New SLK 320 comes with big V6 engine.

by Jim McCraw

Base Price (MSRP) $38,900
As Tested (MSRP) $44,495

The Mercedes-Benz SLK has undergone a major makeover for the 2001 model year. Mercedes has redesigned the exterior, completely redesigned the interior, and, for the first time, is offering a wider choice of engines and transmissions. New for 2001 is the SLK 320, which comes with a powerful V6 engine.

All this comes at attractive prices when compared to its chief competitors in the marketplace: the Porsche Boxster, the new Audi TT roadster, the BMW Z3 2.8 and the Honda S2000. This may help Mercedes to maintain the SLK's position as the best-selling roadster in its class, worldwide.

The 2001 SLK 230 Kompressor retails for $38,900, down from $41,000 in 2000. The 2001 SLK 320 retails for $43,900. Both offer impressive lists of standard equipment.

Model Lineup

All SLK models are two-seat roadsters with a full power folding steel weatherproof top.

The original SLK 230 Kompressor, with its supercharged 2.3-liter 190-horsepower four-cylinder engine, becomes the base model from now on. It offers the buyer a choice of either a new 6-speed manual gearbox (that replaces the 5-speed manual) or a 5-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted like a manual.

New for 2001 is the SLK 320, which packs a much stronger 3.2-liter V6 engine. This same engine powers the much larger and heavier E 320 sedan and generates 215 horsepower, nearly 15 percent more than the SLK 230's four-cylinder engine.

Walkaround

The Mercedes-Benz SLK sports a completely new look for 2001. Mercedes launched its SLK three model years ago. Comparing the 2001 model to the 2000 model, this new design offers much more visual appeal than the stubby, relatively tall 2000 model - whether you opt for the SLK 230 or new SLK 320.

A much more aggressive front spoiler and grille design and a smoothed-out profile makes the car look much, much lower to the ground than the original design did. At the same time, a heftier-looking rear bumper and tail lamp combination give the car a more substantial look. Handles, moldings and mirrors are all painted the same color as the body for a more unified look. Large turn signal repeater lamps built into the rear view mirror housings let other drivers know of your intentions. Under the sexy new skin, the frame has been thickened and reinforced to provide even higher levels of offset frontal crash protection. A larger fuel tank extends the SLK's range.

Slightly different front spoiler designs distinguish the SLK 230 Kompressor from the SLK 320. SLK 230 comes with seven-spoke alloy wheels, while SLK 320 runs with sporty five-spoke wheels.

For those who want to drive a car like no other, Mercedes-Benz offers its special designo (deh-zeen-yo) customizing options: 10 metallic paint and 12 leather colors than can be mixed and matched however you want. Also available later in the year will be a special high-performance AMG version with special wheels, tires and body trim.

Interior Features

The original SLK interior used a combination of deliberately retro instrument faces, black on white, with a modern carbon fiber dashboard and console covering.

That design has been abandoned in favor of standard machined aluminum interior trim for the SLK 230 with a beefy new steering wheel design and a new floor shifter design. The SLK 230 offers the option of much warmer, much cozier wood trim in either brown eucalyptus or black bird's-eye maple finishes.

The wood trim is standard on the more expensive SLK 320, along with its own special leather-and-wood steering wheel design. Power seats and the telescoping steering wheel are standard equipment on the SLK 320, along with special aluminum step plates on the doorsills emblazoned with V6 emblems.

Mercedes redesigned the seats to offer more comfort to more customers. They provide more lateral support to keep you in place is fast cornering. They also look different than the old seats. The SLK 320 comes standard with electric adjusters that provide a greater range of adjustment than manual ones. From our vantage point in the 95th percentile, we found the seats much more comfortable than the old ones.

The seats have electronic systems that can tell when there is a passenger present, and can tell when a child seat has been installed, automatically disabling the right-side air bag system.

Taller and larger drivers may find the SLK cockpit on the small side with the power top in place. But 25 seconds after you pull back on the red button, the top is completely stowed away under its steel cover in the trunk and the car is transformed into an aggressive roadster.

On the other hand, you may have to rearrange your luggage when the top is stowed away in the trunk. The SLK leaves just 5.1 cubic feet of luggage space when the top is stowed. Even when the top is up, there's just 12.3 cubic feet of cargo space. That's small by sedan standards but comparable to the trunk space found in the BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster and Honda S2000.

Driving Impressions

The first thing you notice about the SLK 320 after the new interior decor is that wonderful new sound when the engine starts. Mercedes designed the exhaust system to give the V6 version a distinctive, throaty exhaust note that adds measurably to the fun of driving the car without being too loud.

The new 6-speed manual transmission is far, far superior in shifting ease and feel to the old 5-speed manual, with the added bonus of one more gear for much quieter, smoother and easier highway cruising. The transmission is almost perfectly suited to the power and torque characteristics of the engine, and we would recommend it over the automatic for sheer driving fun. The automatic is no slouch in this department, however; the automatic's TouchShift manual shifting mode is very quick and precise.

The SLK 320 is terrific fun to drive, in part because it is short and relatively light and now has a lot of power and lots of gears to choose. While the SLK 230 is a sporty car, the SLK 320 is a sports car. The supercharged 4-cylinder engine in the SLK 230 runs out of steam pretty early, but the V6 just keeps going, and sounds less labored doing it.

In either case, you get anti-lock brakes with Mercedes' Electronic Brake Assist, traction control, and Electronic Stability Program, all of which will keep a driver out of trouble in wet, snowy or muddy conditions or when cornering at very high speeds on dry pavement. (Experienced drivers can switch ESP off for autocross and racetrack events, but all other systems are constant.)

New front and rear stabilizer bars keep the car from lolling around in corners, and the suspension has been modified to lower the car a full half-inch for better handling as well. But the SLK quickly reaches the limits of the relatively small tires that come standard. Larger 225/45-17 front and 245/40-17 rear tires are optional for the performance driver.

Drivers of the new SLK will not only feel a vastly increased performance envelope in terms of acceleration and handling, they will be getting greater levels of safety and communications built into the price of the car.

Front and side air bags are standard in all models for 2001. Also standard is TeleAid, an emergency communications system that puts you in touch with a help center via cellular telephone and pinpoints your location via the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system.

Final Word

The new Mercedes-Benz SLK 320 fits comfortably in the new world of German roadsters. It doesn't accelerate as quickly nor does it have the top-end speed of the Porsche Boxster, but the SLK is more comfortable and less expensive. It is not as sexy as the BMW Z3 2.8 is, but it has a bigger engine. It costs more the new Audi TT roadster, but it's far prettier and performs better. It has a weatherproof automatic steel top, where the Porsche and the BMW offer optional metal tops that you have to store in the garage.

This new Mercedes is a much-improved roadster, whether you're looking at the SLK 230 Kompressor or the sporty SLK 320 V6. It's better looking, more fun to drive, safer and substantially better equipped than last year's single-model lineup.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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