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SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

Mercedes-Benz SLK320 (2001)

SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

Ah! Just what Herr Doktor ordered - more power and more refined power for the SLK. Yes, Mercedes-Benz is getting maximum use out of its 3.2-liter, 215-hp 90-degree V6, and it makes a world of difference in the little two-seat SLK, especially with a standard six- speed manual gearbox.

Criticism has been leveled at the SLK in the past. Mechanical noises and vibrations that could be considered "character" in some cars were considered un-Mercedes-like. The SLK230's supercharged inline four-cylinder engine was less refined that other Mercedes engines, with peaky power that was hard to make maximum use of because of the original automatic transmission. And, said some critics, real sports cars must have manual gearboxes. A five-speed manual transmission was eventually made available, but found few friends.

The complainers can now be quiet. The V6 gives the SLK the refinement some found lacking, and the smooth-shifting six-speed gearbox is its perfect match. The abundant midrange torque makes the car easy to drive around town or in traffic, with shifting rarely necessary. But run it up above 4500 rpm, and there is no doubt that this is a real sports car. Because of their unusual design, 90-degree vee- sixes normally make rather industrial sounds. Not this one - it makes the melodic music of an inline six-cylinder engine. Beautiful sounds and serious thrust enhance the view over the 300 SL - inspired hood bulges. Indulge your Moss-and-Jenks-at-the-Mille-Miglia fantasies...(well, OK, strictly speaking, Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson won the 1955 Mille Miglia in a 300 SLR powered by a straight-eight engine derived from the all-conquering W196 Formula One car, but the 300SL was a straight six, and a very sophisticated one at that. And those twin bulges on the SLK's hood are a direct echo of those on the 300SL.)

If the SLK230's engine could be criticized, its chassis could not. And the 320 has few differences from the original. The quick-change disappearing metal top still protects occupants from the elements far better than a cloth convertible top. The chassis is much more rigid than the norm for two-seat roadsters, allowing a supple tuning of the double wishbone front / multilink rear suspension that combines ride comfort, precise steering, and good roadholding.

The 2001 SLK320's interior has been enhanced with wood trim on the door panels, center stack, and steering wheel. It adds a touch of luxury elegance. Space is still a consideration, to no surprise. Cockpit storage is limited, and the trunk is mighty small with the top down. Such are the characteristics of a small roadster, though, and the new V6 engine makes the SLK one of the best. With a $43,900 base price, it's not inexpensive, but it is competitive with the other German two- seaters.