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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

out.

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

supercharger.

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

r.p.m.

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

SL.

And that's with the top down. Top up, it's as solid as a real

coupe.

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

better.

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

through 1998.

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

top display).

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

gorgeous.

Its arrival will make next February a brighter month.

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