COAL: 2016 Mercedes Benz SLK 300 – The Upgrade

A quick refresher is in order, as it’s been a few years since I COALed about this topic: I’ve always loved convertibles, and growing up my parents had a 1971 Buick LeSabre convertible that I racked up many miles (and smiles) in high and college cruising with my friends. After going without a convertible for most of my adult life, I decided on a lark to purchase a well-worn 2002 Audi TT roadster for $6,000 back in the spring of 2015. It proved to be so popular with my wife and kids that later that same summer I traded it in on a black 2006 Mercedes Benz SLK 280 that I have owned up until this day (well, until very recently).

Before going further, a word or two on my infatuation with two-seaters is in order, since I never really adequately explained it in my previous COAL posts. It seems particularly relevant in light of the current (COVID) times we live in.

A two-seater is the perfect pandemic and post-pandemic car, being the ultimate in social distancing. With no back seat, there is no room for kids, colleagues, or anyone else – it is just you and your bubble-mate. During the lockdown of 2020, putting the top down and going for a drive was one of the few outdoor pleasures I could still indulge in safely without wearing a mask.

Two seaters are intimate. One good-sized bag is about all that will fit in the trunk with the top down, necessitating that you and your travel companion’s clothes and toiletries share a single bag (and all the negotiations and compromise that entails). There’s no wide console or gaping chasm between you and your passenger, as there is in a minivan or SUV. Just a narrow armrest that you both must share. There is no taking a “time out” from your passenger by retreating to different rows. If you get in an argument, you work it out.

Two-seaters are a parent’s dream. Josh’s first car, an Audi TT, while technically a 2+2, effectively functioned as a two-seater, while my younger son drives my Crossfire, which is of course a true two-seater. The limited carrying capacity means that they were seldom asked chauffeur friends around when they were in high school. I didn’t have to worry about either one hauling a large number of kids (in violation of Ohio’s routinely violated graduated teenage drivers license laws) nor succumbing to group pressure to drive irresponsibly.

 

Out with the old…

Back to the car at hand: While we always thought we would keep the ’06 SLK 280 forever (I even referred to it as “The Keeper” in its COAL post) things, as they are wont to do, change. What started out as small annoyances a few years ago have become more pronounced as the years have worn on (for both me and the car).

For starters, the seats in my 2006 SLK are perhaps the most uncomfortable of any car I’ve ever owned (even if they are red leather, which my wife and I both love). The degree of discomfort seems to have only grown in the intervening years as both I and the car have gotten older. I’m sure that part of the blame can be ascribed to the 100,000+ miles of use this car has accumulated, but the design of the seats takes some blame as well. This is perhaps the only modern car I have ever owned without adjustable lumbar support, a surprising omission for a Mercedes-Benz. After perusing the online SLK forums, it seems that I wasn’t alone in my complaints about the seats in this generation of SLK. Several commenters have resorted to using pillows or rolled-up T-shirts for more padding and support. My advice if you are thinking of buying one – be sure to sit in it for more than a few minutes.

Furthermore, my second-generation (R171) SLK 280 was also a base model, sporting relatively few options – atypical of my automotive purchases. Specifically lacking were all-weather amenities like heated seats and air scarf (warm air vents in the seats that discharge onto your neck). According to the CarFAX, my SLK 280 was originally sold in Palm Springs, California, whose desert climate surely rendered these things as superfluous as snow tires. Unfortunately, I live far from Palm Springs in Cleveland, Ohio, and our convertible driving season is correspondingly short. For my next roadster, heated seats and air scarves were going to be a must, in an effort to eke out as much top-down driving time as possible.

Lastly, I’ve also had growing concerns about the reliability and longevity of the R171, which has a well-deserved reputation for being fragile. I’ve already had to address some of the weak spots, at considerable expense. But the most notorious weak spot, the balancer shaft sprocket gear, had yet to fail and was always handing over my head like a Sword of Damocles, waiting to fail. Rather than investing in more repairs in a car that I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with, I decided to put out the feelers for a used third-generation (R172) SLK, which by now are starting to hit peak depreciation.

…In with the new.

My search parameters were fairly specific – a loaded R172 with a red interior, in any exterior color but white (neither of us cares for this color). After a quick search, I located a silver 2016 model with less than 30,000 miles that met all my needs (if a two-seat roadster can be described as a necessity) just a few hours away in Chicago. After a quick one-way flight, a personal check(!) and a handshake, the car was mine and I started off on a trouble-free 350-mile drive home.

After a few months, the SLK 300 has far exceeded my expectations. I knew the newer R172 would be an upgrade over my R171 SLK 280, but I was not prepared for how big of an upgrade it would be.

Easily the biggest improvement is in the interior. The interior of the R171 always struck me as a little rugged and spartan, with hard textured plastics everywhere. While this might be an appropriate interior for a roadster that is potentially getting exposed to sunshine and the elements, it wasn’t really an appropriate interior for a luxury car, especially a Mercedes-Benz.

Not so the R172: My SLK 300 sports soft plastics and rich-looking (albeit fake) dark wood trim. It is virtually the same interior as used by the six-figure SLS AMG GT. The “SOLAR” red ambient interior lighting (pictured above) looks suitably cool at night. And the seats are among the most comfortable I’ve sat in, and include (yes!) four-way power lumbar adjustment.

World’s shortest covered bridge, Ashtabula, Ohio

The old SLK 280 was wobbly and rattley (again, some of this could be due to the 90K miles it already had when I purchased it) with a firm ride that crashed over the slightest bump. My SLK 300 (with less than 30K miles) feels like an actual German car – solid, well-controlled, and rattle-free. While you never forget you are in a short wheelbase roadster, the ride is magic carpet smooth when compared to the older R171 SLK (or my R170-based Crossfire).

Under the hood, the SLK 300 sports the now ubiquitous turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder engine that has become the 21st century equivalent of a 5.0 liter V8 – A configuration that most manufacturers have settled upon that provides a good mix of power, economy, and durability (Virtually every car I’ve purchased in the past decade has had a Two-Point-Oh-Tee engine of some sort). In this application, it puts out 242 hp and 273 lb-ft. of torque, good for a 0-60 time of 5.8 seconds, easily besting by old V6-equipped SLK 280. While I’ve certainly driven faster cars, this is easily the most capable car I’ve ever actually owned, and on more than one occasion I’ve worried about pulling a “Mustang at Cars and Coffee” when stomping on the gas while pulling out of a parking lot.

The nine-speed automatic, while being a traditional torque-converter unit, will bang our firm shifts reminiscent of a DSG transmission when in sport mode, and will even do rev-matching downshifts. In Eco mode, it will loaf along at 1,800 RPM at 70 mph in 9th gear while returning over 30 mpg. The only gripe here is the weird control panel: A spring-loaded rocker, where (counterintuitive) you push forward for Reverse and pull backwards for Drive. There is a separate button for Park: I forget to press it all the time, but luckily the vehicle will automatically put itself into park after turning off the engine and opening a door.

The only aspect that is not a clear upgrade is the styling, where the R172 is somewhat of a mixed bag. The R171 SLK is smooth and anodyne, almost to the point of being generic. I’ve gotten much more attention and thumbs up in the newer SLK than I ever got in the old one. Honestly, the original R170 SLK is still the best looking of the three generations.

 

What they were aiming for.

 

The R172 is muscular, sporting a multitude of curves, creases, and scoops, to mixed effect. The front is heavy and bulky, especially when equipped with the AMG packages as mine is. The grille with its protruding upper lip looks strange, even if the W113 “Pagoda” SL of the 1960s has the exact same bizarre grille shape.

The rear end of the R172 has grown rounded “hips” similar to a Z4 – This is easily the best angle of the SLK (see opening photo). The extra rear width allows for traditional trunk lid shut lines, as opposed to the weird shut lines that cut into the side of the body on the R171.

One optical illusion that you can’t unsee once you’ve seen it is that the front tires sometimes appear to be larger than the rears (take a look at one of the front three-quarter pictures above). In actuality, the reverse is true, with 245/35R18 Michelin Pilots fitted to the rear, and 225/40R18 on the front. I think the fact that the rear tires are lower profile, combined with the bulkier rear body, gives the impression of the rear wheels being smaller. I do wish that Mercedes had gone with a more aggressive stagger (perhaps using 19’s in the rear, like on my Crossfire) to better counter this optical illusion.

Will this SLK blossom into a long-term relationship? Only time will tell, but at least this time I won’t be feeling envy for a newer generation of roadsters: The R172 SLK/SLC was discontinued in 2020 as part of the convertible carpocalypse, and there will be no future generations of affordable compact roadsters from Mercedes to tempt me.