(first posted 11/1/2014) Twenty-six years ago, in 1994, Mercedes unveiled a study of a small roadster at the Turin autoshow. It immediately caught interest because it looked light, competent and good. It was a compact two-seater (3,995 cm = 13.11 feet) with small overhangs and no roof. Although decidedly new—and in no way retro, nor what you would expect from the brand– it was unmistakably a Mercedes, thanks to subtle design quotations from the glorious 300SL (look at the bonnet) and the 300SLR (the grille, the fairings behind the seats). So far, so good.
But some questions remained, however: Would they ever build it? And if so, what will it cost? These were good questions, given the fact that Mercedes already offered a roadster (the R129 SL type) and the usual pricing of their offerings. Two years later, again in Turin, these questions were answered.
The SLK series was unveiled. Surprisingly to many, the production car looked very similar to the prototype (above). The 300SLR-like fairings behind the seats had been dropped, presumably because they were of no use with a civilian roadster. Instead, Mercedes added an important feature that for the first four years should become a unique selling point for the SLK: the metal folding roof.
There were two 4-cylinder models to choose from: a 1,998 ccm 200 SLK with 136 hp; and a 2,225 ccm 230 SLK with 193 hp, motivated by a Rootes blower. (There also was a pretty hot 200 SLK manual-only version sold in Italy, Portugal and Greece (due to local taxation schemes) with a 1,998 ccm Roots compressor engine delivering 192 hp: the “fiscal” 200 SLK. This relatively rare version had a top speed of 236 km/h / 147 mph and accelerated in 6.8 secs from 0 to 100 km/h /62 mph. And the price was right.
The 230 SLK, for example, with a base price of 62,250 DM, was more than 100,000 Deutschmark (about 70,00 USD) cheaper than a top-notch 500 SL (R129) with a 320 hp V8 engine. Thanks to the SLK’s relatively low weight (1,385 kg), the 500 SL (automatic) with its 1,910 kg was only somewhat faster (top speed 250 km/h, vs. the 230’s automatic 238 km/h). Acceleration was slightly better, too (0 to 100 km/h / 62 mph 6.6 sec vs. 7.3 sec with the 230 SLK), but obviously the price difference was too high and R129 sales dropped while R170 sales boomed in the following years.
All in all, it was a good start for the SLK. Everyone, both the press and the customers, was enthusiastic. Comparison tests demonstrated that this car was well up to or even ahead of the competition. With its tin folding roof the car looked good, too, whether open or closed (not everyone got that right). The demand was overwhelming, and subsequently the wait for delivery reached more than a year. For slightly used SLKs, you had to pay a premium of up to 15,000 DM if you wanted such a car immediately.
This was good news for Mercedes. In the mid-nineties they had to re-invent themselves with the trusty W124 and W201 models having been dropped. Still a tech company, they came up with radical solutions; (e.g., the much-hated (but not by their owners, of course) Smart, or the 1997 W198 A-Class–a roomy small car, not meant for conservative minds and hence never sold in the US). The SLK fitted well into this framework of reinvention because it, too, was radical. Suddenly, the competition in the small-roadster sector (e.g., Fiat Barchetta, BMW Z3, Audi TT, Alfa Spider, even the contemporary Mazda Miata/MX5) looked somewhat outdated, not only because of their rag-tops, but also in terms of performance and usability.
There were complaints, however, regarding the seats (too uncomfortable for long-distance travel) and the 53-liter fuel tank (too small for long distances). The 136 hp 200 SLK engine did not generate much enthusiasm (but no complaints either), as the car, with 136 hp, had a top speed of 202 km/h and accelerated decently from 0 – 100 km/h in about 10 seconds). Urgent calls for a six-cylinder engine also were heard.
After four years in production, these issues were fixed by a facelift in 2000. Combined with minor design modifications, the newer models offered better seats, a larger fuel tank (now 60 liter) and ESP (Electronic Stability Program) as standard. In addition, the base 200 SLK now had a 163 hp compressor engine, the 230 SLK went from 193 to 197 hp, and two six-cylinder cars – the 320 SLK with 218 hp and the SLK 32 AMG with 354 hp – filled the needs of power-hungry customers. The “fiscal” 200 SLK with 192 hp was dropped.
All in all, the facelift was well received, especially the naturally aspirated V6 320 SLK, which was able to win comparison tests again other six-cylinder powered roadsters like the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3. The new 200 SLK, now promoted from 136 to 163 hp, found many followers too, which slightly reduced the sales of the 230 SLK. The SLK 32 AMG was considered a bit overdone at the time because of its excessive reliance on electronics to bring its horses to the road (the price tag might have played a role, too).
After 311,222 cars (119,921 manuals and 191,301 automatics) were sold worldwide, the R170 series was replaced by the R171 in 2004, not a bad sales performance for a newcomer in the small-roadster segment.
So, how did they do it? Basically, Mercedes followed the classic method first laid out by British roadster manufacturers: look on your shelves, take the useful parts, add a snazzy body, implement some moderate speed- and road holding enhancements, then sell it. Improving on that, Mercedes also put some thought into daily usability, maintainability, and reliability. That’s why the SLK never received the laurels of a “true sports car”, a benefit for customers tough enough to drive a “chick car”.
Looking back now, the SLK’s electric metal folding roof (Vario roof in Mercedes speak) proved to be a smart idea. Mercedes resurrected a construction that was invented by Peugeot in the Thirties (the Peugeot 401/402 Eclipse). Ford followed the same formula with the Fairlane 500 Skyliner in the Fifties. Both cars were not successful, presumably as Peugeot and Ford tried to implement the idea with rather big four-seaters with their added weight and costs.
Given the then state-of-the-art in coach building and automotive parts design, the cars in question were rather expensive but not really very pretty. Mercedes had better cards when doing this based on a strictly two-seater, with the additional bonus of manufacturing methods and standards that had significantly improved in the meantime.
Initially, the SLK’s steel folding roof raised questions, as:
A: Will it work reliably?
B: Would it add too much weight?
C: Would it completely eat up usable luggage space?
D: Who really needs a folding metal roof with a roadster?
Over time, reliability proved to be no problem, except for the rare cases that involved a rear-ender that someone tried to have fixed on the cheap.
Of course, the steel roof adds some weight, but the SLK weighs about the same as a comparable BMW Z3 ragtop. At 1,385 kg, the SLK is heavy, however, when compared to the Mazda MX5/Miata (1,059 kg) or the Fiat Barchetta (1,103 kg) but the difference cannot be attributed solely to the roof construction.
The SLK’s luggage space offers 348 liters with the roof closed and 145 when open, compared to the BMW Z3’s 165 liters (roof open or closed), or the Mazda MX5/Miata’s 150 liters (open/closed) or the Fiat Barchetta’s 165 liters (open/closed). So, even with the top down, the SLK offers about the same luggage space as a BMW Z3, Mazda MX5 or Fiat Barchetta, with the advantage of having more than double the available space with the roof closed (which would be a wise decision when traveling longer distances with your spouse, anyway). BTW, a contemporary VW Golf IV had a luggage space volume of 330 liters (rear seats up). Specialized luggage to maximize the trunk space is also available (see photo above).
The final question of who needs a metal folding roof with a sporty two-seater comes down to personal preference and usage habits. If you intend to use a cloth top car occasionally for short trips in sunny weather, you will be happy, especially if your inner self inseparably links sportiness with soft tops. Different driving habits (e.g., frequent highway or Autobahn usage, daily driving) and environments (e.g., living in bad-weather areas with only occasional sunshine) might make it a wise decision to opt for the metal roof. You will be rewarded by reduced wind noise when driving top-closed, no leakages when driving in heavy rain, and simple car washes. In addition, you don’t necessarily need a garage, and you can forget about the issue of roof wear (and bird poop).
This does not mean, of course, that you can’t use a Mazda MX5/Miata, for example, as a daily driver (my neighbour has been doing that, day in and day out). It just depends on your accustomed convenience level.
After the SLK’s immediate success with this design other car makers started to offer automatic metal folding roofs, too, although sometimes reluctantly. But now even Mazda does it. In 1998 the original inventor, Peugeot, came up with the 206 CC (“convertible coupe”), too, an alleged 2+2 seater–alleged, as I have never seen someone sitting on the back seats of this car, as often is the case with 2+2s.
Although there are many open two-seaters, really successful ones are quite rare. Design almost always makes the difference, and successful designs almost always have one thing in common: the beauty of simple lines without any dullness. This is were the R170 shines, inside and out (although, for readability purposes, I would have opted for classic white-on-black dials instead of the rather chintzy grey-on-white ones). Design project leader for the R170 was Michael Mauer (then in his 30s, and now head of design at Porsche).
Why buy one today? And how does it drive?
If you like a sporty two-seater that rides well and can be used like any fixed-roof daily driver but, by simply pressing a button, can be driven open whenever you are in the mood to do so, then buy one now. As usual with cars 10 – 15 years old, they are currently available at rock-bottom prices. They are merely old used cars. There are no collectors on the horizon (yet), and whether there ever will be is not your concern. Reliability and parts availability is still great, as most parts (except body and interior) are not SLK-specific. No need to worry – you are on the safe side. If you also appreciate a classic, no-frills design combined with amenities like good all-round visibility, a clear dashboard and no electronic gadgets, you might shortlist this car type.
If you are taller than I am (185 cm), or a little bit on the voluminous side you may want to check first how this car really suits you. Otherwise, you might run out of leg room or generally feel cramped.
Aside from that, it should be easy to get a well-kept car for a reasonable price. As the SLK never had any appeal to boy-racers, the majority of cars offered are unmolested and in good shape.
When looking at these as used cars, you might get the impression that only two colors were available (silver metallic or black). Obviously, this is not true. An astonishing combination of body colors and interiors were on the offer but did not gain much interest on the customer side. So, it is fair to assume that the often-complained pervasiveness of dull car colors (both exterior and interior) is almost exclusively due to a certain dullness on the customer side.
As usual with Y2K Mercedes cars rust is a weak spot with the R170, too. Some owners say that the pre-facelift models (1996 to 2000) are less rust-prone although I would hesitate to confirm this. Usually, rust issues are cosmetic ones, however, restricted to body parts that can be fixed easily. It might get more expensive, however, if the folding roof structure is affected. The rear window, for example, is glued to the roof structure and almost certainly will have to be replaced by a new one if work needs to be done on a rusty roof construction (rare cases).
Another weak spot is the quality of the interior. Don’t expect anything near W124 or W201 Mercedes quality. Cars with higher mileage (> 100k) sometimes show fading colors at the armrests and the center console and worn-out leather seats.
But aside from that, the car is reliable, easy to operate and fun to drive.
A year ago, I bought one: the 4 cylinder 230 SLK version with a 197 hp compressor engine, i.e., a version after the first model upgrade in 2000. One-owner (my age), regular maintenance by the booklet at Mercedes shops. One reason why I bought the 4 cylinder SLK and not the more powerful 320 V6 version was costs: The 320 engine will cost you about 1-2k more on the used-car market, with marginally better power (218 hp vs. 197 hp, 0-100 km/h 6,9 sec. vs. 7,2 sec., top-speed 242 km/h vs. 237 km/h (for the automatic versions), although the engine sound of the V6 is certainly more impressive. The other reason: I had never ever driven a compressor car before and simply was interested how it would drive.
Definitely no showroom car, it was comparably cheap because of some 75,000 miles on the odo, some rust and no summer tires; maintenance was due as well. But everything else, including the interior, was clean. The missing summer tires/wheels shows that the latter had been sold separately and that the car had been driven regularly, both in summer and winter.
So I spent about $1,500 for the maintenance, including new brakes (fluid, pads and disks), fresh automatic transmission oil, and another $900 for a set of new high-speed, all-season tires. A leaking headlight was repaired for about $200, and another $2,000 has been spent for rust removal by professionals. All in all, not so cheap but well within my self-set price range and quality levels. There are still some other minor issues that need fixing, including a burned out lamp in the speedometer assembly and a vertical seat adjustment that needs some work, although (for my size) I could do without.
Initially intended as a joy car for little outings on nice summer days, I’ve come to use it daily. Why not drive a car that makes it fun to buy groceries, meat and wine/beer? You are always free to extend such a shopping trip into a fun trip without changing the car, provided you have the time to do so.
And there is fun. Although a pretty old car, it doesn’t drive like one. Acceleration and top speed are still almost on par with current GTI emulations. Ride comfort is high for a two-seater, and road manners are excellent and predictable. Weight distribution is more (4 cylinders) or less (6 cylinders) almost 50:50%. Brake performance is still up-to-date (100 km/h to 0 in 37 /38 meters (cold/warm). An average fuel consumption of slightly above 9 l/100 km (26 US miles/gallon) for a 197 hp engine seems quite acceptable to me (slightly more for the 6-cylinder). The “officially stated” value is still what I can confirm, and what you can expect in mixed daily driving. (There must have been some massive fiddling with the methods used to obtain fuel consumption numbers in the meantime, as I’ve noticed a massive gap between stated and realistically obtainable current numbers.)
OK, these are the base numbers, Basically, the fun is in driving a well-composed car, of timeless design, without annoying habits, all at low prices. Choose your engine according to your intended usage (from 136 hp to 354), feel free to tune it to your taste (there is an interesting aftermarket), and repaint it if you don’t like black or silver. But it won’t be a race car, whatever you do.