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New Car Review

1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK230

by John Heilig

mercedes mercedes

SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide


ENGINE:              2.3-liter supercharged inline four
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:   185 hp @ 5,300 rpm/200 lb-ft @ 2,500-4,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION:        Five-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY:        22 mpg city,  30 mpg highway
WHEELBASE:           94.5 in.
OVERALL LENGTH:      157.3 in.
OVERALL HEIGHT:      50.7 in.
OVERALL WIDTH:       67.5 in.
CURB WEIGHT:         3,036 lbs 
FUEL CAPACITY:       14.0 gal.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY:    9.5/3.6 cu. ft. (top up/down)
TIRES:               P205/55R16 (front), P225/50R16 (rear)
INSTRUMENTS:         Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level,
                     water temperature, outside temperature,
                     digital clock.
EQUIPMENT:           Power windows, power door locks, power mirrors,
                     cruise control, air conditioner, power top,
                     heated seats, AM-FM stereo radio with cassette
                     and CD changer, integrated mobile telephone,
                     anti-lock braking, dual air bags.
STICKER PRICE:       $39,700 (base)

I'm not sure about the rest of the United States, but this is a car I've been waiting to drive for almost a year. I first heard about the SLK230 last year when I began preparing my book on the history of the Mercedes-Benz SL models. Naturally, the SLK is the latest entrant in that long line of cars, even though it's not a "pure" SL. The added "K" stands for "kurtz," German for "short." And the SLK230 is short, just 157.3 inches overall, about two inches longer than a Mazda Miata.

Size, and the fact that the top goes down, are the only comparisons between the SLK230 and the Miata. For one, the SLK230's top is hard. when it's up, the car is a solid coupe. When it's down--and dropping the top requires one switch and about 25 seconds, the SLK230 is transformed into a neat two-seater sports car. It's an ideal car for a summer drive with the top down, and if the weather turns nasty or too cool, a flip of a switch will transform the car into a coupe for the ride home.

The SLK230 is powered by a supercharged 2.3-liter four cylinder engine that delivers 185 horsepower. Supercharging is a much better choice than turbocharging. for one, the application of power is much smoother, giving the SLK230 the feel of being powered by a much larger engine with more cylinders. The engine has a nice roar to it with the top down; with the top up it's relatively silent. Most of the noise is exhaust noise, and we all know that can be tuned as the designers choose.

The engine drives the rear wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission. The automatic was an interesting choice, but Mercedes-Benz research showed that about 90 percent of the SLK buyers would choose the automatic anyway. A manual may be offered in a year or so, but it really isn't necessary.

Someone who drove the car in Europe commented that shifting was almost imperceptable. I must agree. Even with my foot all the way to the floor for acceleration, the only shift that was noticeable was the one from second to third. All the others were as smooth as glass. This automatic is like a CVT belt drive, only there's power under the hood with this car.

The transmission is adaptive, which means that it learns how you drive. So if you drive hard, the transmission will pick higher shift points. If you're conservative, the transmission will adapt and give you better fuel economy.

Despite the fact that the SLK230 is 20 inches shorter than its big brothers, there's no lack of interior space. We had more than enough legroom, with shoulder and headroom as well. With the top up, there's even a small space behind the seats for stowing small items.

With the top up, there are 9.5 cubic feet of trunk space. With it down, trunk space drops to 3.6 cubic feet. One Mercedes-Benz representative noted that you can travel to your destination with the top up and the trunk filled with suitcases. Once there, you unload the bags and put the top down. The 3.6 cubic feet remaining are enough for coolers for picnics and bags for day trips. This isn't an S-Class, but creative packing will show there's enough luggage space for most normal people.

The SLK shows Mercedes-Benz' traditional attention to detail and safety. The interior has interesting design, even if it is sportier than the standard Mercedes. The company is hoping to attract more youthful buyers and the interior design will do this. There are four air bags, two in the dash and two in the doors. Mercedes-Benz also offers a smart baby seat that disables the passenger air bag if this child seat is installed. The side air bag is not disabled, since this is needed and isn't of the volume the main bag is.

One feature that impressed my co-drive and me about the SLK is the absence of cowl shake, which is a curse to all convertibles. The problem was solved in typical Mercedes-Benz fashion. Behind the seats are integral roll bars to protect the passengers in the event of a rollover. But the windshield is also strengthened, and can actually support the car if it flips. This added structure makes for a firmer structure and a more solid ride.

As I said, I have been looking forward to driving this car for a year. Now that I've driven it, I'm going to have to spend more time figuring out how to get the $40,000 to pay for one. Do you think if I drop enough hints my wife will surprise me with it for my birthday?