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2001 Mercedes 230 SLK Review

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK convertible (shown)

SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

by Ted Laturnus

When Mercedes introduced their diminutive SLK230 roadster a couple of years ago, just about everybody loved it and agreed that it hit the nail squarely on the head, except for one thing: how come no manual transmission? Surely a car with this kind of handling and performance deserves a five or six-speed. After all, it has one in Europe. What are we, chopped liver?

Well, rest easy, sports fans. The SLK230 Kompressor is now available with a five-speed manual gearbox, making it the only model in the entire Mercedes line-up with one. And it was definitely worth the wait. As far as I’m concerned, this transmission liberates the SLK, transforming it from a car that was interesting to drive into one that is downright entertaining. This car is now totally cool.

Power for the SLK230 is amply delivered by a 2.3 litre four cylinder engine taken from the C-series sedan. It is supercharged and develops 185 horsepower at 5300 rpm….more than enough to propel this 1326 kilogram (2925 lb.) two-seater with considerable authority. It will willingly zip you from a dead stop to freeway speed in about seven seconds, give or take, and the kick-in-the-seat-of-the-pants power burst from the supercharger is exhilarating. For those that don’t know, the difference between a turbocharger and a supercharger is that the former is propelled by exhaust gases, the latter runs off a drive belt. In practical terms, that usually means a cleaner power delivery, with useable power at all rpms. No turbo lag here. Combine this with the manual gearbox, and you have a true sports car, with exceptional performance.

The SLK230 will also delight you through the twisties. With roughly the same dimensions - if a little heavier - as the Mazda Miata and new Honda S2000, it thrives on tight corners and decreasing radius turns. A nice wide track and stiff suspension can be thanked for this, as well as Mercedes’ ASR (Acceleration Slip Control) traction control system, which eliminates any possibility of wheelspin. No need to set up with this car, or get yourself ready to deal with a “happy” rear end. Just point and squirt. Very efficient four-wheel disc brakes with ABS complement the suspension nicely.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the power hard top that comes with the SLK. It is nothing short of remarkable. You simply press a centre console-mounted button, and the whole roof lifts up and is stowed in the trunk through a Rube Goldberg set of levers and hydraulics. It takes about 30 seconds. I found myself raising and lowering the top just so I could check it out, and there is still room in the trunk even when the top is in it. Not much, mind you, but enough for a moderately-sized set of golf clubs. There is no soft top, incidentally.

Mercedes has obviously also spent some time on the interior of the 230SLK. My black test car was handsomely trimmed out in red and gunmetal grey leather, but there are other combinations. White-faced instrumentation and rotary heat/ventilation dials complete the retro-style dash layout. My only complaint with the interior of the car has to do with the driver’s side dash bolster located under the steering wheel. The reason it’s there is to cushion the driver’s legs in the event of a high speed front-ender. A great idea. Unfortunately, it also interferes with pedal operation….at least it did with me, and I suspect that if you’re under - oh - five-ten or thereabouts, you’ll have the same problem….your knees are in continuous contact with the dash, which is annoying during city driving, when you’re changing gears a lot.

The other thing about the 230SLK that may give you pause is its price tag. Before taxes and options, it goes out the door for $57,550 (the same price as the automatic transmission version). However, equipment level is high, with features like an adjustable steering column (fore and aft, not tilt), theft alarm, leather upholstery, the aforementioned traction control system, power windows with express-down, power seats, and a pretty good Bose sound system all coming standard. Compared to other Mercedes, the 230SLK is pretty spartan….as it should be, as far as I’m concerned.

But one thing it has in abundance is a definite presence. This car is cool.