, applied to new cars with combined city/highway ratings of 21.5 miles per gallon or less (for the highest penalty, it’s — gulp, guzzle — 12.5 mpg or less).

The SLK350 is nobody’s fuel-economy queen. Thanks to its advanced engine technology and seven-speed automatic transmission, however, it gets 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway for a combined 24.5 mpg — not much to cheer about, but nothing to cry over, unless you consider that it requires premium gasoline.

There are many compensating factors: The racing-inspired flat-bottomed steering wheel fits the hands nicely. There are seats for only two bottoms, but they fit those butts snuggly — the functional equivalents of leather-wrapped thrones, deeply contoured, precisely stitched. The cabin smells like well-cured, expensive leather.

Open-air motoring is a cinch. Push a button on the center console. The trunk lid detaches from the rear pillar, lifts and falls forward. The retractable hardtop roof detaches from the front pillar, lifts and falls into the trunk. The trunk lid closes. It is all done in 20 seconds, and it leaves enough space for of groceries.

Finally, the SLK350 is stunningly beautiful — sleek, muscular, diminutive, yet unmistakably powerful — the motorized equivalent of an attractive woman in uniform. That’s my take, anyway. I love this car. I returned it to Mercedes-Benz reluctantly.

The SLK350 did wonders for my psyche and, perhaps, for my soul. It helped me develop compassion for rich people. They are not tax-dodging ogres by nature. They are children at heart. They like their toys. I like playing with them.

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