Splurge with a Mercedes SLK

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2004

This past Christmas, the nation's marketers came up with a new tag for the holiday. It was a "me" Christmas, they said. Me wanted things, me let everyone know, and me got what me wanted.

OK, so it's me first. If that's the way it is, then why not extend the Joy of Me into the New Year? Why not buy me-actually you-a car toy?

Look, you've been practical about vehicles for many years, right? You've considered utility, comfort, safety, operating expense, insurance costs and so on. It's high time you considered the one factor you might have left out of previous purchasing decisions: fun.

With cars, fun is spelled SLK. As in: Mercedes-Benz SLK.

It's a unisex car, meaning either a man or woman will look right at home behind the wheel. It's not cute. It's not macho. It's the same jazzy sneaker, size eight for women and seven for men. Looks good on either.

The two-seat Mercedes-Benz SLK comes in three flavors: a supercharged four-cylinder model, a V6 with a bit more horsepower, and an AMG model with 356 horsepower that will scorch zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds. AMG is a special division that creates performance models from Mercedes cars, and anything bearing those initials is a vehicle to be reckoned with.

Our tested SLK was the supercharged four-cylinder model, topping out with options at just above $47,000, and it traveled from Southwest Florida to North Carolina and back for a truly extended test. It was carefully chosen for this trip, selected because it is a hardtop convertible, and roomy enough to carry luggage for a short vacation.

Considering both factors, a buyer chooses between the SLK and a Lexus SC420. The Lexus is considerably more expensive in base form.

But these are the only two small sports cars with a hardtop that drops into the trunk. The SL series from Mercedes does the trick, but those two-seaters are more boulevard cruisers than sports cars.

Dropping a hardtop to create a convertible was done first by Ford in 1957 with the Skyliner. It never failed to turn heads when the big roof lifted up and back into a trunk with a lid that had flipped backward. It also never failed to garner guffaws when the top froze in mid-drop, as it was sometimes prone to do.

Time and engineering have perfected the trick for Mercedes and Lexus. It's difficult enough that others don't try. But the result is a car that combines the best of two worlds: the joy of open-top cruising and the safety and stability a hard roof provides.

That latter consideration will be much appreciated when the SLK is compared to other comparably priced ragtop sports cars. Most suffer some degree of what is called cowl shake, the tendency of the car to twist when traversing irregular pavement. Drive many convertibles over an angled railroad track and the car will twist like it's made of Reynold's wrap. That won't happen with the SLK. It feels and drives like a coupe, not a ragtop.

Mercedes has also kept cross bracing, needed to strengthen roadsters, out of view. It doesn't block the cargo bay as it does in the new Nissan 350Z. It doesn't make work difficult through the engine bay as it does on the Toyota MR2. But it does stop any body twisting, such as is found in Volvo convertibles.

The SLK easily swallowed three suitcases for the trip. On the drive to North Carolina, on the interstate, the top was kept up and the climate control on. Inside the SLK, quiet reigned. That will never be the case with any ragtop. If a truck pulls alongside, ragtop drivers might think it's coming through their car, so great is the noise. The SLK was coupe quiet. We enjoyed music from a six-disc CD player in the trunk.

Once at the destination, the top went down, even though the morning temperature was 35 degrees. A mesh windscreen, which looks like women's pantyhose, can be fitted over the twin roll bars behind the seats. Once in place, the windscreen catches much of the wind swirling over the windshield and down onto the car. Put the windows up and you could just as believably be in a hardtop as far as wind turbulence is concerned. But the sky is open to you in your SLK.

This is no small matter, and few convertibles get it right. In some, such as the now-defunct CadillacAllante, the wind was driven straight down the back of a driver's neck and over the ears, creating painful earache and a stiff neck after even a short journey. Much the same happens in a Ford Mustang convertible. It takes careful design to flow the wind over the windshield, above the passenger compartment and into a windscreen.

The 192-horsepower, supercharged engine, which wants premium fuel, was up to the task of maintaining speed on any mountain grade. On cruise control, the SLK provided another pleasant surprise. When coasting down a steep grade, the automatic transmission shifted down to help brake the car. I've not encountered that feature on any other car.

And it averaged the 28 miles per gallon estimated by the EPA for highway travel.

There is little to discuss in the way of safety compromises. A topless car can never be considered as safe as a coupe or hardtop if a rollover accident is the consideration. Yes, the head can be exposed to objects the car might strike while rolling. But the SLK, like other quality convertibles, has built-in roll bars behind the passenger compartment and a greatly strengthened windshield. Together, they act as pivots during rollover. In all other accident scenarios, the SLK matches or exceeds other vehicles.

Top up or down, the SLK never failed to draw favorable comments. While not a new model, the SLK does not sell in large numbers, so it is a rarity to the average person. At flea markets and roadside vegetable stands, people asked what it was and commented on how good it looked.

Would I take one on a vacation again? In a heartbeat. This toy is a joy, and just practical enough that two can travel in comfort. Me wants one.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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