Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class (1996 – 2004) Review

Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class (1996 – 2004) At A Glance


+Excellent build quality, terrific engineering and a very good crash test rating. Much better drive from 2000 onwards.

-Unrewarding steering, offset driving position and some problems with the 5-speed autobox.

It may not have been the first of its ilk, but the Mercedes-Benz R170 SLK was the car that popularised the trend of the electric folding hardtop – an idea that went on to spawn similar models from Peugeot, Vauxhall, Ford and Nissan to name but a few.

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.

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.

Mercedes SLK (3)

It didn’t matter one jot that the SLK’s chassis, based on a truncated C-class platform, was fairly wooden (a fact proven by the clunky, overweight Chrysler Crossfire that grew from the platform), 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 311,000 R170s built in a production run that lasted eight years.

Today, the SLK is a rising classic. A car that offers and affordable yet stylish entry into Mercedes convertible ownership, yet is still modern enough to run every day, with faultless parts availability and a good record for mechanical reliability.

That isn’t matched by the bodywork, which can rust like any Nineties Mercedes, but on the flip side, there are plenty of examples around that have been cherished, garaged and kept as second cars, and these are the ones that are destined to become future classics provided they are well rust-proofed and equally well maintained.

The SLK was a game-changer, and that makes it a good choice as a future classic – look after one and the value is only going one way – an inexpensive investment, and a nice car to have around for high days and holidays.

Ask Honest John

I have an old classic. How's best to sell it?

"I have a 1998 Mercedes SLK with 97,000 miles. It's MOT'd until August but has a dodgy sunroof that we no longer need. Could you advise on how best to sell it? Should I get the roof fixed and tart up the paintwork? The interior is okay but scuffed and marked as you would expect. Is eBay sensible or is there a better option? Any advice would be gratefully received."
It depends on how much hassle you want. If you want a quick sale, we'd recommend sticking on eBay (perhaps as an auction) with an honest description and some detailed pictures. It'll achieve a fair price and hopefully won't be a long process. Alternatively, if you fix the roof and tidy up the paintwork, you could try advertising it on sites like Car and Classic for strong money. Also, look at some of the new classic car auction sites like Collecting Cars and The Market – cars like yours seem to make fairly high values on those. Or you could try a physical auction like Anglia Car Auctions.
Answered by Andrew Brady

Why won't my SLK unlock?

"My Mercedes SLK 250 won't unlock. Last Sunday it sat on my drive during very heavy rain and hasn't let anyone in since. The key raises the button but the car remains locked. Both keys have been tested. I've tried various tips from local experts and everyone is baffled (eg giving it five secs plus with the key held close to the handle to send an infra red signal). A mechanic jacked the front up and declared there was life in the battery. I'm about to get it spec lifted to the main Merc deal which my brilliant local garage said was probably best in case they failed to solve the problem. I reckon its to do with water ingress. This might be irrelevant but a few times the aircon hasn't switched on which I also think is after heavy rain. It makes me wonder if some filter is sodden or unseen gutter blocked and could this now be causing the car to lock down? "
This is a fairly common problem, unfortunately. We spoke to Mercedes specialist the SL shop, who suggested it may be caused by plenum blocked drains that allow excess water into the car via the heater motor chamber. 'Because the electrical connectors and ecu's are below the carpets they are often damaged. The quick check is to get a bucket of water and pour it onto the windscreen and make sure it flows out straightaway underneath the car on both sides. The drains usually exit behind the wheel arch liner.'
Answered by Keith Moody

What future classic should I buy for £2500?

"I have £2500 to spend on my first future classic car and was wondering if you could help? I'm torn between a number of candidates e.g Toyota MR2 MK3, MG TF160, Mercedes SLK 230 or a Mazda MX-5. It will only be used during the summer and needs to be reliable and not too costly to maintain."
All fine cars. I reckon you should go out and drive them - but before you do, make a list of what's important to you. If you want pure driving satisfaction, you make want to go for a Mk1 MX-5, if you like creature comforts then a Mercedes SLK may be more up your street. A car is only reliable as its previous owners, so check the history. Parts prices are a concern with any classic and can be hurt by the fluctuations in currency. You could always price up various items for your shortlist. For example, service items like spark plugs and leads, oil filter etc. Or items like brake pads and discs. But do also check out the prices of panels. Do you have a classic-friendly specialist nearby? How are you planning to store it? You'll need to take these things into consideration, too.
Answered by Keith Moody

Can I repaint the rocker cover on my car?

"I have just bought a 1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230. I need advice regarding the rocker cover. On most of the SLK 230s of this vintage the rocker cover is painted white. On my car the front end of the rocker cover has the paint bubbling. Can you advise the likely cause? Can the bubbling paint be stripped and then repainted. If so what paint would you recommend for the job?"
This is a really common problem. The solution is to strip it and re-paint it using Very High Temperature (VHT) paint which you can pick up from most good car parts stores.
Answered by Keith Moody
More Questions

What does a Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class (1996 – 2004) cost?