B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
This has not been the best decade for sports car enthusiasts. One by one, the nineties have seen the discontinuation of some of the world's fastest, performance-oriented, fun-to-drive cars. Since 1995 alone, we've lost the Toyota MR2, Nissan 300ZX, Mazda RX-7, and Dodge Stealth. Even America's favorite home-grown sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette, had an uncertain future during the middle of this decade. (The rumors are that the C5 project, the fifth-generation Corvette, was canceled and that there was a span of about two weeks when GM brass had planned to quit building Corvettes. Thankfully, level-headed Chevrolet project planners convinced the big-wigs that canceling the Corvette would summon the four horseman of the apocalypse.) It's as if the country as a whole has been serving penance for the free-wheeling excess of the eighties; denying themselves the right to drive fun vehicles, and demonstrating their newfound moral righteousness behind the steering wheels of leather-clad minivans and sport-utilities. Tiring of this self-inflicted bourgeoisie nonsense, a few domestic and foreign manufacturers are introducing cars that are designed to put the fun back into our daily commute. These cars aren't going to haul a trailer, or navigate a two-track road (industry studies show that most SUV buyers don't actually do those things anyhow), nor will they haul a month's worth of groceries and the children of every family on the block to and from soccer practice. They will, however, serve as a wonderful companion on a beautiful spring day, and they do a fine job arranging for better-than-average service at swanky downtown eateries. (More importantly, the Surgeon General has assured us that owning a fun-to-drive car won't drive us into a dreadful drug addiction, or force into making bad decisions about our investment portfolios.)
One of the newest entries into the revitalized sports car segment is the Mercedes-Benz SLK. We had the opportunity to test the SLK at a short-lead introduction earlier this winter in Tucson, Arizona. The setting was wonderful, the weather was beautiful, and the conditions were near-perfect for checking out the capabilities of this youthful roadster from the company that many thought was too stodgy to build such a fun car.
At the press conference preceding the ride-and-drive portion of the program, Mercedes-Benz North America CEO Michael Bassermann stated that the SLK is the perfect sports car for all seasons and for all reasons. The primary rationale for this statement stems from the fact that the SLK is the only roadster available with a retractable hardtop; giving the car true four-seasons driveability. An added benefit of this retractable hardtop is that makes the SLK nearly as much fun to drive enclosed as it is alfresco.
The SLK has a host of safety equipment that is typical of all the cars Mercedes builds. Standard anti-lock brakes and traction control lead the list, and there are the usual Mercedes-Benz crumple zones as well. The feature that impressed us the most, however, was the airbag system. Dual front airbags and side-impact airbags protect occupants from frontal or side-impact collisions. What makes this system unique is Mercedes' smart airbag system, which will not deploy the passenger airbag if there is less than 25 pounds in the passenger seat. To protect infants and small children, Mercedes' has also introduced a Baby Smart system which will keep the passenger airbag from deploying if there is a Baby Smart child seat mounted in the passenger seat. Other safety features include a super-reinforced A-pillar and standard roll bars that are nicely integrated behind the car's headrests. Mercedes says that the roll bars are critical to ensuring the safety of roadster occupants since rollover crashes are more likely to occur in a roadster. (This is due to how roadsters are driven and is not reflective of an inherent design flaw in all roadsters.)
The SLK's styling cues are representative of Mercedes' heritage without pandering to snobby traditionalists. The twin power bulges on the hood pay homage to supercharged Mercedes of yesteryear, as does the wreath and crest which again surrounds the M-B star on all of the SLK's badges. Headlight and taillamp treatments, however, are quite modern, as are the car's short overhangs and wide stance. The grille design of the SLK is new as well. Designed to maximize engine cooling without sacrificing aerodynamics, the grille features rows of intake portals that decrease in diameter from the center of the grille to the sides, allowing the maximum amount of cool air to enter where it is needed most.
As the press conference was ending, it was obvious that the SLK was a technological marvel that featured all of the Germany's latest gee-whiz gadgetry. That didn't mean, however, that it was going to live up to the hype. As a result of some of the early reports that we had read in the car buff magazines, we weren't expecting the SLK to behave like a true sports car; offering potential buyers the cachet of the Mercedes name, a high standard equipment list, and the legendary solidity of Mercedes construction in the place of true performance. This assumption proved once again that you can't always believe what you read.
Upon settling into the seat of the SLK it became obvious that Mercedes designers pulled out all of the stops to make sure that this was a car that drivers would feel comfortable in. The steering wheel is thick and meaty, inspiring confidence when driving sweaty-palmed on two-lane highways. The gauges are an exquisite black-on-white design, and are perfectly positioned just below the driver's line of sight. The 5-speed automatic transmission, standard because market research indicated that fewer than twenty-percent of the SLK's potential buyers wanted a manual transmission, features a no-nonsense aluminum shift gate and lever topped by a nicely-contoured knob. Our few complaints centered around the SLK's overly flat seats, which offered little thigh support for this tall driver, and the confusing pictographic buttons which control the stereo. Creature comforts in the SLK are many, and include such features as dual zone temperature controls, dual cup holders, multiple storage compartments, cruise control, a well-positioned dead pedal, and thick arm rests. Faux carbon fiber trim and a whimsical two-toned leather interior keep the car from feeling stuffy. The best part about the SLK's interior is that it is distinctly Mercedes; solid, refined, and highly functional.
The real test of this Mercedes' sporting nature came on a long route that took us from the flatlands of the Arizona desert to the top of Kit Peak, home of the largest collection of telescopes in the world, and back down again. The roads along this stretch of desert alternate between glass-smooth sections of freeway and pock-marked and rutted access roads. Throughout the course this little Mercedes maintained a high degree of composure while allowing us to have a great deal of fun. One of our favorite features of the SLK is its willing powerplant. The 3.2-liter supercharged engine produces 185-horsepower at 5,300 rpm and an impressive 200 lb.-ft. of torque between 2,500 and 4,800 rpm. This results in an amazing amount of flexibility that keeps the SLK from being caught flat-footed regardless of speed. Of course, we would have liked to see a manual transmission offered in this car, but the adaptive 5-speed automatic did a fine job anticipating which gear was required for the various driving challenges we threw at it. The SLK is surprisingly rigid, exhibiting minimal cowl shake while providing a stable ride. The tires and suspension execute their duties admirably, keeping the car glued to the road through twisty switchbacks and soaking up pavement irregularities all the way up to a hair-raising top speed of 142 mph. The SLK has nearly perfect pedal and steering wheel feel, we just wish that the steering were a bit less assisted. At high speeds, the light touch required to change the SLK's direction is a bit unnerving.
We put the top up on the SLK for 50 miles of driving over rough pavement and think that this is the reason that the SLK will be such a big hit with people outside of the sunbelt. When the top is up, there is no way to tell that the SLK wasn't built as a coupe. The steel roof locks into place using a hydraulic actuator which means that there are no clamps or levers to pull the top shut. The window is glass, and actually offers good visibility. The headliner is made out of a nice cloth material that imparts a feeling of luxury, and there are no ugly exposed cross-members like those found in the BMW Z3. Other than the aesthetic appeal, the benefit of this steel-roof design is that it gives the car as much rigidity as a coupe when the top is up. Additionally, it blocks out nearly as much of the wind and road noise as a C-Class sedan. Furthermore, the trunk space of the SLK jumps to an impressive 9.1 cubic feet when the top is raised. (When the top is lowered the SLK has less cargo area than the diminutive Miata.)
When asked about who will buy the SLK, Mercedes says that they are looking for a younger, more gender-balanced audience with this car. Mercedes-Benz thinks that the average age of the SLK buyer will be between the ages of 30 and 39 and that at least half of them will be women. Mercedes also expects there to be a significant number of new Mercedes buyers interested in the SLK; buyers that Mercedes may have lost to BMW in the past due to that company's younger image and sportier personality.
We have no doubt that the SLK will be a success. In fact, the car already is a success, having been named North American Car of the Year by a panel of industry experts. We are afraid, however, that some enthusiasts may write this car off their list because they've read that it isn't sporting enough, or that it is meant to appeal to women. In our opinion, those assertions are unfounded. The SLK offers easy livability, but it also offers more performance than most people can handle when pushed to the limit. It has a beautiful shape, classic lines, and enough style to appeal to buyers of any gender. Do yourself a favor and check out the SLK; it has all of the solidity and features that we would expect of a Mercedes in a package that will appeal to the kid in all of us.
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