Mercedes reinvents the roadster.
Sports cars have been with us in one form
or another for almost as long as there have been internal-combustion engines
propelling wheeled vehicles. At various times, the market for them has
expanded and contracted; one such period of shrinkage began in the late
1960s, leaving only a few contenders, most of them high-priced, to satisfy
the demand of a small but steady market for high-performance two-seaters.
Then came the Mazda Miata. Cute, fun and affordable, it was an instant
success. No real psychic ability was needed to see that other small, frisky
sporting machines would follow.
Now, there are three new members of the sports-car clan. All three--BMW's
Z3, Porsche's Boxster and the Mercedes-Benz SLK--are competing in a niche
slightly above the Miata, yet below stalwarts in the Jaguar XK8 and Porsche
All three newcomers are impressive. All fit into a fairly narrow price
window centered at about $40,000, all are well-equipped, and all promise
as much over-the-road fun as most drivers can stand. Each carries a company
name synonymous with performance, quality and engineering, and each comes
from a company with plenty of sports car-building experience.
By the time the first SLKs hit the showroom, the little coupe/roadster
had already proven itself good enough to win the North American Car of
the Year award. Will it be good enough for you?
Even without the three-pointed star badges, it would be difficult to
mistake the SLK for anything but a Mercedes-Benz. It is short but sleek,
with a chunky, puroposeful look to it. Nice touches include the faired-in
aerodynamic headlights, steeply raked windshield, large rear light clusters
and bumpers tucked tightly against the body. Seven-spoke aluminum alloy
wheels--carrying different-size tires front and rear--fill the wheel openings,
contributing to the SLK's purposeful appearance.
But the SLK's most obvious and unusual exterior feature is its power-operated
hardtop. It is standard equipment and, being integrated into the car, eliminates
the need for a soft top. Five hydraulic cylinders fed from a trunk-mounted
pump raise and lower the lid when the driver operates a single switch.
When the top is being lowered, side windows retract, latches on the windshield
header are released, the trunk lid is raised (backwards), the roof folds
into two halves and slides into its bay, and the trunk lid closes. Naturally,
raising the top involves the same steps in reverse.
That's a pretty clever piece of engineering. What makes it more impressive
is the fact that there is still some usable trunk space when the lid is
lowered--not much, but still about as much as a Miata.
Although there are engine options in Europe, the SLK is available in
the U.S. as a single model, fully equipped, and offers a mere handful of
options, most desirable among them washers for the headlights. Nothing
else is necessary.
The Inside Story
Suddenly it's 1955. Mercedes-Benz interior stylists have unabashedly
opted for a retro look to the SLK's cozy cockpit. The three circular instruments--one
a speedometer, one a tachometer, and the other a combination fuel level/coolant
temperature dial--have chrome rings around ivory faces with black numerals
and red needles. Shiny accents are applied in numerous places, and a two-tone
effect combines black dashboard top, door panels, seat sides, glovebox
lid and center console with contrasting trim in the buyer's choice of red,
blue, dark gray or light gray.
Our only quibble with this blend of old and new is the carbon fiber
insert panel in the dash. We have nothing against carbon fiber, but in
a Mercedes it should be the real thing, rather than simulated.
But there is nothing old-fashioned about the SLK's safety features,
Beyond the dual airbags, Mercedes has opted to include separate rollover
bars behind driver and passenger, as well as adding a circuit to the airbag
system that detects a child's seat mounted in the passenger side and disables
the dash-mounted bag in front of it.
The seats, too, are modern as can be. No vintage sports car ever had
such comfortable and supportive chairs. And no open car of the past protected
its occupants from the wind as well as does the SLK's mesh wind deflector,
which fits over the rollover bars.
All controls are located in clusters for easy use, air conditioning
and a fine Bose six-speaker sound system are standard, and the whole is
finished off to the high quality level you'd expect to find in a Mercedes.
Ride & Drive
A few minutes behind the wheel makes it clear that the SLK's biggest
asset is a nearly inexhaustable supply of driving pleasure. The S in the
model name denotes Sport, and deservedly so. The fun comes from much more
than simple straight-line speed, though the SLK's claimed 0-60 mph time
of 7.4 seconds and 143-mph top speed aren't exactly unimpressive. The key
word in assessing the car's fun quotient is balance.
At right around 3000 pounds, the SLK isn't exactly a lightweight--even
though the L in SLK stands for Licht (light)--but it steers, stops, and
goes around corners with far less coaxing than its heavier SL cousins.
The all-independent suspension is tuned for flat cornering and precise
handling, and delivers exactly that, while also providing a ride that won't
rattle your teeth.
Driver and passneger will be as relaxed at the end of an all-day drive
as they were at its beginning and, if there were a few twists and turns
along the way, the driver will likely have an ear-to-ear grin. Brakes (ABS-equipped),
steering and electronic traction control all perform flawlessly.
The third component in the model designation is K, meaning Kompressor
(supercharger in English). Without it, the car wouldn't be nearly as much
fun to drive. The mechanical supercharger forces air into a 2.3-liter twincam
16-valve four-cylinder engine, the same engine, sans supercharging, used
in M-B's C-Class sedans. A variety of high-tech features work with the
blower to make the engine both powerful and responsive. Peak power--191
hp--is impressive, but the key to this engine's willingness to play is
a wide band of peak torque, available from 2500 to 4800 rpm.
Behind the engine is a five-speed automatic transmission that features
"adaptive" electronics that monitor driving style and tailor
the shift time and speed to suit. In enthusiastic driving mode, for example,
it will shift at the engine's peak power, and will not upshift when the
car is slowed for a corner. In more sedate use, it changes gears with remarkable
Perfection? Not quite. While the muted whine of the supercharger will
be music to some, the exhaust note has a slightly agricultural quality
to it. We also found a little more engine vibration than we'd like at cruising
speeds, and the absence of a manual transmission isn't consistent with
a real sports car image. Mercedes offers a very crisp five-speed manual
on European SLK models, but elected not to certify it for the U.S. market.
Many of us have a soft spot in our hearts for traditional sports cars.
In quantifiable ways, the new breed, as exemplified by the SLK, is better.
Safer, faster, and more environmentally friendly, they represent a high
point in automotive design.
Mercedes-Benz has put a lot of value into the SLK, from basic design
to sophisticated powertrain to all the standard comfort and convenience
features. But we stop short of calling it the best of the new breed. Buyers
choose sports cars by subjective measurements, and there are two other
new Teutonic roadsters with distinctive personalities of their own.
But if you're interested in any of these seductive newcomers we strongly
recommend spending some time with the SLK before making a final decision.
It's a unique achievement, even for a company that specializes in the best