2002 Mercedes-Benz SLK32 Road Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2002 Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class Convertible

(3.2L V6 Supercharger 5-speed Automatic)

AMG. Those three letters are as revered by auto enthusiasts as ERA or RBI are by baseball fanatics. But what do they stand for and what are they doing affixed to the butts of various Mercedes-Benz vehicles?

The first two letters stand for the names of the founders: Hans-Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, and the last letter signifies where the company was born: Grossaspach, Germany, back in 1967. What Mr. A and Mr. M did was modify Mercedes-Benz automobiles for better performance, be it for road use or racing, in which they were heavily involved.

As the years went on, AMG became known as a premier tuner of Mercedes-Benz automobiles, and eventually offered interior and exterior modifications, such as custom instruments, steering wheels and seats as well as ground effects, spoilers and wheels. They did such a great job that Mercedes-Benz brought them in house in 1990 and as a result they now have their own high-performance skunk works, similar to rival BMW's "M" division. There is now an AMG version of nearly every Benz model, from the C-Class' C32 to the M-Class' ML55, and they all feature powerful engines, agile suspensions and subtle accents inside and out to set them apart from their more common brethren.

One of the latest recipients of the AMG treatment is Mercedes' SLK320, bringing the number of models of this retractable hardtop sportster to three (SLK230, SLK320 and SLK32).

The SLK230 debuted in 1998, equipped with a supercharged inline four-cylinder engine that produced 185 horsepower teamed up with a five-speed automatic gearbox. The following year saw the introduction of a manual transmission (a five-speed), and 2001 brought the 215-horse V6-powered SLK320 and a six-speed manual tranny for both models. Current SLK pricing stands at $40,045 for the 230, $45,445 for the 320 and $55,545 for the 32.

Walking around the SLK32 (all AMG cars use just two numbers in the model name, as opposed to three for a normal Benz) shows that the AMG body mods are subtle but effective. A larger lower air intake with a mesh insert gives the snout a more aggressive look, though we think having a matching mesh grille would look even better. Muscular side sills, a small decklid spoiler and twin chrome exhaust tips finish off the SLK32's buff bod. Truth be told, checking off the Sport package option for either the SLK230 or SLK320 will give those cars the same body treatment, minus the spoiler and exhaust tips. Unique to the AMG are stunning dual-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels shod with 225/45ZR17 front and 245/40ZR17 rear Michelin Pilot Sport tires.

Special touches inside the cockpit, such as AMG-designed sport seats, steering wheel, shift knob and instruments provide additional eye candy as well as more support for the driver and his lucky passenger.

Numerous creature comforts are standard. Power seats on both sides, dual-zone climate control, telescopic steering wheel (though no tilt provision), auto-dimming mirrors (driver-side and rearview) and a Bose sound system are the major highlights of the standard equipment list. But attempt to pop a disc into that stereo and you're out of luck — it doesn't have a CD player. It does have a tape deck, and a CD changer is optional. But c'mon guys, this is a $55,000 car, at least put in a single CD player.

They may have skimped on the tunes, but not on safety features. Front and side airbags, integral roll bars, antilock brakes (with Brake Assist that provides full braking power when a panic stop is sensed) and a stability control system continue Mercedes' tradition of offering the safest automobiles possible.

But it's under the skin where the AMG really shines. The 3.2-liter V6 is tweaked to the max, sporting a supercharger and intercooler along with beefed-up internal components that bring horsepower up to a mighty 349 and torque to a stout 332 pound-feet. The transmission assigned to handle all that power is a massaged five-speed automatic that features driver-adaptive technology, TouchShift manual-shifting capability and SpeedShift calibration (which provides quicker, crisper shifts). No manual gearbox is available for the SLK32.

The SLK's independent suspension, comprised of double wishbones up front and a multilink setup in back, is upgraded with firmer shocks and springs. Completing the premium hardware are the four-wheel ventilated disc brakes that sport larger rotors and calipers than the other SLKs.

Lighting off the potent engine produces a throbbing exhaust note that, although still relatively quiet, hints at the serious power ready to be unleashed. And when you do nail the throttle, the SLK32 jumps off the line like a startled cat and hurtles forward at a rate that'll put butterflies in the stomach of an unprepared passenger. Keep your foot in it and the sizzling acceleration doesn't seem to let up as speeds climb into seriously obscene territory (of course, we discovered this at our closed test facility). The hard numbers give an idea of just how blindingly quick this car is: The 0-to-60 mph sprint takes only 4.8 seconds, and the quarter-mile flashes by in just 13.3 ticks. Cruising at high speed, this Benz is so relaxed you may not realize that you're covering ground at a license-pulling rate, so a watchful an eye on the speedo is well advised.

The transmission deserves mention in that not one of us hard-core enthusiasts (who think a real sports car should have a manual gearbox) minded the automatic at all. In fact, we liked it, a lot. Upshifts were lag-free and firm, yet not jolting. And dipping into the throttle brought quick downshifts that meant an instant burst of power was always available. Additionally, the autobox is programmed to downshift when braking, much like a good driver with a manual, so as to afford engine braking before entering a turn and the right gear when powering out of it.

Fully equal to the task of keeping all this kinetic energy under control are the massive brakes, which felt strong enough to stop a locomotive in short order. They took a bit of getting used to, as they seem almost too responsive at first, but once acclimated to, were easy to modulate. A stopping distance from 60 mph of 117 feet puts them into our Deceleration Hall of Fame, not as glamorous as the inverse, but arguably more important. The binders are not one-hit wonders, either, as they turned in their best performance on their last run (out of four), showing that fade is not an issue.

Dicing through the canyon roads north of Los Angeles, the SLK32 was in its element. The steering was spot-on direct and quick without being darty. Feel through the wheel was commendable with a pleasing heft and precision that made it hard for some of us to believe that this car uses a recirculating-ball system rather than a rack-and-pinion setup, which is generally regarded as more accurate and communicative.

The well-sorted suspension never lost its composure in the twisty stuff, and the sticky Michelins provided grip to match. Combined with the fat powerband and smart tranny, the SLK32's underpinnings allowed a fluid and fleet trip through a variety of sweepers and decreasing-radius turns.

Should one slightly misjudge a corner or need to make a sudden maneuver that could cause the car to go off the intended line, the ESP (Electronic Stability Program) system is at the ready, selectively braking wheels and/or cutting power to keep the car going where the driver has it pointed. Keep in mind, however, that a stability control system is not designed to repeal the laws of physics nor guaranteed to save a careless driver's butt.

Living with this road-ripper on a daily basis is a piece of cake. It looks enough like a standard SLK that you won't be hounded by the general populace at every fuel stop for a rundown of its vital stats. The muscle-bound engine is docile around town and will plod through rush-hours traffic without complaint, and the ride is supple enough so that broken pavement is absorbed without bodily discomfort.

Inevitably, this car will be compared to its countryman rival, the BMW M Roadster, a car that some of us think is more handsome than the Benz, has a manual tranny, virtually equal performance and a price tag nearly 10-grand less than the SLK32. It does not, however, have the security and superior sound insulation of the Benz' nifty folding metal top nor the option of an automatic gearbox.

With only 1,000 examples of the luscious SLK32 being offered to the U.S. market, we don't think Mercedes will have to worry about finding buyers.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 3.5

Components: It's ridiculous, but true: Mercedes sells a car that stickers for over $50,000, and you have to pay extra to get a CD player. Like $2,000 extra. But when you're the market leader and everyone's scrambling for your product, we suppose you can call your own shots. Even so, how'd you like to shell out 50 big ones for this baby, then pull into the driveway and discover it only has a cassette player? Ugh! This complicates things further for stereo evaluators with attitude, too, since not having a digital source makes it difficult, if not impossible, to assess the sound quality of the components and the overall quality of the system. Welcome to Analog Land.

All the more of a shame, since this is a nicely appointed Bose system that has much to recommend it. For starters, Mercedes utilizes one of the finest head units on the planet. Equipped with a rubberized volume knob that has the sure-footed tactile feel of a roadster racing through a chicane, it reeks with class and style. Feels great under the fingers, too. With the exception of a few crowded buttons and the radio presets being on the wrong side of the radio (we've complained about this ad nauseum on other MB vehicles), this is a radio that deserves a CD player and probably feels lonely without one.

Speakers include a pair of 4-by-6s located on the firewall behind the seats, plus a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass in the doors. A pair of 1-inch dome tweeters occupies the doors, as well.

Performance: How does it sound? Well, it's hard to tell without a CD player. Power output is in the acceptable range, with decent thumping lows and credible high frequencies. Mids present themselves well, and most instruments are duplicated with accuracy and aplomb. But again, it's a challenge to evaluate without a CD.

Best Feature: User-friendly head unit.

Worst Feature: Two grand more to get a CD changer.

Conclusion: As we said at the outset, this Bose system has a lot going for it, but we strongly suggest that you add a six-disc CD changer. According to Mercedes, there are two ways to do this: with the K2 Package (Option Code 177), which has an MSRP of $1,795, or the K2a Package (Option Code 179), with an MSRP of $2,190. Both of these options come with a Motorola phone. If you don't want or need the phone, many Mercedes dealers will install the CD changer by itself for around $1,000, so ask your dealer. — Scott Memmer

Second Opinions

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig Says:
I'll admit to not being much of a fan of the original SLK. Although it did offer a comfortable cabin and solid handling, it was never very fun to throw around. The addition of six-cylinder power helped out in that department, but it still didn't offer as much ability as some of the other roadsters on the market.

One drive in the SLK32, however, and it's hard not to get hooked. The relentless power of the supercharged V6 makes this little two-seater an absolute rocket. Whether you're on a wide-open highway or negotiating a tight stretch of twisty two-lane, this car eats up pavement like few Mercedes can.

With such a short wheelbase, the SLK still requires a careful touch to keep it pointed in the right direction, but the ultra-stiff suspension transmits all the information you need to keep things under control. The steering is wonderfully direct, if not a little heavy, and the brakes feel almost too powerful as the lightest touch shaves off large chunks of speed.

Of course, a manual transmission would make it even more enjoyable, but the five-speed automatic does an admirable job of picking the right gears even when pressed hard. The ESP stability control system stays out of the way for the most part, allowing you to push the car hard without constant reminders that you're having too much fun.

As fast as it is, however, I would never plunk down $55K to own one. Even with its hard-core AMG hardware, it still looks more suited to the mall than the racetrack. BMW's M Roadster is an equally thrilling package that throws in a manual shifter and racier looks for 10 grand less. Then again, this car isn't for those looking for a bargain. This is a car for buyers who want the prestige of a Mercedes, the open air fun of convertible and the power of a supercar — for this, the SLK32 is unbeatable.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim Says:
I remember driving the SLK320 in our 10-car roadster test last year; it turned out to be one of my favorites, with superb road manners, refined interior ambiance and that nonpareil graceful top. I like the SLK32 even more. It has the same standards of livability in a vehicle whose drivability has been upped several degrees.

There is no compromise when it comes to the automatic gearbox; I didn't even think to use the TouchShift; it shifted at all the correct times. I noticed that the steering is a bit lighter and tighter than in the SLK320. Nevertheless, I felt safe enough to drive in a speedy manner without stuffing the pretty car into a wall; the ESP reined in any foolishness. The suspension is a nice mixture of the firm (on curvy roads) and supple (on city streets). No cowl shake was discerned; it was one of the most stable convertibles I've had the pleasure of piloting. And the engine (I've never driven the 230) is worlds beyond the regular V6. Because it's supercharged, there is no lag; the 349 horses were hot to trot all across the rev band.

The few complaints I have about it are mere niggles, such as a non-tilting steering wheel. Plus the roof could have a one-touch function. But on the whole, you've got a highly desirable package that tempts you to blow off work and head for a glamorous destination to hang out with Cammy Diaz, sunglasses propped on top of her summery blondness.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Stuffed into what has heretofore been regarded as the Barbiemobile of the Euro-roadster quartet known as Benz, Boxster, BMW and TT is an amazing supercharged 349-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 that rockets the Mercedes-Benz SLK32 AMG from a standstill to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds. With an automatic transmission. That's easily Corvette country, and puts the Porsche Boxster and Audi TT on the bench. From Germany, only BMW's M Roadster can match that kind of visceral thrill ride.

Add a well-balanced chassis, monstrous brakes, fat wheels and tires, a beautifully buttoned-down suspension, communicative steering and a slew of electronics to keep the driver from running out of talent before the Benz does, and you've got a winner. Though no manual transmission is offered, the SLK32 AMG is a pure sports car, capable of carving up tarmac with speed and agility.

While hammering it down a favorite twisty two-lane road, it never occurred to me to wish for a manual, as the five-speed automatic with TouchShift behaved flawlessly. Occasionally, the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) would engage to limit wheelspin or put the car back on the intended line, but the system was never intrusive, merely hinting that I had approached the car's limits.

Even switched off, ESP is never fully disengaged, as I discovered while running the slalom at high speed in the controlled environment of our track-testing facility. The SLK32 feels a tad twitchy at first, until the driver acclimates to the quick-ratio steering and short wheelbase. It doesn't take long to learn how to make the SLK32 go fast.

Around town, the SLK32 is relatively docile, an easy vehicle in which to while away commute times. Interior ergonomics could be simplified for easier system operation, but compared to more modern Mercedes models, the SLK constitutes a no-brainer. And with the trick folding hardtop, this is a true all-weather roadster, though we'd definitely swap the meaty performance rubber for winter tires if driving in snow.

But if you've got the kind of green it takes to own this car, you're probably wintering in the Keys, where the top is always folded up and stowed away, as it should be.

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