Classic CARmentary: 1999 Mercedes-Benz SLK230

Another in a series of my reviews that appeared in the online version of African Americans On Wheels, a now defunct automotive magazine that was included as an insert in the Sunday newspapers of major cities.

The main reason this SLK was in the press fleet was because Mercedes was pushing the new 5-speed manual that now came standard.  A lot of reviews at the time criticized it as being rubbery, especially in comparison to the slick units in the Miata, Boxster and Z3.  I don’t remember it being particular good or bad, which is probably why I didn’t bother to leave my impressions of it below.

I was also taking a Kung Fu class in the evenings at the time, and the instructor sponsored a camping trip to a site about half-an-hour outside of D.C.  I offered to drive one of my classmates, and we were able to store all of our camping gear in the tiny 3.7 cubic-foot trunk, which goes to show you that shape is at least as important as actual volume numbers when it comes to cargo stowage.  On the flip side, we couldn’t put the top down because of all of the cargo in the trunk, which my biggest problem with hardtop convertibles.  You can either go to the beach OR put the top down, but you can’t do both unless you can somehow fit all of the necessary accouterments inside the car.

At the camp grounds, I decided to test out the traction control by trying to climb a wet, muddy hill to get to our parking place.  No dice.  I finally got there by going in reverse at an angle.  

The following review ran on December 7, 1998.

It wasn’t too long ago that the list of Mercedes buyers looked a lot like the AARP’s membership list. Trying to woo young, moderately successful buyers, Mercedes introduced the tiny SLK230 roadster two years ago that is about 20 inches shorter, 1,600 pounds lighter, and up to $85,000 less than its big brother SL.

Except for a Sport Package and the addition of a five-speed manual transmission (the automatic is now a $900 option), not much has changed for this year. The wedge-shaped, long hooded, short deck roadster looks good from any angle. The Sport Package gives a more muscular appearance with its fatter 17 inch wheels and other low-key aerodynamic enhancements.

The interior is done in a chic-retro look highlighted by white gauges with black markings. To help keep the price down, the SLK does without many of the traditional Mercedes conveniences, but there’s still far more features than in a Miata.

The most unique feature, of course, is the retractable hardtop. With only the press of a button the top folds in two and slides gracefully into the trunk in about 30 seconds. It’s quite a sight, and more fun to watch than most prime-time television. Besides the added protection in the event of a rollover when the top is up, the SLK also has a reinforced windshield frame and roll bars mounted behind each seat for carefree, top-down driving. Side airbags and anti-slip control are also standard.

Powering the SLK is a 185-horsepower, 2.3-liter four cylinder mit Kompressor (with supercharger). It’s a powerful unit but doesn’t quite have the punch of the six-cylinder BMW Z3 2.8 and Porsche Boxster. The ride is understandably far from smooth, but handling is outstanding. Wind buffeting is minimal, impressive for a small roadster.

Thanks to its squarish shape, the small 3.7 cubic-foot trunk can hold more cargo than you’d expect when the top is up, which we discovered on a recent camping trip. There’s even a little room left in the trunk for small items when the top is retracted.

There’s a waiting list a mile long for the SLK230, and it’s easy to see why.

For more information contact 1-800-FOR-MERCEDES


Type:Two-Door Roadster
Engine:Supercharged 185-horsepower, 2.3-liter inline four
Transmission:Five-speed manual
EPA Mileage:21 city/30 highway
Tested Price:$45,980