Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - SLK-class - SLK320 Special Edition
Performance, handling, roof operation, styling, interior space, ride quality
Room for improvement
Boot space, space-saver spare tyre, lack of steering wheel and seat adjustment
21 Nov 2003
By TIM BRITTEN
THE very clever Mercedes-Benz SLK is approaching its first remake. Some time next year, we believe, a new version of the little Benz hard-top convertible will hit the motor show circuit.
This will be a significant event for the car that, in 1997, started the latest round of steel-roofed coupes able to morph into open-air, roofless convertibles.
The SLK was the first to bring the concept into the modern era and Mercedes engineers and stylists did an amazing job. Despite the limitations imposed by the concept (folding a steel roof out of sight into a regular boot was a challenge in every sense of the word), they managed to come up with a car that looks nicely balanced, roof up or down.
The same couldn’t be said of older attempts by people like Ford in the 1950s, or Peugeot even earlier.
Perhaps the only downside of the SLK was that it quickly acquired something of a reputation for being slightly less than macho. It did not rate as an expression of masculinity - although the advent of a high-power, supercharged V6 AMG version in 2001 must have changed that to some extent.
This was as much to do with the balanced but conservative styling as with the initial engine choices SLKs between 1997 and 2000 could only be had with four cylinders, beginning with a paltry 2.0-litre, 100kW version that was anything but sporty.
A supercharged, 120kW "Kompressor" version had more punch but it was surprisingly rowdy and primitive by Benz standards.
It was not until the arrival of the 160kW 3.2-litre V6 version in 2000 that it really started to behave more like a Mercedes.
The V6 was the same engine used elsewhere in the Mercedes range, from the C-class right through to the S-class, and it provided not just meaningful punch, but also made the whole SLK driving experience smoother and more refined.
The SLK320 – if you put aside the $150,000-plus SLK32 AMG – remains the top of the line model and is about as sporty as you can get, even if it’s not possible to get a manual transmission. The standard gearbox, much the same as the AMG version, is a five-speed, sequentially controlled Mercedes automatic.
One thing that shouldn’t be discounted with the SLK320 is its on-road prowess. It still might not seem to offer the sports car credentials of, say, a Porsche Boxster (which it’s close to in price) or a BMW Z4 but, in reality, it’s right up there in terms of on-road abilities.
At 1405kg, the all-steel SLK gives ground to regular soft-tops in overall weight, but that doesn’t stop it from being a hard-accelerating, brisk-handling sports convertible. A decent set of standard wheels (wider at the back than the front) ensures strong grip and the engine is almost as accelerative as a Boxster.
As might be expected, given the usual Mercedes proclivity for eating up less-than-perfect roads, the SLK makes less fuss of a fast, rough point-to-point drive than either a Boxster (which is faster over the ground) or a Z4 (which is always a handful). It’s a successful translation of Mercedes values into a sports car context.
The SLK is not only quite comfortable when driven fast, but also follows the driver’s instructions faithfully, tracking a straight line without constant need for steering corrections.
The engine, in the normal Mercedes mould, is high tech without being over-complex. It uses three valves per cylinder where others use at least four, and produces a quite conservative maximum power output. Muscle, rather than highly strained technology, achieves a perfectly workable result.
Maximum power comes in at a relatively conservative 5700rpm while there’s a little more torque to play with (310Nm) than either the 3.0-litre Z4 or 2.7-litre Boxster.
The torque helps to override the weight disadvantage without seeming to affect fuel economy too much. In fact, official figures place it ahead of manual fuel consumption claimed for the Boxster and not too far behind the also manual Z4. An increase in 2000 of fuel tank size from 53 to 60 litres helped the touring range too.
Another surprise with the SLK, given its tight external dimensions (it looks positively small from some perspectives) is the quite spacious interior.
It feels a lot bigger inside than you’d expect, certainly more spacious and airy than regular soft-top convertibles, and offers much better 360-degree vision. There’s very little of the rear three-quarter blind spot that seems inescapable in fabric-roofed designs.
While the Special Edition SLK320 features Nappa leather-trimmed and sportier seats (which, along with exclusive five-double-spoke 16-inch alloys, are the only non-cosmetic items offered by the Special Edition model, which also features a chrome-look grille, polished alloy A-pillar and vario-rooof trim, front wing logos, chrome-look bootlid handle and unique interior touches), the standard SLK320 seats feel firm in the normal Mercedes style and don’t seem, at first, to offer enough under-thigh support.
This is exacerbated by the lack of any power controls (and height-only adjustment for the cushion) as well as a steering wheel that only adjusts for reach, not height. But, after a long spell at the wheel, the SLK left passengers as comfortable as any Mercedes sedan.
The equipment, even in the top-of-the-line SLK320, is actually quite basic with manual air-conditioning (albeit with separate controls for driver and passenger), no trip computer and only a basic sound system.
From a safety point of view there are four airbags (front and side) as well as the usual array of electronic safety aids including stability control, traction control and an ABS system that incorporates brake assist and utilises larger front rotors than four-cylinder SLKs.
The solid roof is made of steel and folds away hydraulically in around 25 seconds, which is quite rapid considering the complexity of the operation. The whole thing is operated by simply manipulating a "logic" button on the centre console pull it back to lower the roof, push forward to raise it again.
If the system refuses to activate, it’s usually because a pull-out, horizontal "blind" in the boot, which shields the section required by folding of the roof, has not been put in place.
With the roof up, boot space is a generous 348 litres folded down, that reduces significantly, meaning large suitcases are out of the question. But there is still some reasonable horizontal space available. The spare, too, is a space-saver, inflated with a high-quality compressor that is part of the package.
All in all a very clever design, which genuinely allows the SLK to feel like a coupe when the weather’s lousy, and a proper open-air cruiser when the it’s warm and balmy.
Since the SLK, of course, there’s been a rash of hard-top convertibles, ranging down as far as the Daihatsu Copen, but the Mercedes can at least be credited as being the first to bring the concept into the modern era.
And, in V6 form, it’s certainly not lacking machismo.
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