Set the way-back machine to 1996 and we find Mercedes-Benz introducing its SLK roadster, Swabian foil to the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3. The SLK looks the part, a smaller version of its SL sibling. Although from the same family, the SLK sometimes felt like it was living in the shadow of its more refined brother, riding his coat tails to get into parties. The SLK needed to earn its stripes, live on its own. The SLK had to grow up.

So goes the story with the 2008 SLK, a little car that made good. Whatever you remember about the first SLK should be forgotten. Throw those old snapshots away. The second-generation SLK has matured into a genuine sports car, its adolescent patina gone like so much Clearasil and bubblegum.

Mercedes got it right in 2004. The body and powerplant received major upgrades and its suspension re-tuned for sport-minded drivers. While we were satisfied, Mercedes wasn't. For 2008, the SLK returns with more muscle, revised bodywork and a handsome new face.

Despite its compact appearance, the car is quite roomy inside. Adjusting the seat far forward lets me recline and enjoy the sunshine. I'm stuck in rush-hour traffic and I'm happy.

Going nowhere, I start fiddling with the levers, knobs and buttons. The entire car reeks of quality, a solid weight behind each function. I program the nav system to get out of this mess. It knows exactly where I am, it's easy to use and it gives a few escape options. Too bad traffic has stopped. Unless this thing can transform into a Unimog, I'm not going anywhere. It strikes me that this is a likely scenario for the SLK, slogging through upscale urban traffic.

Seated low in the cabin, the car feels exceptionally secure, even as 18-wheelers fly by in the opposite lane, mere inches away. As temperatures dip, I fire up the Airscarf neck-level heating system. A pair of backrest-mounted vents focus warm air up to my freezing face. Airscarf is an option-you want it.

The stereo is both Bluetooth- and iPod-friendly, so I groove to my own music and later switch the Harmon Kardon Logic7 sound system to a rock station. Some 500 watts blast the cockpit. I'm driving now and turn down an alley in an effort to outflank the rush-hour mess. The 3.5-liter V6 and its 305 hp (30 hp more than the previous generation) rockets me through garbage-strew backroads, occasionally airborne as I cross main streets. This new model features a variable-ratio steering rack, an entirely mechanical system that sharpens steering response at varying speeds. In impossibly tight cities, it's a blessing.

The SLK350 has terrific power-most of it available at 2000 rpm-and its 7G-Tronic seven-speed sport transmission with paddle shifters keeps in the meat of the torque curve with instantaneous response. According to Mercedes, the 350 is quicker than the Audi TT and BMW Z4 and will go toe-to-toe with a Boxster S. Mercedes has designed the SLK 350 with a new intake and valvetrain and raised compression to 11.7:1. Although the engine has a 6800-rpm redline, it can spin to 7200 rpm for brief periods, sorta like 'hyper-boost.'

Whereas the SLK350 is quietly refined, the SLK 55 AMG feels wild. Just leaving the parking lot creates a haze of white smoke as 360 hp and 367 lb-ft of twist get busy. The 5.4-liter AMG V8 seems to have had the same voice coach as every other AMG car. Mercedes should sell it (the noise) to movie studios. This is how a high-performance V8 should sound.

It tends to be a bit peakier than its V6 counterpart. The revs climb briskly and jump suddenly at 4000 rpm, almost turbo-like. The AMG also gets stiffer springs and shock rates and feels extra-firm, right on the edge of race-firm. At high cornering speeds, the SLK55 stays planted-you really have to work to unstick this thing. Given its relatively short wheelbase, the car feels excellent at high speed, willing to go beyond the electronically limited top end. With top raised, it's like a standard coupe-quiet enough to hear pins drop.

The SLK-Class represents a decidedly singular driving experience. Blending solid engineering with copious luxury, it's a fantastic vehicle for urban cruising or canyon carving. Its big brother would be proud.

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