Mercedes-Benz SLK320

But its appeal isn't all speed and power. The SLK has a more refined ride than other sporty roadsters such as Nissan's new Z or the Mazda Miata. It damps out bumps in a way that brings to mind the smooth ride of a bigger Benz. It handled well even over the dirt roads we tried.

Our review vehicle carried 17-in. rims that may have improved the ride over what the standard 16-in. versions offer. Also onboard was a six-speed manual transmission that matched up well with the smooth V6. You feel the most acceleration in third and fourth gears. Steering is tight and precise and the small, low-slung roadster corners nicely. Overall, the car feels well balanced. We'd have to count the four-wheel disc brakes as another strong point. An electronic stability system comes standard as does ABS and a brake-assist function. The stability system can be switched off if you want to let the rear end drift through corners.

A slick feature of the SLK is its retractable hardtop. One button controls the whole operation which is over in 25 sec. The windows position themselves automatically and there are no clamps or restraints to fiddle with. But expect to travel light. While there is indeed trunk space available with the top down, it is only large enough to hold an attache case and not much more. Drivers with suitcases to carry should plan on keeping the top up.

Top up or down, the SLK is a nice-looking car. The grille is distinctly Mercedes. Turn-signal lamps built into the outside mirrors are another plus.

The interior keeps with Mercedes standards. The seats are comfortable with a lot of lateral support. Electric adjusters are standard on the 320 version as is wood trim. Leather is a given. Heated seats are a $670 option. The base interior is well turned out but the test car's Special Edition package (a new option this year) included special Calyptus wood door, dash, and console trim, silver-colored instruments with amber backlighting, and a six-disc CD changer in the trunk. Also bundled in the $1,600 add-on are special badging, 17-in. spoke aluminum wheels, and a rear spoiler. A special pewter silver paint job accounted for another $670. The total for the test vehicle was $48,710.

All in all, the 320 had plenty of power and was a dream to drive. However, potential buyers who want even more zip can get an AMG version of the car with 349 hp for an extra $10,000. The budget-minded might consider the SLK230 which is powered by a four-cylinder 192-hp engine.

Finally, the SLK platform hasn't changed much in three years, and rumor has it that Mercedes will release a redesigned version of the car in '05. Indications are that the update will be slightly longer than present models.

-- Lee Teschler