1997 Mercedes Benz SLK
FLORENCE, Italy The trouble with sports cars is that they're
so darn sporty.
Noisy. Uncomfortable. Cramped. Dangerous. Wind and water leak
in and, in the old days of British roadsters anyway, oil leaks
They're fine for the occasional sunny Sunday afternoon. But as
a real car? Maybe not.
Leave it to Mercedes Benz to come up with a sports car that's
none of the above.
The SLK Sporty, Light and Kompakt (go ahead, and guess) is
a near-faithful rendition of the delectable concept car that
first wowed the Turin auto show in 1994. If it isn't ultimately
as keen-edged and involving as some of its rortier forebears,
the SLK makes a great deal more sense for the '90s.
Sports cars have to be lookers — the SLK delivers. The
contemporary, unadorned wedge profile blends nicely with a
modern execution of the traditional Mercedes roadster grille and
the C-class-reminiscent triangular taillights, while twin
"power domes" — longitudinal bulges on the hood — recall
Benz's 300SL of the mid'50s.
The age-old problem of what to do when it rains on your
sports car is brilliantly solved with a folding steel Vario
roof. Shades of Ford's retractable hardtop of 195758, the SLK's
disappears at the touch-and-hold of a button.
Activated by a trunk-mounted hydraulic pump, the deck lid
pivots open from the bumper, the top disengages from the
windshield header, splits laterally at the upper edge of the
rear (glass) window, and clamshells into the trunk. The process
takes about 30 seconds, up or down.
The stowed top cuts the reasonable 350 litre cargo space by 60
per cent, to 145 litres. Better pack light, as in thin garment
bags, since topdown access is in the mailslot category. The
trunk lid, incidentally, opens conventionally for cargo — pretty
clever when you think about it.
The SLK's interior is a blend of old and new. The ivory-faced,
chrome-rimmed instruments with black-edged red pointers present
a distinct retro look, yet the expected wood trim is replaced
with carbon-fibre lookalike accents. (Is fake carbon fibre any
less egregious than fake wood?)
Mercedes Benz of North America isn't about to challenge the
limited tastes of its customers by even offering the terrific
cloth upholstery that's standard on Eurospec SLKs. We'll get
leather. At least it'll be brighter-colored leather than usual.
The rest of the interior is two-tone: black above, with a choice
of lighter, airier fabrics below.
As you'd expect of a Mercedes, all the modern conveniences are
on hand: power windows, locks and mirrors; automatic dual-zone
air conditioning with pollen filter; Bose sound system; cruise;
even dual pop-out cup holders.
Ditto with safety, in all facets. The steel roof not only
improves rollover protection, already well taken car of with
steel roll bars in the head restraints and reinforced front
windshield pillars, but also limits the vandalism and theft that
cloth tops invite. An antitheft alarm with engine immobilizer
helps ensure your SLK stays yours.
Dual front air bags plus seatbelts that tighten automatically
in the early stages of a crash, then let out a bit of slack
later in the event to reduce chest and shoulder injuries, are
supplemented by standard side air bags. The passenger-side bags
inflate only if that seat is occupied.
Only Mercedes Benz could stage a press conference with Michelangelo's statue of David looking over our shoulders.
Mechanically, the SLK is based on the C-class sedan, sharing
that car's double-wishbone front and fivelink rear suspension,
with springs, gas-filled shocks, anti-roll bars and bushings
tuned to the SLK's sporty nature.
The 300 kg heavier E-class does supply the SLK's four-wheel
disc ABS brakes, so there's lots of braking force in reserve.
The only engine we'll get is a twin cam 16-valve 2.3 litre
four-cylinder, again from the C-class, but with an intercooled
Our car will be called the 230 SLK Kompressor. This engine is
rated at 191 horsepower at 5300 r.p.m. on our SAE scale, with
peak torque of 206 poundfeet being constant from 2500 to 4800
North Americans will only get an automatic transmission, an
all-new electronic fivespeed. Before you purists whine about
the manual gearbox the Europeans get, remember that
Mercedes Benz manuals are almost as bad as Toyota's — remote and
clunky. One Euroscribe said the SLK's is better than the one
they get in the C-class I can only imagine how bad it must be.
The published 0-to-100 km/h times are actually one-tenth
quicker for the autobox — 7.5 versus 7.6 seconds thanks to
quicker upshifts that keep the supercharger on the boil.
Mercedes's ASR traction control system, with both engine and
brake intervention, is standard.
If there is a better place to test a beautiful automobile than
the Tuscany countryside surrounding Florence, the capital of the
Italian renaissance, it doesn't leap to mind. Only Mercedes Benz
could convince the management of the Galleria dell'Accademia to
let them stage a press conference with Michelangelo's statue of
David looking over our shoulders.
The first and lasting impression when driving this car is that
it's every inch a Mercedes Benz. "Leicht" it may be, but it's
built like a bank vault. It surely sets new standards for open
car rigidity, surpassing even its impressive big brother, the
And that's with the top down. Top up, it's as solid as a real
Despite the wild-by Mercedes-standards fittings in the
interior, much here is also reassuringly familiar: minor
switchgear, steering column stalks, outstanding materials,
execution and solidity.
The front seats have sufficient fore-and-aft and height
adjustment to accommodate tall drivers, although in coupe mode,
the windshield pillars seem a little close to the forehead. The
steering wheel telescopes manually, but doesn't tilt — it'll be
right in the laps of the large of thigh.
The seats are comfortable, but need more lateral and shoulder
support for even moderate cornering.
The rearview mirror is too small. What visibility there is is
hampered by the mesh fabric wind blocker . It didn't block much
wind anyway, so I just stuffed it down behind the seats.
That's about the only thing that will fit back there; there
isn't room for even a brief case. This is compensated for
somewhat by a couple of cubby bins, folding map pockets, and my
candidate for the invention of the decade: two baseball cap
hooks on the rear firewall.
The engine is excellent: lots of bottom-end punch, lots of
mid-range. It's not a high-revver, which may disappoint some
enthusiasts, but it feels very satisfactory on the road.
It also sounds great: a deep, resonant exhaust note that had
me looking for stone walls to drive beside, so I could hear it
The automatic transmission shifts extremely smoothly, although
the one-two upshift is a long, drawn-out affair. The electronic
controller adjusts the shift program to your driving style, so
hammer on it for a while and it'll sharpen up.
The stiff body surely contributes to the excellent ride.
Italian roads throw a wide variety of challenges at a
suspension, and the SLK deals with all of them equally well.
The Mercedes Benz SLK will make its formal North American
debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, immediately after New Year's
1997, and arrive in Canadian dealer showrooms four to six weeks
later. It'll be the third of four German sports cars to hit the
market over a 24 month period: the BMW Z3 is already here,
Porsche's Boxster arrives this November and Audi's TTS is due in
1998, ironically, all coming just as the Japanese are abandoning
this market segment.
SLK pricing is tentative, but the Americans are looking at
US$40,000, which should put it around CDN$55,000. That's 15
grand more than the Z3, but neither Mercedes nor I see any
problem convincing customers of the value of the more powerful
engine and disappearing hardtop roof.
But frankly, I don't see the two cars as direct competitors.
While both will attract buyers in what America's legendary auto
writer, the late Henry Manney III, called the "m'astu vu?"
(have you seen me?) category, both cars play to the strengths
of their respective marques.
Only 350 SLKs have been allocated to Canada for the first
partial model year. There is absolutely zero chance that these
will not be snapped up instantly, if they haven't been already.
While everyone claims the formal ordering process hasn't begun,
rumor has it that the car is essentially sold out worldwide
No carmaker likes to admit to compromises. But the fact is,
any car is a whole series of compromises, and the Mercedes Benz
SLK is a brilliant example. It has the comfort, security and
reliablity to be an everyday car, the room necessary for touring
(okay, short trips only), and the technological interest to
dazzle your friends (you can sell tickets to the dropping of the
It isn't outrageously expensive, and if it isn't a road-going
race car, neither is it boring to drive. And it's always
Its arrival will make next February a brighter month.