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All things considered, a car is not really exciting unless the driver is one of the essential operating mechanisms. And that, in a nutshell, is why we automotive writers prefer standard transmissions over automatics. With a stick, the driver gets a deeper level of interaction with the automobile. When you row a gearbox by hand, you're directing the flow of power between engine and wheels - you're part of the system. A manual transmission allows the driver to become something more than a mindless robotic applier of fuel; instead, the driver takes responsibility for meshing the gears, exploiting the torque and controlling the output.
This sort of control over the car's performance is not often seen as luxurious. Since the invention of fluid couplings and torque converters, people have become less enamored with manual gear synchronization. Manuals further require the driver to engage the clutch, so they're seen as "work." Doing things the hard way has never been a luxury - but according to sales figures (some reports estimate that as many as 85 percent of U.S. cars are equipped with automatic transmissions), buyers seem to confuse manual transmissions with manual labor.
Mercedes-Benz cars are luxury items, and the people who buy them want a car that will treat them well and not demand too much in return. In fact, ever since 1992, automatic transmissions have been the sole power-changing device found in Mercedes cars. Until now. The 1999 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230 is equipped with a manual transmission as standard equipment.
Of course, an automatic transmission is still available, but it's now listed as a $900 option (an option which also costs the car 61 pounds of added curb weight). While Mercedes-Benz product planners still expect automatics to account for a full 80 percent of North American SLK sales, at least one in five buyers still appreciate the old-fashioned approach to driving enthusiasm. And we're glad that Mercedes recognizes this moral minority.
The first time I sat behind the wheel of the new-and-improved SLK, I almost forgot to depress the clutch pedal. A clutch pedal? But there's a tri-pointed star on the steering wheel! It was an almost surreal experience - something I'd never before encountered in a Mercedes. The first thing that happened? No, I didn't stall the engine. Our day in the SLK started in Seattle, on one of the city's ultra-steep downtown streets -- you know, the sort that could double as a black diamond run at Arapaho Basin. The planned driving route meant that the first order of business was to sit at a traffic light, facing uphill. We were instantly reminded of why so many people opt for automatics. Making use of the parking brake (okay, I didn't want to risk stalling it in front of a bunch of Mercedes engineers, I admit), I eased off of the ridiculously sloped street and thus began the test drive.
For the rest of the drive, the SLK reminded us again why manual transmissions are so entertaining. Having driven the living daylights out of a 1998 SLK only a few months ago, I had become a bit bored with the car. Yes, it had a nifty convertible hardtop roof, and yes, it handled like a dream, and yes, its supercharged engine was a hoot, but the car possessed a certain aloofness not found on the Porsche Boxster or BMW Z3 2.8. The other German roadsters were made for fun; the Mercedes SLK was more for show.
No longer. With the benefit of increased driver interaction, the SLK comes to life. The change is not just a mechanical difference, it's a total personality enhancement - this car begs to be driven. Want to take the engine into redline? Go right ahead; no stupidity-preventing electronic rev-limiter is going to stop you (the engine might, but no rev-limiter will). Rowing through the gears, we were very pleased with the action of this five-speed box. It's a little more rubbery in feel than we'd like, and isn't as precise as, say, the new Miata, but it's still a blast to wind up the engine by hand.
For 1999, more has changed than the SLK's personality: it also received a facelift, or rather, some AMG-certified steroids. The new Sport Package includes additional beef around the car's lower extremities, providing a muscular and more aerodynamic appearance. Also added are beefier 17-inch treads: 225/45ZR-17 front tires and 245/40ZR-17 rear tires. Now maybe the demure SLK can be taken seriously when parked next to the ferocious visages of the Z3 or Boxster. Other than the heavy-duty lower enhancements, the Sport Package replaces the side-mounted "Kompressor" badge with "Sport" (don't worry, German-language buffs, the "Kompressor" badge now appears on the trunk).
The AMG-added components do a lot for the car's appearance in this writer's eyes. Candidly, I've never been attracted to the SLK's styling, partly because of the unnecessary "retro" touches of interior carbon fiber, but mostly because of the contradictory exterior. The power domes on the hood are a nod at the timeless 300SL, but they come across as an imitation rather than an incorporation of style. The 300SL is a beautiful classic car, whereas the SLK tries to be a beautiful modern car. Instead of chic, the SLK tends to come across as "cute." But with the added Sport package, the car looks more intentionally modern and all is forgiven.
Handling is superb, thanks to the front double-wishbone and rear five-link suspension common to all Mercedes passenger cars. Since it's a roadster, most drivers would expect some sports car choppiness, but the SLK plants its huge tires and keeps them grounded, and the chassis and spring-loaded seats absorb the bumps. In that way, the SLK acts like a larger coupe or sedan, but handling is unmistakably roadster (read: superb). Brakes are equally if not more impressive, aided with standard four-wheel ABS and Brake Assist.
The tires don't hurt stopping distances or handling, because they just won't lose their grip. Around one tight curve in the road, I was actually hit in the arm by a tarred stone ripped from the asphalt by the tires. Talk about grip! This car will pull the pavement up before it agrees to slide.
Mercedes claims that for 1999, the SLK has "only four factory options." Heated seats are $595, metallic paint is $600, a cell phone/CD changer option comes in at $1,595, and the AMG appearance/17-inch wheels and tires (a.k.a. Sport Package) option costs $3,990. We demand a recount: the automatic transmission is a $900 option. Then again, maybe Mercedes only counted the important options.
Last year, our chief gripe about the SLK was its lack of a manual transmission. Now, we can focus on less important issues -- like the exhaust sound. With the addition of the manual, Mercedes will be pitted against some capable competition, such as the aforementioned Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3 (as well as the Mazda Miata), each of which sounds much more sporty. The SLK's exhaust is a disappointing mechanical whir, devoid of any hint at the car's true performance.
Perhaps unfairly, the performance factor itself will soon be up to scrutiny as well. The SLK offers a very peppy motor, with output of 185 horsepower at 5300 rpm and 200 foot-pounds of torque at 2500 rpm. Still, even the Miata boasts 140 horsepower with a normally-aspirated engine. In short, our new wish list is quite simple: shoehorn in the popular 3.2-liter shared with so many other Mercedes cars. With 215 horsepower and 233 foot-pounds of torque, the SLK would have nothing to fear (save the M Roadster). Hey, if you're going to offer something more sporty, be prepared to go all the way.
But in the real world, no one needs a roadster with a more powerful engine than this. The Kompressor will hold its own and make you a very happy driver indeed. It's probably a defective hormone that persuades otherwise rational buyers that they really need more than 185 horsepower in a super-light two-seat roadster. Or maybe performance claims are just used as bragging rights, because enthusiasts like nothing more than to boast about their cars.
In this day and age, we're pleased that someone has finally decided to stand for more than status. Image is not everything, and we now find that Mercedes, in addition to luxury and performance, is also about the sheer pleasure of driving. I can hear the come-on line now: "Hey, baby, I got a Mercedes. And I can shift it all by myself."