SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide
January of 1997 marked the introduction of a new Mercedes lower priced sports car, the SLK230. Not every one can afford an SL500 (about $84,000). SL is short for "sport light", but in the case of the SL500, sport light means over two tons (it weighs 4,125 pounds). The SLK was smaller, lighter and had a new retractable hardtop that turned the SLK from a hardtop to a convertible in about 25 seconds. And there was still room in the trunk after it was retracted. It was powered by a 2.3L inline DOHC 16 valve supercharged four cylinder engine that produced 190 hp and 200 pounds of torque. It was good, as what Mercedes isn't, but in its class it was lacking in performance. The Boxster, the Audi TT, and the Z3 (6 cylinder) were all quicker.
Wait no longer, the perceived power problem has been solved and what a solution it is. The answer was simple, simply shoehorn in the silky smooth 3.2L V-6 from the E class. The marriage is about as perfect as you can get. It's not that the 230 was slow (it could muster 0-60 in about 8 seconds), the rest of the class simply out classed it in performance. But Mercedes has a fix for that problem, too.
The new SLK320 now has the smoothness and power to compete in that class and offer features that make it a standout, starting with a delicious design that is unmistakenly MBZ. With only a quick glance and you can easily confuse it with its, double the price bigger brother, the SL500. The design is smooth and soft with no hard edges or ridges, except across the back of the trunk deck. A simple high tech looking mesh grille is emblemized by a large three pointed star is flanked by form-flowing head lamp assemblies. The hood has twin power bulges ala classic Mercedes 300SL. The flanks are perfectly smooth except for some deeply flared wheel wells. There are new front and rear aprons and a sculptured rocker panel and the tail lights are huge and all Mercedes. There is a slight trunk lip.
With an overall length of only 157.9 inches, this MBZ in only about 3 inches longer than a Miata. But the SLK is two inches wider at 67.5 inches and rides on a 94.5 inch wheelbase that's over 5 inches longer inches than the Miata. In comparison to its bigger brother, the SL500, the SLK is nearly 20 inches shorter with a wheelbase that is only 5 inches shorter. The bottom line is the designers have created a car that looks big without being big. The resulting rewards are a light weight of only 3,051 pounds (that's 1,100 pounds lighter than an SL500), very nimble handling and near super car performance while not giving up anything in comfort.
With V-6 power, the SLK performs at new levels. The new-to-the-SLK engine develops the exact same power output as in the Mercedes C and CLK class, 215 hp at 5,700 rpm and 229 pounds of torque at 3,000-4,600 rpm. The power delivery is strong at all rpm's with no real sweet spot. But the sound emanating from the exhaust was more than sweet. Mercedes said they actually conducted clinics to get it just right. This may be the best sounding V-6 on the planet. The only problem is that the car is so fast, that the sound doesn't last long enough. It's like blip, blip, blip in first, second and third gears and you are at highway cruising speed when the exhaust note subsides to a muted, smooth burble. Going from third gear directly into sixth gear is no problem because of engine flexibility.
In all out acceleration, the SLK could rocket from 0-60 in just 6.67 seconds with two runs below in the low 6.40's)s. That is near super car performance. Passing performance only verifies that strong level of performance the SLK is capable of with 50-70 only taking an average of 3.33 seconds. On a grade, the SLK passing only slows by a little over a second with 50-70 mph requiring only 4.64 seconds. Passing runs were done in third gear. This SLK is just plain quick. Even at higher speeds, acceleration is still powerful with third gear burst from 60-80 mph happening is just 3.87 seconds. Throttle response is strong even at a basement level 1,500 rpm.
If there is any negative, it's that Mercedes shuts the engine off at about 6,200 rpm requiring an upshift. Even though redline is marked on the tach at 6,000 rpm, this thing is so smooth it feels that 7,000 rpm would be a piece of cake. It would be nice to have the fun last a little longer in each gear. But the fun doesn't stop at the engine, it continues to the tranny. Again Mercedes pulled out all the stops and gives the driver the choice of a five speed automatic with TouchShift which is the Mercedes form of a manual automatic or a six speed manual. Yes, I did say it's a six speeder.
The clutch is light and progressive and shifting is notchy, but positive. But more important it is a blast. You can use all the gears, but after third or about 50 mph the engine takes kindly to any upper gear. I found my self shifting from third to sixth or fifth time and time again as third gear isn't interrupted by the rev limiter until about 80 and with the smooth engine, getting on a freeway, it seemed that I would use third to the merge into traffic and then just go direct to the "overdrive" sixth. Going up a steep grade never required a downshift. It would pull the steepest grades in sixth, with enough power to make a leisurely pass, but if you want to blast your pass, a quick cog swap to third will do the job in a flash. Even fourth will do fine.
Underneath the SLK is a stiff chassis with state of the art fully independent suspension. Double wishbones are used up front and a multilink system is used in the rear. Coil springs are at all four corners and antiroll bars are at each end. The rear antiroll bar is a new addition for 2001. Needless to say handling is crisp and flat with steering that has excellent on and off center feel.
At first the steering felt a little quick, but this car is effortless in the twisties. The curves of Green Valley , Cold Springs, and Latrobe Roads could be sliced and diced anyway you like while feeling comfortable and confident all the while. Turning circle is a very tight 32.9 feet.
Enhancing the SLK's ability is ESP, a Mercedes stability program that retards throttle and brakes the appropriate tire if the various sensors detect the car isn't going where it's pointed. It's a significant safety feature, but you should never rely on it in place of good judgement and your ability, speed and road conditions.
Ponderosa Road was driven several times with the top up and top down to determine the solidity of the Mercedes body and chassis. There was little difference. With the top down, the car felt tight and rattle free over the washboard at speed. In the two right angle corners the rear end followed the front perfectly.
Brakes are four wheel disc with ABS. They are powerful. They could haul the SLK down to a stop from 40 mph in less than forty feet.
On the highway, the SLK is very smooth and quiet with the top up like any quality sedan, but top down didn't effect the noise level all that much. 70 mph with the radio or a conversation with a passenger was easy without significant wind buffeting or noise. The engine turns 2,600 rpm at 70 mph and although sweet sounding when asked, it is inaudible and electric motor smooth. This is a top down if it's not raining type of car. If it's cold, you will love the high energy heating system and seat heaters with two levels of heat. During some cold fall mornings, the crisp air felt wonderful without the threat of hypothermia.
The ride was on the firm side but very well controlled. The standard wheels are 16 inch alloys (which I think are better looking than the optional AMG monoblocks) and higher profile 55 series tires would soften the ride without much degradation of handling. The SLK has excellent roll control and transitions.
On the inside is a large cockpit. In spite of its small exterior dimensions, the SLK is roomy with spacious, wide seats that cradle the driver and passenger in sublime comfort with lots of shoulder room. Support is much improved and 8 way power for both seats makes it easy to find the correct driving or shotgun position. Of course the materials are leather and wood.
Side air bags are standard and behind each head restraint is a built in roll protector.
Driving is enhanced with one of the best steering wheels in the business. It's very thick, half wood and padded leather and it feels great in your hands. The dash has a driver's binnacle with a large center speedo flanked by a smaller 7,000 rpm tach to the right and a combined temp and fuel gauge to the left. They are black on white and very legible. The chrome surrounds that also ring the AC controls, add a nice touch. The door paneling was not only luxurious, but had large door pockets.
Done in real nicely polished wood, the vertical stack has two large, easy to use rotary AC controls with the MBZ radio system below. The system is great, once you know how to use it which takes a bit of study. There is no standard CD, but the standard tape cassette is hidden within behind the radio faceplate. There are two cupholders which are large enough for most large drinks, pulls out from the top of the dash above the vertical stack. It sits high, but it doesn't impede the dash operations and the AC vents will help keep you diet coke cool. If you want to keep your coffee hot, just turn on the heat. But that won't work well on a warm summer morning.
Behind the short shifter (it too has a wood/leather, pleasure so use handle) and emergency brake is a large storage console. On the rear wall of the cabin was a small elastic storage pouch.
But the best thing about the SLK comfort, convenience and utility is the trunk. It is nearly 10 cubic feet with the top up and about 4 cubic feet with the top down. It is big. But it hinged in front and back. When the top goes down, it hinges from the rear bumper and opens from behind the seats and then relocks for normal opening above the rear bumper. Trick stuff.
Mercedes priced the SLK to be very competitive. The 2001 SLK 230 Kompressor has had a price reduction from $41,000 to $38,900, but with additional standard equipment the price is down by 8.7%. An improved product for less money. The model that was the subject of this test was the SLK 320 which lists for $43,900. It had two options, the Xenon headlights which comes with a washing system and heated seats (which can be bought separately for $645). This is highly recommended for the seats and the night safety. But the powerful headlight washing system is tremendous. You could turn them on for about five seconds and when you are done you could effectively have washed your car by wiping it down with a soft towel.
The other option on my test vehicle was the sport package ($4,135) which comes with AMG aerodynamic enhancements for the bumpers and sidesills along with projector bean fogs plus 17 inch AMG monoblock 17 inch alloy wheels shod with performance tires. The 7.5 inch wide wheels in the front get 225/45XZR17s and the rear gets 8.5 inch 245/40ZRX17s. The total price with destination was $50,850. The stock wheels are gorgeous 5 spoke 16 inch alloys (7 inches wide in front and 8 inches wide in the rear) mounted with 205/55 V rated tires in front and 225/55 V rated tire in the rear. I might rather have the $4,135 in the bank earning money.
Van Housen Motors of Sacramento has a good inventory of this mid priced luxury sports car. It is worth inspection and a test drive just to see the convertible mechanism to operate.
Specifications Price $43,900 to about $50,000 Engine 3.2L, DOHC, 24 valve V-6 215 hp @ 5,700 rpm 229 lbs-ft of torque @ 3,000-4,600 rpm Transmission Five speed electronically controlled automatic with TouchShift Six speed manual Configuration Front Longitudinally mounted engine/rear wheel drive Dimensions Wheelbase 94.5 inches Length 157.9 inches Width 67.5 inches Height 50.4 inches Track (f/r) 58.6/58.5 inches Weight 3,018 pounds Fuel Capacity 15.9 gallons Trunk Capacity (top up/down) 9.5/3.9 cubic feet Turning Circle 32.9 feet Coefficient of drag (top up) 0.35 Performance 0-60 mph 6.67 seconds 50-70 mph 3.33 seconds 50-70 mph uphill 4.64 seconds Top Speed Way beyond my nerve, but electronic intervention occurs at 140 mph. Fuel Economy EPA rated 18/27 mpg city/highway. Expect about 22-23 mpg in El Dorado County and 27-30 mpg on the highway at legal speeds.