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In Mercedes-Benz ‘speak’, SLK stands for ‘Sporty, Light & Short’ – from the German ‘Sportlich, Leight und Kurz’. The SLK has been a fixture on the world automotive stage for almost 17 years. The Mercedes-Benz SLK debuted as a concept at the Paris Motor Show in 1994, and the first model, the R170, was released in the retail world two years later in 1996. It was designed to go head-to-head with the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3.
The Mercedes-Benz SLK was all those things it purported to be with its initials – correction: it was really only two out of the three seeing as it kicked off at about 1400kg and remains in that ballpark today. (It actually weighs about the same as a Mercedes-Benz SLK.) The original SLK also had a cool folding hardtop, following on the back of a trend set by cars such as the Mitsubishi 3000GT Spyder and yet to be followed by the likes of the Peugeot 206cc. In effect, you got all the benefits of a coupe (i.e. quietness, security, insulation) plus the wind in the hair of a convertible on tap – provided you didn’t mind losing significant boot space.
Unfortunately, however, from the outset the Mercedes SLK was also clubbed enthusiastically by the ‘effeminate’ styling stick. The balanced opinion of red-blooded men everywhere tended to the view that it was a kind of sportlich, (not-so) leight und kurz hairdresser’s car. That last bit can be something of a death sentence in sales terms, because although it might not be politically correct to point this out, the simple fact is that while many women will buy a deadset bloke’s car, only a few men will buy a girlie car.
The current model SLK is the R171, which kicked off in 2004. Frankly, it does a much better job of wearing the pants – but to some extent this particular closure of the demographic gate occurred about eight years after the effeminate horse had bolted. Plenty of people still consider this car to be overdosed on X chromosomes and deficient in Ys.
The R171 Mercedes-Benz SLK is a curious combination of engineering excellence and its polar opposite. (It’s 70 per cent excellent and 30 per cent disappointing, when you weigh up the entire range.) Among the positives: The powered roof mechanism is a 22-second engineering miracle from whoa to go. You can’t operate it without wondering how they did that. It’s brilliant either open or closed, and especially so while in transit between the two.
Anyone who thinks the SLK remains bespoke ladies’ transportation should perhaps drive the top-of-the-range SLK 55 AMG, which is simply one of the best-balanced (mind-blowing) AMG cars available – and that’s saying something. At first glance, you might doubt that a small car with a big atmo V8 shoved up its snout, and rear-drive, would do anything particularly well – apart from accelerate. (Think: Shelby Cobra.) A short squirt up an engaging, winding road will cure that view. It is simply brilliant, at everything from steering and (fade-proof) braking to cornering and (of course) accelerating.
Having spent the best part of a week doing exactly that in an SLK 55 in the mountainous hinterland between Kingscliff in northern NSW and the Queensland Gold Coast, I can tell you it's one of the most satisfying AMG cars I've ever driven. Maybe not the fastest, but almost certainly the most fun.
The SLK 55 AMG is one of the few AMG cars you can buy that give you the added bonus of 3D ‘surround sound’ effect of the roof down coupled with glorious exhaust bellow and atmo V8 induction roar. It’s hard to imagine 265kW ever sounding better than that. When you add 510Nm to the miraculous and silky smooth paddle-shifted 7G-TRONIC seven-speed auto, you get immense grunt everywhere – especially exiting corners like you’re wearing the red-and-blue Spandex from Krypton. After a week spent doing that, it’s hard to go back to an ordinary mortal’s car – even a good one. Going back to your own car after a week in an AMG is just like walking forwards to business class (easy) and then, later, back to economy (heart-breaking).
The bottom line is that the SLK 55 AMG is one of the purest and most enjoyable driving experiences available. Few cars on the road can match its performance, few people will ever experience it, and few drivers can operate at a level that exploits all of the car’s massive performance potential.
Having said that, it’s debatable whether the SLK 55 AMG is especially good value. On paper, it appears that less is more – or, at least, less costs more. See, the Mercedes-Benz C 63 AMG is almost $30k cheaper, plus more prodigious on the performance front with 71 additional kilowatts and 90 more Newton-metres – that’s 27 per cent more power and 18 per cent more torque in a car weighing just 10 per cent more. Also, it’s more blokey to look at, and you get three extra seats plus luggage space…
Incongruously, an Mercedes-Benz ML 63 AMG SUV is slightly cheaper than the SLK 55 AMG’s hefty $180k-esque pricetag. And you could probably drive right over the top of an SLK 55 in it.
There are, of course, numerous ways to carve up the value equation: The Mercedes SLK 55 AMG is about $45k cheaper than the base-model Porsche 911 Carerra, a car that it dead-heats with from 0-100km/h, and which is (let’s be frank) much less pleasant to drive daily. The Benz is the fully loaded 'works burger' model, whereas the more expensive Porsche remains the 'poverty pack' in the range.
On the minus side, the Mercedes SLK’s ride quality right across the range isn’t that compliant, and the SLK 200 Kompressor entry-level model is anything but inspirational (or aspirational). The supercharged SLK 200 Kompressor is (and sounds) asthmatic – more like a rolling wheeze, compared with the SLK 55’s impressive bellow – and yet this entry-level model still manages to cost more than $90k. That’s about $50k for the car and $40k for the three-pointed stars. Or maybe the other way around. With 125kW inside a 1400kg body, you’re looking at the same kind of yawn-inducing power-to-weight ratio as a Toyota Camry (not an exaggeration). A six-speed manual is the standard transmission offering on SLK 200 K, with a five-speed auto optional – certainly the ‘hairdresser’ driveline in the range. Overall, the entry-level SLK is simply an example of getting the style without the substance.
Up against, say, the entry-level BMW Z4, the SLK 200 K trades off 25kW, is line-ball on peak torque, and costs $5k more. The base-model Z4 is a full second quicker to 100km/h. If you’re operating at this sort of pricepoint, it’s a pretty simple decision – provided your head (and not your heart) is doing the deciding.
Two V6 engines are available in the SLK range – a 3.0-litre with 170kW and 300Nm and a 3.5-litre with 224kW and 360Nm. Frankly, these are both showing their age – especially the 3.0. Its outputs are so close to Holden’s 3.0 V6 (190kW and 290Nm) that it’s just not funny. It’s more refined, obviously, but hardly a happy example of engineering excellence to be Benz … with GM nipping at the heels on your small V6 output from an equivalent displacement. The 7G-TRONIC auto is standard on the 3.0 V6 (no manual is available), while it’s optional on the 3.5 (on which a six-speed manual is standard).
The V6 SLK models are sportier than most owners will ever need – but the pricepoints overlap key competitors like the Z4 and Porsche Boxster/Cayman. If you’re in the market for a mid-range SLK, you’d best test drive equivalents from these other Euro sportscars for head-to-head comparison. And if you just want the super-cool folding roof … maybe you’d rather have the Volkswagen Eos, and a nice, long holiday in Europe?
Incongruously, the SLK 300 and 55 AMG ride on 18-inch alloys but the standard wheels for the other models are 17s. All the models except the AMG will run happily on 95RON fuel. All models feature warning buzzers for lights left on, park brake applied while driving and low fluid levels, plus a brake pad wear indicator.
The SLK’s interior is – almost – an ergonomic triumph. It’s overwhelmingly comfortable for such a body-hugging experience. The controls are generally instinctive – and it’s nice to see the transmission shifter on the transmission hump, and not sprouting from the steering column where it competes with the indicator stalk on some other Benz models. The seats are magnificently supportive, especially on the SLK 55 AMG, and the wheel with flat bottom and paddles is also a delight. The ‘Airscarf’ feature, which is optional on some models, and standard heated seats mean you’ll be able to drive with the top down and the exhaust bellowing even in the coldest months in relative comfort.
However, the trip-meter would have seen me ripping my hair out (if I still had any above my neck). If zeroing it is an intelligence test, I failed. After picking the car up from valet parking in Brisbane I needed to zero the trip. Ten minutes later, I'm still trying (and failing) to manage this simple task. Okay, so at this point I admit defeat and attempt to find owner’s manual (also a ‘fail’). I call Mercedes-Benz – they don’t know either. Fifteen minutes later, it transpires that the owner’s manual isn’t in the glovebox, the boot or the door pockets. It’s in a mesh pocket against the transmission tunnel in the passenger’s footwell – where you can’t see it from the driver’s seat. Even if you lean over. In the ‘hidden’ owner’s manual you discover that the zeroing controls for the trip meter are on the outer left edge of the speedo binnacle – where you also can’t see them from the driver’s seat. This is the kind of event that will only do your head in once, obviously, but it’s a major confusion catalyst that first (and only) time. You've been warned.
The base model SLK 200 K gets a basic sound system with six-CD in-dash changer and a five-inch colour screen, plus iPod/USB/3.5mm audio inputs and Bluetooth (for phone only). Full leather is standard, plus central locking with crash-sensing opening function. There are four airbags: dual fronts and head/thorax hybrid side bags for driver and passenger. The external mirrors are heated, there are what Benz calls chrome tailpipe “embellishers” and an infrared remote for the roof.
If you step up to the SLK 300 you get AMG external garnish on the body and the 18-inch wheels, plus the COMMAND APS 6.5-inch screen with HDD navigation, voice control, 4Gb of onboard music storage and a single CD/DVD MP3/AAC disc player. And there’s a memory package for the seats that includes automatic retraction of the steering wheel for getting in and out of the car.
The SLK 350 gets the COMMAND APS system with six CD/DVD player in the dash, plus an SD card slot – as well as the Airscarf as standard.
SLK 55 AMG is the ‘works burger’ of 2005-esque specifications – with bespoke seats, suspension, brakes, body garnish, bi-xenon lighting and alarm with anti-tow-away provision – although if you can afford this model you could probably also probably hire a minder with an Uzi to watch over the car on those few occasions you’re required to leave it in an otherwise insecure location.
Then there are the options: the 'sports package' and 'AMG sports package' ... but these are only applicable to the SLK 200 and SLK 350. Both the SLK 300 and SLK 55 AMG already come fully loaded in the 'sex me up' department. However, there are ways to spend even more money on all the models if you want. The Airscarf, for example, is optional on SLK 200 and 300, and the only model with standard auto-dimming mirrors is the SLK 55 - they're optional in the other models. Same applies to the 'luxury climate control', and the beefier Harman/Kardon Logic7 surround sound system. If you want the 55 and feel like spending more money, you can buy the suit carrier. lumbar support for the driver's seat, a bag moulded to the contours of the boot, and a bunch of other leather and wood accoutrements, which are generally optional on the 'lesser' SLK models as well.
The R171 SLK is, frankly, showing its age. It lacks, for example, Bluetooth audio streaming, wheels bigger than 18-inchers in the options catalogue, proximity keys, xenon lighting across the range – in other words a bunch of other features becoming increasingly commonplace on Japanese cars costing less than half the price of the base model. And it has already had its mid-life makeover, so these enhancements are unlikely to be forthcoming until SLK R172 breaks cover in Australia around mid-2011.
The R171 model Mercedes SLK is currently in its twilight years, and being sold into a very fashion-conscious segment of the market – against newer, sexier entrants from BMW and Porsche. Perhaps this is why sales have tanked – back in the halcyon days of 2005 the Mercedes SLK enjoyed 927 annual sales. Last year, sales totalled just 338 – a drop of 64 per cent. If you can find a dealer who’s been lumbered with a hard-to-shift example in the 'nursing home' corner of the showroom, you might enjoy something of a bargain on an unofficial runout example of what is essentially a fine, if ageing, car – albeit one still at a relatively high price point.