COAL: 2006 Mercedes-Benz SLK 280 – The Keeper

So remember that Audi TT Roadster that I so impulsively purchased in my last COAL? Truth be told, it was a bit of an experiment. I wasn’t sure how much use it would actually get, or if Kristen would even like it. At $6K, it was a relatively modest experiment, and if worse came to worse, I could always flip it for close to what I bought it for. Well, I needn’t have worried, because The Roadster (as we came to call it) got used almost constantly the summer that we owned it.

Because I had gotten it on the cheap, the TT was not without its flaws. Some of these flaws were intrinsic to the design first generation TT, which I’ve already covered on my COAL for this car. However, many of the flaws were related to this particular example, and its relatively high mileage (120,000) and age. For starters, the top was worn out, and the glass was starting to separate from the fabric, which sometimes admitted a little water and noise. The tires were worn, and the front suspension was making funny noises coming around the tie rods.

But more to the point, the TT Roadster was lacking in some of the comforts I had come accustomed to in my other cars. As it turns out, my TT was fully loaded, with just about every option available, including Bose sound system, heated seats, HID headlights, and automatic climate control. However, many of the conveniences I had gotten used to, like power seats, dual-zone climate control , auto dimming mirrors and power tilt/telescoping steering wheel were notable by their absence.

But by far the biggest issue was the six-speed transmission was, especially after naively thinking that I could teach Kristen how to drive stick shift (spoiler: I couldn’t). So now I had two plaything cars (the TT and the Mark III), neither of which she could drive. She was understandably upset. So because of this this, and the fact that the TT roadster wanted to be a sports car when I was looking for more of a grand tourer, I started looking around for options to replace the TT in August of 2015.

Since my little TT Roadster experiment proved so successful, I decided I could increase my budget the second time around and get something a little newer and better. The basic parameters of my search were the same as before (two seat Roadster), albeit with an automatic. I also wanted a something quieter, more usable and secure with the top up. What I wanted was a retractable hardtop. And while the BMW Z4 and Mazda Miata (I refuse to call it MX-5) were both available with a retractable hardtop, what I really wanted was an SLK.

 

 

One small problem: Finding a decent, good-priced second-hand SLK in a northern state like Ohio is akin to buying a snowmobile in Florida. For starters, new SLK owners hold on to their cars a long time. According to a recent Cars.com article, the SLK is #4 in the list of cars longest held by their original owners, at 9 years. (#1 is the Toyota Land Cruiser, at 10.6 years, just in case you are curious). When you combine this with the fact that Cleveland is not a great convertible market to begin with, you see the dilemma that I faced. As of right now, there are exactly 14 SLK’s for sale on Cars.com within a 100 mile radius of my house. Of those 14, only three are the second-generation R171 body style I was looking for. The rest are either first generation R170 (too old), or third generation R172 (too new and therefore expensive).  Compare this to the  1,661 Camrys, and 4,886 F-150s for sale within the same search radius, and you start to see the magnitude of my challenge.

So I kept expanding my search until I found a 2006 SLK 280 at a Volvo dealership in Annapolis, Maryland (about a 400 mile drive away). This car had everything I was looking for – It was not fully loaded, but it was better equipped than the TT, and optioned well enough for me. It was black, with a red leather interior (something I had always wanted). I negotiated the price and trade of the TT via email and phone, essentially agreeing to buy their car on the basis of some photos, while they agreed to take the TT on trade the same way. Keep in mind that at this point, I had never actually driven an SLK, and I was about to buy one sight unseen.

 

Kristen and I figured that labor day weekend gave us just enough time to drive up to Annapolis in the TT, test drive the SLK, hope that we liked it and that there was nothing wrong with it, and boogie back home before I had to be back to work on Tuesday.

Fortunately, when we got to the dealership and drove the car, it exceeded our expectations. It was smoother, more comfortable, more powerful, and generally more relaxed than the TT Roadster. It had a few minor problems (broken passenger power seat switch, broken passenger side dash vent), but these would be easily dealt with later. Other than that, all the accessories worked perfectly. We drove the SLK the 400 mile trip back to Cleveland without incident.

The SLK is much more livable than the TT was, top up and top down. The retractable hardtop affords much larger rear and side windows than a conventional soft top (and even some small rear quarter windows), which makes it feel much less claustrophobic inside with top up. Indeed, the design requirements of a retractable top dictate that the glass area be as large as possible, in order to reduce the storage space required by the roof section. The hardtop also provides much better temperature and sound insulation, making it almost as quiet as a conventional closed car on the freeway.

 

 

The top stows neatly under the trunk lid when it goes down, with no fussy tonneau cover to deal with. Yes, this reduces the already small trunk by about half when the top is down, but since we rarely carry more than an overnight bag, this is not a problem. The front windshield is much more steeply raked than that of the TT: It terminates almost at your forehead, providing much better wind protection with the top down. And while there is no power wind blocker like there was on the TT, the higher rear end and higher overall beltline means that one isn’t really necessary to control backdrafts. Plus, a massively powerful air conditioning system means that I can have the top down when it is 80+ degrees out without breaking a sweat.

 

Nifty red leather interior

 

I really only have two issues with this car. First, the 16″ wheels that came with the SLK 280 tires look a little undersized: I plan on addressing this in the next year or two when the current tires wear out by installing a set of 17″ or 18″ wheels and tires from a SLK 350 or SLK 55.

The other is that there really is no such thing as a cheap used German car. The list of work I’ve had to have done on the car over the past year and a half is long: Engine mounts, intake manifold air lever, transmission conductor plate (all of which are known weaknesses for this car). But hey, that’s the cost of playing in this realm.

 

An homage to the TT RDSTR plate on our previous roadster.

Our SLK has been exceedingly wonderful, as we head into our second summer with it. It is our fifth family member, much in the manner that my family’s 1971 Buick was a generation earlier. This one is a keeper.

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