Still a head-turner, and now dressed to the sixes.
by Sue Mead
Vermont's green mountains blur into a rich palette of summer as I motor along Route 7 north of Bennington, Vt. An occasional patch of yellow or red is the harbinger of fall, which will soon come to New England. As I shift into sixth gear and settle in for a smooth and tranquil high-speed run up this straight stretch of macadam, I recognize that at-peace-with-the-world feeling that motorcar enthusiasts get when the day is good and the ride is great... and the top is down.
It's been three years since Mercedes Benz introduced its SLK roadster, a 230 version that turned heads because of its attractive styling and its unique retractable hardtop. At the time, criticisms chiefly centered around its buzzy four-cylinder engine, which had its work cut out for it with 3000 pounds of metal to propel. To make matters worse, its 185 horses were available only by way of an automatic transmission, consistent with the rest of the Mercedes-Benz lineup, but inconsistent with the sporty image of the SLK's design. The resultant driving experience was pleasant, solid and intimate, but its performance image and feel was clearly a tad compromised.
Witnessing the sporty roadster market filling up with BMW's, Audis and Porsches that were more exciting to drive - for a similar amount of money - Mercedes did something about it. Welcome to the 320, the latest version SLK with this German automaker's potent 3.2-liter V-6 under the hood, which makes a considerably more robust 215 horsepower. And, to add to its fun-to-drive quotient, Mercedes-Benz made optional a six-speed manual transmission, the first stick shift the German carmaker has put in a production Benz in decades.
The supercharged four is still standard fare for the SLK, but is offered at about $2000 less. Its four-cylinder also gets a stick-shift option, but with only five forward gears instead of six.
The six is the same 18-valve (or three valves per cylinder) unit used in the CLK320, E320 and new C320 sedan. If you know your Mercedes, you know that, in the SLK, this engine makes a bit less power than in the E-Class, but the same as in the others.
Regardless, this versatile powerplant is a healthy step up in horsepower, and a huge leap forward in refinement. Gone is the busy whir of the supercharged four-cylinder; and in its place is a deep, pleasant exhaust note and smooth, on-command power. Fuel economy drops a bit to an EPA-rated 20/27 mpg city/highway with the manual tranny, from the 21/31 of the four-cylinder.
Inside, the SLK has undergone a less extensive, but equally impressive update. Gone is the tacky-looking faux carbon fiber trim on the dashboard and center console. In its place is machined aluminum on the four-cylinder models, and polished burl walnut veneer on the six-cylinder SLK.
The wood theme continues on the tastefully-rendered steering wheel and shift knob. The leather seats are still firm, but now have more support than found in past SLKs. Polished aluminum-rimmed gauges carry on with the elegant black-on-ivory theme that we've grown to love. The wind blocker net that slips over the headrests has nothing on the rollup glass unit on the Audi TT roadster, but then again, no sports car on the road has anything on the SLK's attention-getting, weatherproof, retractable hardtop. Suspension comes by way of double wishbones up front and five links at the rear, with anti-roll bars at both ends.
Safety remains stellar on all SLKs. The four-wheel discs are enhanced not only with anti-lock control, but with Brake Assist, a system which detects the speed at which the driver depresses the pedal, and if it is a decidedly panic situation, full braking force is applied faster than is humanly possible. Dual front and side airbags, reinforced A-pillars, integrated rollover bars and the BabySmart child safety seat recognition system ensure maximum crash protection for occupants of all ages.
Visually, there is no difference between the SLK320 and the four-cylinder with the AMG-tuned Sport package. It is unmistakably Mercedes, with the wedge profile and familiar front-end shapes seen on many a Benz before. Body-color everything and subtle ground effects contribute to a road-hugging appearance, and the seventeen-inch AMG wheels look like you consulted the best of the aftermarket catalogs while ordering the car. Clear-lens turn signal and reverse lamps dress things up from the rear, as do the mirror-mounted turn signals from the front.
2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK320
Base price: $43,900
Engine: 3.2-liter SOHC V-6, 215 hp, 229 lb-ft
Transmission: five-speed automatic or six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 94.5 in
Length x width x height: 157.9 in/67.5 in/50.4 in
Weight: 3124 lb
Fuel economy: 20/27 mpg
Major standard features: Power accessories, power retractable hardtop, burl walnut trim, dual zone climate control, wind blocker
Major options: Metallic paint, heated seats, digital StarTAC telephone/CD Changer, Sport package
Warranty: Four years /50,000 miles
© 2000 The Car Connection