Curbside Capsule: 1997-2004 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class – A Drop Top Mic Drop

While you weren’t paying attention, Mercedes-Benz revealed a Final Edition of their SLC (nèe SLK) roadster. After three generations, the axe appears to have finally fallen on the folding-hardtop convertible that inspired so many imitators.

The SLC is one victim in what may be a cull of Mercedes’ slower-selling models, with some of their other convertibles and possibly coupes also falling victim. Likewise, BMW is thinning their herd, with reports the newly redesigned Z4 won’t survive another generation. At least BMW’s planned cull also includes less desirable models like the 2-Series Active Tourer and 3-Series GT.

Fiscally speaking, it’s hard to argue with Mercedes’ decision to axe the SLC. In the US, the SLK was never a huge seller; in its first (R170) generation, it typically sold around 10k units annually while in its third, it manages less than half that. The decline has been even more precipitous in Europe. For the first few years of the first-generation model, sales were over 30k per year. In the past few years, Mercedes has been lucky to reach a third of that tally.

At the time of the first-generation’s launch, a retractable hardtop convertible was a novel if not entirely original concept. The format had been done before – as long ago as 40 years before – but the SLK was designed specifically to be a retractable hardtop convertible. It first debuted in thinly-disguised concept form in 1994 and entered production in late 1996.

At the time, the only convertibles with power folding hardtops were the moribund Mitsubishi 3000GT/GTO Spyder and some Japanese-market versions of the Honda del Sol. Once they were gone, Mercedes had the niche cornered until the new century rolled around. Then came a deluge of cars with trick roofs, from luxury brands (BMW, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus, Volvo) to mainstream ones (Ford, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, to name a few). And why not? For all the extra weight and complexity, the concept had merit. You had all the benefits of a convertible with the extra security of a metal top, as well as potentially more structural rigidity and greater refinement.

Many of those imitators were poorly proportioned, with giant, bulging butts to make room for the roof panels. The SLK, however, showed how it was done. It was neatly proportioned and looked equally good top up or down. While the second-generation model aped the Mercedes-McLaren SLR and the third-generation was a 7/10ths copy of the SL, the first SLK had a distinctive style of its own and, in my eyes, has aged better than many other Mercedes models of this era.

Critics were immediately enamoured with it. It won North American Car of the Year for 1997 and immediately landed on Car & Driver’s 10Best list. It was lauded for its top, which took just 25 seconds to retract. Its adroit handling was similarly praised, the SLK riding the same platform as the C-Class albeit with a shortened floorpan. Nevertheless, contemporary reviews stopped short of saying the SLK was truly sporty.

A common refrain was that its steering was sharp but lacked feel and that the steering wheel was too big, while the gutsy Kompressor fours weren’t exactly mellifluous and the comfortable ride came at the expense of some road feel. Overall, however, critics the world over were impressed with how comfortable and solid the little Benz felt and it could still be hustled, even if a Porsche Boxster had the edge in thrills. In the US, too, the Benz and the Boxster were priced almost identically in the late 90s at around $40k; the BMW Z3 range, conversely, started a significant $10k lower.

Although it was similar in size to the Mazda Miata/MX-5, the SLK weighed upwards of 800 pounds more (though the roof itself weighed only 70). The SLK did, however, come with a raft of more powerful engines than the cheaper Mazda. Depending on the market, there was a naturally-aspirated 2.0 four (134 hp, 140 ft-lbs), as well as supercharged Kompressor 2.0 and 2.3 mills. Both produced almost exactly the same horsepower (189 vs. 190 hp) but the 2.3 had the edge in torque (199 vs. 207 ft-lbs). There was a choice of five- and six-speed manuals and a five-speed automatic.

Those seeking more power had to wait until the dawn of the new century. The SLK320 brought the first six-cylinder engine to the line, producing 215 hp and 229 ft-lbs. Shortly thereafter came the first AMG-fettled SLK, the SLK32 AMG. It used the same V6 engine but with the addition of a supercharger, bumping outputs up to 349 hp and 332 ft-lbs. That was a whopping 100 more horses than a Porsche Boxster S and 107 more pound-feet of torque.

Though these bigger engines weren’t available with a manual transmission, they came standard with a five-speed automatic with a then-novel manual-shift function. By the time the SLK32 launched, however, the underlying platform was beginning to show its age. That was especially clear when it was driven back-to-back with the new C32 AMG, which used the same engine but a new platform.

The following generation of SLK would be more overtly sporty but it didn’t lose the poise and polish of the first generation. Shortly after its replacement, the first SLK was resurrected as the Chrysler Crossfire, though it wore new, polarizing sheetmetal and lost its folding metal hardtop for either a fixed one or a folding soft-top.

The first SLK took a different approach to the BMW Z3 but, in the end, both their successors have suffered at the hands of the market. The latest Z4 was co-developed with Toyota and, were it not for that tie-up, it likely never would have been introduced. When the market was more receptive to this kind of compact, premium convertible, however, the SLK stood tall. And it deserves credit for inspiring so, so many imitators, even if those imitators have mostly all disappeared.

Related Reading:

My (Ex) Curbside Classic: 1999 BMW Z3M Coupe – Love Hurts

COAL: 2006 Mercedes-Benz SLK 280 – The Keeper