1999 Mercedes-Benz SLK
True sports car enthusiasts assert that true sports cars must have manual transmissions. A shift-it-yourself gearbox can indeed be a major plus when the primary goal is having fun behind the wheel. The installation of a five-speed manual in the Mercedes-Benz SLK for 1999 silences the purists and does much to raise the little two-seater’s fun quotient.
Among two-seat roadsters, the SLK has two rivals in price, performance and features-the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster. The Audi TT will soon join these three. All are impressive, all fit into a fairly narrow price window centered in the low-$40,000 arena, all are well-equipped, and all promise as much over-the-road fun as most drivers can stand. Each carries a company name synonymous with quality, engineering and performance. Each comes from a company with plenty of sports car-building experience.
Even without the three-pointed star, it would be difficult to mistake the SLK for anything but a Mercedes-Benz. It is short but sleek, with a chunky, purposeful look. Nice touches include the faired-in aerodynamic headlights, steeply raked windshield, large rear light clusters, and bumpers tucked tightly against the body. Seven-spoke aluminum alloy wheels-carrying different-size tires front and rear-fill the wheel openings, contributing to the SLK’s purposeful appearance.
But the SLK’s most obvious and unusual exterior feature is its power-operated hardtop. It is standard equipment and, being integrated into the car, eliminates the need for a soft top. Five hydraulic cylinders fed from a trunk-mounted pump raise and lower the lid when the driver operates a single switch. When the top is being lowered, side windows retract, latches on the windshield header are released, the trunk lid is raised backward, the roof folds into two halves and slides into its bay, and the trunk lid closes. Naturally, raising the top involves the same steps in reverse. It’s a clever piece of engineering. What makes it more impressive is the fact that there is still some usable trunk space when the top is lowered-not much, but still about as much as a Mazda Miata offers when its top is up.
Although there are a couple of engine choices in Europe, the SLK is offered in the U.S. as a single model, fully equipped, with a mere handful of options listed. Among them are a five-speed automatic transmission ($900), heated seats ($595), metallic paint ($600) and a CD changer/portable phone combo ($1595). A new $3990 Sport Package was introduced for 1999 that includes stylish front and rear fascias, side sills and a more assertive wheel/tire package.
Climb inside the SLK and suddenly it’s 1955 again. Mercedes-Benz interior stylists have unabashedly opted for a retro look to the cozy cockpit. The three circular instruments-one a speedometer, one a tachometer, and the other a combination fuel level/coolant temperature dial-have chrome rings around ivory faces with black numerals and red needles. Shiny accents are applied in numerous places, and a two-tone effect combines black dashboard top, door panels, seat sides, glove box lid and center console with contrasting trim in the buyer’s choice of red, blue, dark gray or light gray.
But there is nothing old-fashioned about the SLK’s safety features. Beyond dual front and side airbags, Mercedes has developed separate rollover bars behind driver and passenger. A circuit has been added to the airbag system that detects a child’s seat mounted in the passenger side and disables the dash-mounted bag in front of it.
The seats, too, are modern as can be. No vintage sports car ever had such comfortable and supportive seats. And no open car of the past protected its occupants from the wind as well the SLK’s mesh wind deflector, which fits over the rollover bars.
All controls are located in clusters for easy use. Air conditioning and a fine Bose six-speaker sound system are standard. The entire interior is finished off to the high quality level you’d expect to find in a Mercedes-Benz.
A few minutes behind the wheel makes it clear that the SLK’s biggest asset is a nearly inexhaustible supply of driving pleasure. The S in the model name denotes Sport, and deservedly so. The SLK is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.4 seconds with a top speed of 143 mph. But the fun comes from much more than its impressive straight-line speed. The key word in assessing the car’s fun quotient is balance.
Though the L in SLK means Licht, or light, the SLK weighs in at 3000 pounds-not exactly a lightweight. But that’s on paper. On the road, it steers, stops, and goes around corners with far less coaxing than its heavier SL cousins. Indeed, it makes a good account of itself on a race track when measured against the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3. The all-independent suspension is tuned for flat cornering and precise handling, and delivers exactly that, while providing a ride that won’t rattle your teeth. Driver and passenger will be as relaxed at the end of an all-day drive as they were at its beginning and, if there were a few twists and turns along the way, the driver will likely sport an ear-to-ear grin. The antilock brakes and electronic traction control system perform flawlessly.
The third component in the model designation, K, really means Kurz, or short, but for U.S. versions it can be said to stand for Kompressor, or supercharger. Without its supercharger, the SLK wouldn’t be nearly as peppy. The mechanical supercharger forces air into the Mercedes 2.3-liter twin-cam 16-valve 4-cylinder engine. A version of the same engine (also supercharged for 1999) is used in the Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan. A variety of high-tech features work with this blower to make the engine both powerful and responsive. Peak power-191 horsepower-is impressive, but the key to this engine’s willingness to play is a wide band of peak torque, available from 2500 to 4800 rpm.
Behind the engine is a five-speed manual transmission that shifts easily and has just the right gear ratios for enthusiastic driving. The five-speed automatic is just as nice in its own way, featuring adaptive electronics that monitor driving style and tailor the shift time and speed to suit. In the enthusiast-driving mode, for example, the five-speed automatic will shift at the engine’s peak power; and it will not shift up into a higher gear when the car is slowed for a corner, keeping it in a lower gear for smoother, better performance coming out of the corner. In more sedate use, it changes gears with remarkable smoothness. Order the manual gearbox anyway. Be a real sports car enthusiast.
Perfection? Not quite. While the muted whine of the supercharger will be music to some, the exhaust note has a slightly agricultural quality to it. We also found a little more engine vibration than we’d like at cruising speeds.
Many of us have a soft spot in our hearts for traditional sports cars. In quantifiable ways, the new breed, as exemplified by the SLK, is better. Safer, faster, and more environmentally friendly, they represent a high point in automotive design. Mercedes-Benz has put a lot of value into the SLK, from basic design to sophisticated powertrain to all the standard comfort and convenience features.
Currently there are two-and soon there will be three-other Teutonic roadsters, each with its own personality. Buyers choose sports cars by subjective measurements. But if you are interested in any of these sports cars we strongly recommend spending some time with the SLK before making a final decision. The SLK is an impressive achievement, and now meets the purists’ criteria for a real sports car.