2012 Mercedes-Benz SLK3502012 Mercedes-Benz SLK350The mildly retro-styled Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster has been endowed with a more aggressive exterior for 2012. But there’s more to this transformation than mere styling. The mild-mannered SLK300 package is gone, replaced by the four-cylinder, turbo-charged SLK250, with less horsepower but more torque. The SLK350 remains, but with incremental engine and transmission improvements. And the suspension is tweaked as well; it’s been sport-tuned and lowered to improve cornering.

Mercedes-Benz is even talking about bringing a 204-horsepower diesel version of the SLK to the United States that delivers a jaw-dropping 48 mpg.

The SLK competes with iconic two-seat convertibles like the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z-4. It certainly has the muscle and athleticism to run with that crowd, and it also packs the sort of refinement that draws enthusiasts away from the lower-priced Japanese models like the Mazda RX-5 Miata and Nissan 370Z.

Our test car was a steel-gray 2012 SLK350. Like all SLKs, it features a steel retractable roof that operates quickly and smoothly, with little fuss. Inside, sumptuous red leather upholstery has a sun-reflective coating, to protect the leather from fading and cracking in the sun during extended periods with the top down.

The SLK350, with a 302-horsepower V-6 engine and 7-speed automatic transmission, starts at $54,800. Options ran our test car’s sticker price to $65,835; these included AIRSCARF neck-level heating for autumn and early spring top-down cruising, audio upgrade, heated seats, navigation system and Sirius satellite radio.

The first thing one notices about the trim, athletic SLK is that it requires corresponding athleticism by drivers and passengers. The low seating position compels less-than-agile people to fall rather hard into the bucket seat during boarding. (One solution would be to raise the seat during boarding and exiting, using the memory function.) The doors swing out wide, making the whole process a little easier.

Once inside, the power seat and power-operated tilt/telescoping steering column provide a comfortable seating position even for tall drivers. Visibility is good enough that we didn’t feel the need for a backup camera (not available on this model).

The SLK’s handling is flawless. The ride is comparatively soft and quiet, with a faint but discernible whisper of wind in the roof panels, and a satisfying rumble from the engine.

We could have wished for a little more torque or, alternatively, a stick shift. Curiously, six-speed, hands-on shifting can be had in pre-2012 models but is unavailable on the new SLK350.

Trunk space is a respectable 10.1 cubic feet, shrinking to about 6 with the top down. Locking a broad, horizontal panel into position above the luggage well ensures that the trunk’s contents won’t interfere with operation of the top.

Also on the plus side, the SLK350 rides better than most sporty two-seaters, making for comfortable long-distance cruising. And we exceeded 30 mpg on one highway cruise in western Connecticut, better than we expected from this two-ton, performance-oriented car.

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.

Price: $65,835

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 302 horsepower, 273 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 7-speed automatic with paddle shifters

Drive: Rear-wheel

Weight: 4,090 lb.

Suspension: Independent aluminum double-wishbone front, multi-link rear

Wheels: 18-inch AMG 5-spoke

Tires: 245/35R18 92V

Seating capacity: 2

Luggage capacity: 10.1 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 15.9 gallons

Fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway

Fuel type: Premium