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Road & Travel's 2004 Sexy Car Buyer's Guide

2004 Mercedes-Benz SLK

Where does an auto, approaching magnificent obsession status, go from here? Its name fires memories of those elite models burning up the German Autobahn, leaving lesser vehicles in its wake. It's so high on the want list, even long-ago rocker Janis Joplin bowed in supplication in song to the name Mercedes-Benz.

Those earlier temptations might have started with a fantasy called the "Gull Wing" that surely could have flown with the right amount of moxie, and they haven't subsided since. After transforming into something called the SL series, we have tasted temptation in all its obsessive magnificence behind the wheel of a gutsy SLK Kompressor roadster that, with boosted compressed air intake, clambered quickly up a mountain peak without even being winded.

All new a year ago, the present high-powered SL roadster has been expanded from one to three, in the high-end lineup starting in the $80,000 range and peaking in the six digits. The current SLK 230 roadster by contrast, lives just above the $40,000 entry point for the aging '04. By fall, it will be booted by the all new SLK350 that Mercedes puts somewhere in the mid-$40,000 range, with serious roadster credentials, a stronger, tauter body and improved technological advances.

The new powerplant, a more fuel efficient 3.5-liter V-6 generating 272-horsepower, should be a substantial improvement over the current 215-horsepower SLK320 and a definite improvement over the present, less powerful SLK230 with 192-horsepower. Both outgoing models are six-speed manual or five-speed automatic.

Besides the expected six-speed manual for the next gen model, there's a new 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission (the world's first according to Mercedes), with steering wheel gear shift buttons if preferred. Knee protecting airbags are available.

SLK keeps an automatically retractable hardtop that converts to open air roadster in seconds. The next gen model's, with new swivel mechanism, will be speedier and take less stowage space when done. For those who go topdown in la dolce vita spirit no matter the weather, Mercedes is adding a neck-level heated air system it has dubbed AIRSCARF.

Mercedes-Benz calls the more muscular next gen SLK an auto "designed from the heart," with women and men sharing credits for the classically roadster-proportioned design with a sense of rippling muscles underneath.