2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK
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Few things can equal the wind-in-the-hair feeling that goes along with driving a slick drop-top with the roof down on a warm, summer day. But into every life a little rain must fall, and when Mother Nature unleashes her worst, that summer daydream can turn into a nightmare if you don’t get the top up in time. And most soft-top convertibles aren’t practical in Canadian winters – all that ice and snow doesn’t usually do much for a fabric roof, no matter how well constructed it is.

You could always get an optional hardtop to make driving your ‘vert a year-round experience, but they’re often expensive, too heavy to install and remove on your own, and a pain to store when not in use. So what’s a sun-seeking driver to do?

One solution came from Germany in 1997 in the form of the 1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK230 convertible hardtop, the first modern production car to combine the structural and weather-resistance benefits of a hardtop with the “cool” factor of a great looking two-seat convertible.

While the name SLK sounds like just another generic Mercedes model designation, it actually stands for the German words for sporty (sportlich), light (leicht) and short (kurz), and the SLK mostly lived up to those adjectives. It was indeed short at 3,995 mm in length, it was one of the sportier models in the Benz line-up at the time of its launch, and while its 1,325 kg curb weight is pretty hefty for a little car, that’s not bad considering all the hardware needed to make that folding roof work.

And did the roof work! Going from coupe (or so it appeared with the top up) to convertible took 25 seconds, during which time the roof would fold in half and stow itself in a compartment behind the seats – quite the show!

Initially, SLK230s were powered by a supercharged 2.3 litre, four-cylinder engine that made 185 horsepower. While it was capable of decent performance, this motor wasn’t terribly refined and sounded pretty rough, especially compared to the engines available in the SLK’s key competitors: the Porsche Boxster and the BMW Z3. The KOMPRESSOR (German for supercharger) badges almost make the rough engine worth it, though – they just look so cool.

2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK
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In 2001, Mercedes expanded the SLK line-up to include the SLK320, which was powered by a 3.2 litre V6 engine borrowed from the C-class. Along with an extra 30 horsepower – for a total of 215 – the six-cylinder was a much more refined engine and far better suited to a car bearing the Benz three-pointed-star. The “sporty” part of the SLK’s name was truly justified in 2002, however, when the SLK32 AMG joined the fray, with its supercharged V6 and 349 horsepower, courtesy of Benz’s AMG performance tuning division.

For the first year of production, all SLKs had a five-speed automatic transmission as the only choice, leaving dedicated gear-rowers to look elsewhere for their pure driving fun. In 1999, Mercedes decided it had given up enough sales to the Boxster and Z3 and offered the SLK with a manual transmission option: a five-speed for 1999 and 2000, and then a six-speed from 2001 on. Enthusiasts were thrilled – until they drove a stickshift SLK and discovered the vague shifter that made many wish they’d bought the automatic after all.

While the basic six-cylinder engine was smoother and more powerful than the four-banger, it didn’t exact too harsh a penalty on fuel economy. Depending on model year, fuel consumption for an SLK320 is rated at between 12.5 and 13.6 L/100 km in the city and between 8 and 8.5 L/100 km on the highway. The four-cylinder SLK230 only holds a significant advantage in city driving, where it will use between 11 and 12 L/100 km. Highway consumption works out to between 7 and 8 L/100 km. Chances are if you’re after one of the monster AMG-tuned cars, fuel economy isn’t a big deal to you, but while we’re on the topic, the SLK32 AMG is rated at 12.8-13.6 L/100 in the city and 9.1-9.7 L/100 km on the highway.

For reliability, the SLK’s basic mechanical components – engines and transmissions – seem to hold up well according to Consumer Reports (CR), but the magazine warns of electrical troubles in earlier models. Only the 1999 model gets CR’s recommended rating; for other years, it gets average marks except for 1997, 2000 and 2003, when there wasn’t enough data to provide conclusive results. Keep in mind that while the SLK’s folding roof is cool, it’s bound to be expensive to repair when it breaks. Normal repair and parts costs for higher-end cars such as this can be pricey too, so be sure to do your research before buying to make sure you don’t end up with a car you can’t afford to maintain properly. The SLK was subject to just one minor recall dealing with headlamp aiming procedures.

Neither the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tested the first-generation SLK, but all featured now-common safety items like ABS, side airbags and traction control to keep its occupants safe.

The SLK’s luxury heritage and trick roof have conspired to keep resale values on the high side. According to Canadian Red Book, a 1998 SLK230 that stickered for $55,700 new is still worth $21,050 – more than a third of its original cost. In comparison, an E320 sedan from 1998 is worth just $16,550 despite an M.S.R.P. almost $11,000 higher than the SLK’s. At the high end, a 2004 SLK320 is worth $53,225 and the SLK32 carries a value of $62,875, compared to their M.S.R.P.s of $61,950 and $77,500 respectively.

While its cool roof and clean styling definitely play in the SLK’s favour, the rough base engine, so-so reliability and lack of a satisfying manual transmission are turn-offs. But if you want a stylish droptop suitable for four-season use, this is probably the car for you.

On-line resources

For SLK owners looking for a place to find information about their car and to meet other SLK drivers, there are two very active Mercedes-Benz communities that offer a wealth of information about these cars. One is www.mbworld.org, which is home to 27,645 members and features a section dedicated to the first-generation SLK. The other is www.benzworld.org, which boasts 41,838 members and also has a forum section dedicated to the original SLK. Both forums seem to have a lot going for them so it’s hard to recommend one over the other. Honestly, I’d suggest hanging around both for a while and picking your favourite.

www.slk32.com – while its URL suggests that it deals exclusively with the high-zoot AMG-modified version of the SLK, this site actually provides plenty of information on all SLK models. No forums here, but there’s a thorough FAQ section and a how-to page for owners wishing to do their own maintenance, repairs or upgrades.


Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002131; Units affected: 1,470

2000-2002: Certain passenger vehicles fail to comply with the requirements CMVSS 108, “lamps, reflective devices, and associated equipment.” The owner’s manual does not contain the proper headlamp aiming instructions. This does not meet the requirements of the standard. Correction: Owners will be provided with headlamp aiming instructions, and directions for affixing this information into the operator’s manual

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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