Sporty Benz In From The Cold
Saturday August 12, 2000
The SLK's foldaway hard-top and V6 power impress Toby Hagon.
It's hard to gauge exactly how many people buy a convertible sports car for the looks and how many buy it for the wind-in-your-hair performance. For many, it would no doubt be a combination of both.
Performance does, however, seem an increasingly more important factor when it comes to forking out big dollars on what is, after all, a fairly impractical two-seater. Even if it's just to know what the car is capable of.
So, Mercedes-Benz has finally got serious about its SLK roadster. When it arrived in 1997, the SLK230 was immediately labelled as being a fantastic looker, but a little soft when it came to the driving experience. The addition of a dull 2.0-litre engine (in the SLK200) later that year did nothing to help the cause.
Now the 2.0-litre engine has been given a major boost, thanks to the addition of a supercharger, which forces more air into the engine to give more power. Plus, the car is also available for the first time with the option of a six-speed manual transmission, an option that's also available on the supercharged SLK230.
And standing proud at the top of the range is the SLK320, which, as the name implies, comes with a 3.2-litre V6 engine - the same engine that is also used in other Benzes, including the big S-class limousine.
Logic would have it that once you throw a decent engine like Benz's V6 into such a small vehicle, there would be a very beneficial effect on performance. And so there has been, even with the podgy 1405kg kerb weight. Mercedes claims the SLK320 is good for a 0-100kmh best of 6.9 seconds, which is more than respectable.
Add to that a heap of mid-range urge (the SLK makes its peak torque of 310Nm from 3000rpm), and the V6-powered roadster is more than willing to move quite smartly. Although on three separate occasions our road test car went into a "limp-home" mode, where the engine just idled with almost no response to throttle inputs - not great fun in the middle of an intersection. The only fix was to restart the car.
While the V6 SLK is available with a manual transmission overseas, it is only sold here with a five-speed automatic. The ratios for the auto are well-spaced and most of the time it works very well, particularly with the manual selection. But sometimes it can be tripped up and thump into a gear.
Still, sports cars should be fast and fun because, after all, very few are practical. To drive, the SLK has gone a step further, trying to sharpen what was a reasonably soft driving experience. The suspension has been lowered by 5mm and firmed for more responsive handling, but it's still nowhere near as nimble and full of life as a Porsche Boxster, especially with the huge steering wheel.
The ride, though, should be commended and the SLK has a solidity that not many convertibles can match. With a larger fuel tank, the SLK should go further, too, before needing a top-up.
Other changes to the SLK are quite minor, such as styling enhancements, including more color coding of exterior components and new door mirrors, with the indicator built in.
Inside, the SLK still retains its classic, yet simple, layout. The gauges are clean and easy to read, although if you switch the now-standard ESP (electronic stability program) off you'll be blasted with an overly-bright orange light that makes focusing on the road difficult, particularly at night.
As with most Benzes, it is easy to name missing features: climate control air-conditioning, audio controls on the steering wheel and height adjustment for the steering column, for example. And electric seats cost another $2000. But there's more than enough to fiddle with, including a CD player, power windows and mirrors, cruise control and leather trim (with more supportive seats). Instead of woodgrain trim on the dash, there's an interesting metallic finish that perfectly matches the image of the car, although you can pay extra for woodgrain if that's not "you".
All that aside, the best bit of the SLK is unchanged, and that's the folding hard-top roof. You don't have to unlatch anything or move from your seat. Just push a button and in 30 seconds or so, it's all been folded into the boot. Brilliant, and the best bit is that it's perfect for long, cold winters.
When the roof is up, the SLK is just like a small coupe. There's a glass rear window, lined roof and much less wind and road noise than you'd get in a regular soft-top convertible. And you don't have to worry about people wanting to vandalise it.
About the only negative with the roof design is that it does away with more than half the boot space, turning an otherwise useful space into a token one.
So while the latest incarnation of Benz's funky SLK is a big step forward, it still doesn't provide the brilliant driving experience you'll get in a Porsche Boxster. But the Merc's V6 engine is definitely a step in the right direction.
NUTS 'n' BOLTS
MERCEDES-BENZ SLK 320
How much? $112,500 (auto)
Insurance: Premium $1120, $400 excess (RACV wholly-owned, driver 30 plus,
rating one, medium risk suburb)
Warranty: three years/unlimited km
Engine: 3.2-litre DOHC V6, 160kW at 5700rpm, 310Nm at 3000rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel-drive.
Steering: Recirculating ball, 3.0 turns lock to lock. Turning circle 10.6m.
Brakes: Ventilated discs front, discs rear, ABS.
Suspension: Double wishbone, stabiliser bar, front. Independent by multi-link, stabiliser bar, rear.
Wheels/Tyres: Alloy, 16 x 7.0-inch, 205/55, front. 16 x 8.0-inch, 225/50, rear.
How big? Length 4010mm, width 1947mm, height 1265mm, wheelbase 2400mm
How heavy? 1405kg
How thirsty? 11.1L/100km, premium unleaded recommended. Fuel tank 60 litres
Equipment: Airbags - yes, two front, two side; air-conditioning - yes; cruise control - yes; central locking - yes, remote; power mirrors - yes; power windows - yes; security - yes, immobiliser; sound system - radio/CD, four speakers; cup holders - yes, two
How it rates
For: Great folding roof, butch V6, well-built
Against: No manual, dull steering, ESP light
Porsche Boxster ****
5 Dream wheels 4 Better than average 3 On the ball 2 Just transport 1 Very ordinary.