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New Car Review

1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK230

by Tony DeCosmo

mercedes mercedes

SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

In recent years, Mercedes-Benz has unveiled a lower-priced sedan line-up in the form of the C class; has redesigned and redesignated many of its higher-priced offerings; and is in the process of introducing a new sport-utility vehicle (anybody seen The Lost World yet?)

All of the new vehicles, all of the new pricing, and all of the new model designations have one goal in mind: to put Mercedes-Benz back in touch with the buying public. Oh, they won't say that at the company headquarters, but that's the obvious strategy.

In essence, Mercedes-Benz products have always been highly coveted and respected, but the company can't make a living selling a few dozen $100,000 sedans a year. They need products for the people, without sacrificing the prestige of the Mercedes-Benz name.

So far so good. The new C-class sedans are a great value and are as solid and reliable as the six-figure S-class saloons. The soon-to-be-released M-Class looks good (even when being tossed around by a T-Rex); and the new SLK is great Mercedes-style fun at a decent price.

Oops, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The top-of-the-line Mercedes SL500 convertible is absolutely the best drop-top luxury coupe in the world. Unfortunately, the SL500 starts at about $100,000.

Enter the SLK 230 Kompressor, which is a strong part of the new company strategy while maintaining a legacy of Mercedes roadsters such as the 1954 300SL and the SL 107's of the 70's and 80's.

My test SLK 230 came in Brilliant Silver exterior with a Charcoal leather interior. The long list of features start with the car's number one selling point--a one-touch fully automated retractable hard top.

The value of this design is obvious: unlike soft-top convertibles and the sometimes-available removable hard top, the automatic retractable hard top on the SLK 230 does not have an overabundance of shakes or rattles. Furthermore, it provides a strong seal against the forces of nature while still offering the option of top-down summer cruising.

Last but not least, because the entire assembly can be raised or lowered in 25 seconds while waiting at a stop light, the convertible becomes much more user-friendly. For instance--is it warm out but a few clouds in the sky? Afraid to put the top down? Don't worry, in the SLK 230 the top can be back up faster than one drop of rain turns into a thunderstorm.

While there's no doubt that the SLK 230's primary selling point is the retractable hard top, the car does have a lot more to offer beginning with an impressive powerplant. Mercedes has equipped this newest family member with a 2.3-liter supercharged four cylinder, sporting dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. This unit is capable of working up 185 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque without sacrificing gas mileage, which is rated at 22 city and 30 highway.

The SLK will bolt to sixty in just 7.2 seconds and reach an autobahn-cruising top speed of 143. Part of this panache is thanks to the innovative five-speed automatic transmission, which does an excellent job of managing shifts.

The SLK's back road performance isn't quite on par with a Porsche, where a manual shifter would be greatly appreciated (the auto-shifter is the only transmission available). However, this convertible still has plenty of grip to handle wide sweepers and to turn esse curves into smiles. Advanced engineering, such as automatic slip control and anti-lock brakes, helps keep things within the car's limits. The SLK should be considered a sports car, but not a high-performance car.

The cockpit is very tight--two people and that's it, leave the briefcase in the small trunk (which is even smaller if you have the top down). However, the seats provide good lateral support and comfort--perfect for a long Sunday afternoon drive.

The interior offers such niceties as dual zone climate controls, power windows, cruise control, leather upholstery, and a powerful stereo which, on my test car, included an optional trunk-mounted CD changer. I was surprised that neither the passenger nor driver receive a power seat.

As with most Mercedes-Benz products, ergonomics are very European. It will take a few cruises to fully understand where everything is. But important driver information--such as speed and tachometer readings--are easy to obtain via the throwback analog gauges which are blessedly simple and clear.

Like every Mercedes-Benz product I've ever tested, the new SLK 230 Kompressor feels solid and well-built. It also exudes a class and style that few cars can match.

But what truly makes the SLK a value is its price: a paltry $39,700 base and an as-tested sticker of $42,985.

Okay, maybe not so paltry but certainly a price range which allows Mercedes-Benz to maintain its prestige while still reaching out to new customers. Maybe even you.