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New Car/Review

Mercedes-Benz SLK230

John Heilig


ENGINE:                  2.3-liter supercharged inline four
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:       185 hp @ 5300 rpm/200 lb-ft @ 2500-4800 rpm
TRANSMISSION:            Five-speed manual
FUEL ECONOMY:            21 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, 24.4 mpg test
WHEELBASE:               94.5 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 157.3 x 67.5 x 50.7 in.
CURB WEIGHT:             1992 lbs.
FUEL CAPACITY:           14.0 gal.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY:        9.5 cu. ft.
TIRES:                   205/55R16/225/50R16 (F/R)
INSTRUMENTS:             Speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge, 
                         water temperature, digital clock, 
                         oil pressure, battery voltage.
EQUIPMENT:               Power windows, power door locks, 
                         power mirrors, power seats, cruise control, 
                         air conditioner, AM-FM stereo radio with 
                         in-dash cassette player, anti-lock four-wheel 
                         disc brakes, dual front air bags, side air bags.
STICKER PRICE:           $40,000 (base)

We always had the feeling that something was missing with the original Mercedes-Benz SLK230. While it was a very nice sports car, it used an automatic transmission. Granted, the five-speed automatic in the SLK230 was an adaptive transmission, it was smooth, and it worked well. But it didnít make this little roadster/coupe a sports car.

For 1999, Mercedes has put a five-speed manual transmission in the SLK230. With only minor changes otherwise, it has converted the little Mercedes into a sports car. And itís a good sports car to boot.

The SLK engine is Mercedesí 2.3-liter four-cylinder unit. They attached a supercharger to it to bring power up to 185 horsepower. This is more than enough power for the SLK, which only weighs 1992 pounds.

Granted, I was brought up in an era when sports car had four-cylinder unsupercharged engines, had four-speed manual transmissions, and weighed about 1500 pounds. But this is a new era. And the SLK is also a lot safer than many of the vehicles I drove.

The five-speed manualís throw was longer than I would have preferred. Anyone who has spent time in a Miata remembers what itís like to have a short-throw gearshift. But even with the longer throw, we didnít miss any gears and we were able to zip up through the gears quickly when I was trying to accelerate hard.

Acceleration was excellent when I had an opportunity. What I especially liked about the engine, and even with the manual gearbox, was that if you had to pass on the highway, you could accomplish the feat without downshifting. May small cars, if youíre trying to accelerate to pass someone, you have to downshift at least one gear and maybe two just to get the rpms high enough to do the job. This wasnít a problem with the SLK.

The other nice feature about this car was its hardtop. Itís as powered, disappearing hardtop that folds neatly in to the trunk. Trunk space is reduced from 9.5 cubic feet to 3.6 cubic feet, but it is still more than I had in my MGA. This is still a useful trunk.

The sad part about the SLK230 was when I was foolish enough to schedule it. The first few days I had the car were cold, so I didnít have a chance to lower the top. But at least the skies were clear. Then the snow flurries started, and as soon as there was even a dusting on the road the rear end became twitchy. When we had a major snow and ice storm, the time came to switch to my partnerís front-wheel drive car, because I wasnít sure the SLK could handle it. When there was ice on the road, the SLK, thanks to the stick shift, was able to do a decent job. It was equipped with Mercedes-Benzí traction control, and as long as the road was decent and there was a chance to get traction back, there were no problems.

A few times, however, I was on a hill with ice and the rear wheels would not gain traction. So the computer managing the engine began cutting power to the engine, slowing it down and effectively taking my foot off the pedal. On one hill we were down to "one-half cylinder" while the SLK worked to regain traction. Eventually we got all the systems working properly and we made it up the hill.

When the SLK was first introduced, its competition was the BMW M3 and the Porsche Boxster. Iíve had the opportunity to drive all three vehicles in a short span of time. Perhaps itís because Iím conservative or because of some inborn bias, but my favorite among the three is the SLK230. All three are excellent cars, all are priced about the same. All three are fun to drive. Itís a nice situation and you can pick any one of the three and not lose.