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Happy Birthday: Mercedes SLK

Published 23 May 2016

Trendsetters come in all shapes and sizes, to the extent that, even today, car manufacturers are still inventing niches we didn’t know existed.

The original Mercedes SLK with its folding metal roof filled one such niche. It wasn’t the very first of its kind – that honour falls to a 1930s Peugeot – but it was the first to make it commercially available, and it set in motion a trend that almost every other soft-top (or not, as the case may be) would follow for the next two decades. That trend was the electric folding hardtop, and it has been used since on cars as diverse as the latest Ferrari 458 to a rather aesthetically challenged interpretation of the bug-eyed Nissan Micra.

It was Mercedes, though, that popularised the technology. The original ‘Vario-Roof’ was first seen on the SLK II Concept Car at the 1994 Paris Motor Show, the appearance of the prototype being so close to the final production model that it was clear from the outset that Mercedes had production intent for the model.

The Vario-Roof worked by means of a folding steel hardtop, divided in half along a transverse axis. By pressing a button on the centre console, the roof would lift and concertina away into a rear deck that lifted up on hydraulic rams, so it was safely stowed away in just over 30 seconds. As an engineering masterpiece, it was a sight to behold.

Mercedes SLK (3) (1)

The company’s mini-SL, codenamed R170, made its European debut in April 1996 and was previewed at that year’s Turin Motor Show. It was an instant hit. With styling cues quite clearly ripped from the bigger SL, combined with a sub-£30,000 price tag and compact dimensions, it was no surprise that there was a waiting list across Europe almost from the outset. A waiting list so long, in fact, that buyers in the USA had to wait over a year before Mercedes started importing them, and kick-started an even longer waiting list.

It didn’t matter one jot that the SLK’s chassis, based on a truncated C-Class platform, was fairly wooden, or that the extra weight of the electro-hydraulic rams and steel roof made it considerably heavier than the likes of the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster that were touted as its rivals. The SLK was a sports car that didn’t need to be a sports car. Dynamics came second to the posing factor, and that was instantly noticeable as soon as you settled, rather comfortably, of course, behind the wheel.

There was a semblance of performance. The 230 Kompressor, which was the only available model at launch, used Mercedes’s patented supercharging technology to wring almost 200bhp out of the 2.3-litre straight four engine, meaning it was no slouch. But agility was never its strong point. Nor did it need to be.

The SLK was all about looking good, and that was something it did in spades. It was popular, too, with over 310,000 R170s built in a production run that lasted eight years.

Mercedes SLK (2)

The roof technology went on to be part of the 2001 SL range, a proper Mercedes sports car that manged to embrace both the Vario-Roof technology and the agility required of a proper high performance tourer. But by then, the folding steel hardtop was commonplace, and the SLK was comprehensively outsold by the Peugeot 206CC. Even Vauxhall got in on the act, introducing a similar system on the Tigra and Astra TwinTop, while Lexus tried, unsuccessfully, to emulate the SLK’s style and class with the SC430, which had all the technology, but none of the style.

Today, the SLK is on the cusp of collectability. Despite its premium image, though, it harks from an era where Mercedes build quality was going through a less than purple patch. Commendably, there are very few failures of the roof mechanism (Peugeot and Vauxhall, take note). But the downside to this wonderful witchcraft comes in the form of bodywork that does its best to self-destruct. The SLK isn’t as bad as the W202 C-Class or W210 E-Class for visible corrosion (the wings, for example, tend not to self-ventilate), but rot can set in around the sills and rear arches, and on a car where the lower half of the body structure compensates for the lack of solidity in the top half, structural rust can mean game over, so check any potential purchase carefully. The good news is that there are many R170s around that have led mollycoddled lives as garaged second cars, so if you want one to cherish and preserve, these are the cars you should be looking for.

Today’s folding roofs are smaller, lighter, easier to install and much more in keeping with the DNA of a true sports car. For a while, they made the traditional ragtop redundant, although true convertibles are now undergoing something of a resurgence. The SLK, however, remains true to its roots in the current generation. It may be something of a niche model, but the SLK is and was truly a game-changer.

Even more astonishing, though, is the fact that it’s 20 years since it first made its debut… Happy Birthday, then, SLK. The others certainly came to your party.


Lord Brasic    on 31 May 2016

The 230 kompressor is the best one, plenty of go and good on fuel, look after it and do hundreds of thousands of miles. The V6 320 is great, but in the real word there is no point in it when the 230 is so good. If you don't like automatics then don't but one, the manual box is horrible and really spoils the car. Apart from that the only two downsides to owning one, rust but that’s curable, the other the stupidly small boot when the roof is down. Why Mercedes didn't offer a soft top option is beyond me. People seem to like the all weather protection and the security of the hard top but as many are used as second cars I would have preferred a good sized boot that can be used with the hood either up or down. The car itself is a capable long distance cruiser but if you're going away for a few days holiday you'll be very limited on what you can take with you. Therefore you will probably end up missing out on this great car and buy something that can be used with the roof down and still have luggage space, so that will be an MX-5 for me please.

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