Mercedes’ new 2005 SLK is a solid performer, top up or down

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s amazing how fast cars age these days. Or so it seems. The Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster is an example. It feels just like yesterday when we first took possession of an SLK with its amazing hardtop roof that powered back into the trunk for instant open-air motoring.

We drove that new SLK for the first time in the fall of 1997. It was the first production car in modern times to come with the safety and structural integrity of a solid roof while at the same time offering all the benefits of a convertible.

To hear the car writers talk, that rendition of the roadster is old and stale. The body is flabby and the original engine, a supercharged 185-horsepower 4-cylinder, is hopelessly outdated.

If you own one of those early SLK models, don’t put a lot of credence in that criticism. We are of the opinion the first-generation SLK, first offered in Europe in 1996, is still an amazing car. The 4-cylinder is relatively peppy and it gives the little two-seater a solid combination of performance and modern technology.

Upgrades have been made since 1996, namely the addition of a 3.2-liter 215-horsepower V-6 in 2001 for people who wanted a little more juice under foot.

What makes the original SLK now seem dated is an all-new second-generation SLK. It doesn¹t make the old model any less of a marvel. It just shows the extent to which vast improvements can be made to a unique design in a relatively short time.

We were afforded about eight hours behind the wheel of an SLK here along the scenic Columbia River east of Portland.

This left us with acute sensory overload. The scenery, including the dramatic drop of Multnomah Falls was stunning. We amazed at the wind surfers skimming the choppy waters on one section the Columbia. And we were continually impressed with the SLK, sans top, throughout the day.

While the first-generation SLK was a more sedate roadster (if 0 to 60 in around 7 seconds can be called sedate) the new SLK now can stand toe-to-toe with the two roadsters that have set the performance standards for the segment.

Beware Porsche Boxster S and BMW Z4 drivers. The guy in the 2005 SLK has the ability to smoke you at the light. Of course, the SLK driver would be secure in this knowledge without the need to prove the point. We are sure people behind the wheel of $50,000 sports machines drive responsibly.

But listen up Bimmer and Porsche owners. Mercedes has endowed all SLK models sold in the United States with a 3.5-liter 24-valve V-6 generating 268 horsepower. It gives the SLK an entirely new personality with the ability to sprint from 0 to 60 in about 5.5 seconds either through a slick-shifting 6-speed manual transmission or an industry-first 7-speed automatic.

We had a chance to test the proficiency of the new setup with a few hot laps at the Portland International Raceway. Any doubts we had as to Mercedes’ published times quickly evaporated.

We took the 6-speed manual around the track, but unless you are extremely proficient with the clutch and gas pedal, it would seem virtually impossible to better the performance of the 7-speed automatic. And the transmission has the ability to skip up to three gears while down shifting to gain the proper gear ratio for quick acceleration.

The brief track time also showed us that the SLK has the handling credentials to go with its new performance resume. For one thing, Mercedes finally replaced the old re-circulating ball steering with a much more precise rack-and-pinion power-assisted setup.

The underpinnings can be ordered for maximum performance with the AMG Sport Package that includes a lowered suspension with stiffer shocks and springs.
New roadsters have almost made the term cowl shake obsolete. Cowl shake, that bugaboo that used to be an affliction of topless cars that had lost the structural rigidity that a steel top offers, is completely absent from the new Mercedes. And that was our experience in the SLK even over sections of uneven pavement, road imperfections and a set of railroad tracks.
Two quick statistics here – Mercedes says the new SLK has 46 percent better torsional strength and 19 percent more bending strength than the previous model.

The power hardtop that amazed us back in 1997 has not been overlooked in the complete remake. The new SLK transforms itself into a topless roadster in 22 seconds, three seconds faster than the original. When the roof goes down, the rear window swivels to match the curvature of the roof taking up much less space in the top of the trunk than the previous rendition.

It makes a difference. The trunk is actually useable with the top down. With the amazing capability of turning a hardtop into a convertible, why not take full advantage of open-air driving even when the weather turns to autumn!
Mercedes asks that same question and has invented an option that should make things more comfortable in the cool temperatures of fall. It has made available something it calls AIRSCARF. It’s an extra heating system built into the driver and passenger seats. At the touch of a button, warm air flows from vents in the head restraints acting as an invisible scarf around the head and neck.

The SLK is an impressive car, but it would fall flat without impressive styling. And it has very impressive styling. Mercedes has hit the styling nail on the head as the saying goes, and without the flamboyant, controversial design of the BMW Z4.

The key elements are the arrow-shaped nose, long front hood and the steeply raked windshield. The wedge shape of the original SLK remains, but now in a more contemporary and rounded interpretation.

For performance lovers, a 360-horsepower AMG SLK55 will be offered near the end of the year.

Expect the SLK to start in the mid 40s and be well equipped for around 50-grand.