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Mercedes-Benz SLK230


Can't decide between a six-figure luxury coupe or a convertible?

In 25 seconds of electrohydraulic choreography the Vario folding aluminium hardtop transforms Mercedes-Benz's SLK from elegant coupe to glamorous roadster, and saves you the mental torture of choosing between a coupe and a convertible.

In this best-of-both-worlds Benz, switching bodystyles - whenever you desire or the weather demands - is only the touch of button away.

First seen on New Zealand roads in late 1996, the SLK remains unique - until the cute Peugeot 206 cc arrives next year - in being able to deliver wind-in-the-hair roadster motoring with the day-to-day convenience, refinement and security of a hardtop.

For the 2000 model year the SLK got its mid-life makeover. Along with some subtle cosmetic exterior and cabin updates the model choice was expanded to include six cylinder power for the first time.

Look closely at the classic roadster long bonnet, short tail and snug two seater cockpit proportions of the 2000 model SLK and you might notice a few differences.

Cosmetic changes include reshaped front and rear bumpers, new side skills, a painted grille and new tail lamps.

However the AMG bodykit that is standard on NZ-spec V6 versions tends to divert the attention from such details. The easiest way to spot a 2000 model SLK is the indicator repeaters in the exterior mirrors - fast becoming a Benz styling signature.

Slotting the 3199cc 18-valve V6 behind that distinctive honeycomb grille creates the SLK 320 V6 as the flagship of the SLK range. Priced at $125,000 its positioned above the four cylinder 2.3-litre supercharged SLK 230 Kompressor version which is listed at $102,900.

The extra two cylinders and 900-odd cubic centimetres don't provide a significant performance boost. Rather they alter the character of the SLK.

The latest SLK 230 Kompressor model has a slightly uprated output of 145kW. The V6 develops 160kW. Over the 0-100km/h sprint the V6 is a shade quicker at 6.9 seconds - compared with the blown four-pot model which clocks 7.2s.

But the style of performance of the two cars is very different. The Kompressor engine has eager throttle response thanks to an impressively flat torque curve but when revved harder it reveals a mechanical coarseness.

As you might expect the V6 is appreciably more refined and has a muted snarl at higher revs. The result is fractionally brisker performance but with a lot less apparent effort.

This 3.2-litre alloy V6 engine with three valves and two spark plugs per cylinder has become a staple of the modern Benz line-up.

You'll find it under the bonnet of an alphabet soup of C, CLK, E, S, SL, ML and G-Wagen models. Perhaps the only current model which doesn't have a 320 variant is the baby A-Class, although no doubt some German Hot-rod haus builds just such a machine.

The 3.2-litre unit develops its 160kW peak at 5700rpm and the torque curve flattens at 310Nm between 3000 and 4600rpm. There's impressive flexibility all the way from about 1500rpm to achieve effortless performance.

European markets offer the SLK with a six-speed manual transmission but the standard gearbox for New Zealand is a five-speed automatic offering sequential manual shifting for those times you want some extra involvement and direct control of the car.

The Benz Touch-shift system is sheer simplicity. Whenever the gearshifter is in Drive the transmission can be shifted manually by nudging the lever across the gate. There's no need to move the shifter into a separate gate to shift manually.

Usually with these sports auto-style transmissions I experiment a few times and then leave the automatic to make its own mind up prompted by throttle pressure.

But with the SLK having the long-travel throttle that's a Mercedes-Benz hallmark there's some advantage to be gained from nudging the transmission down one gear at the start of an overtaking move or the moment before momentum starts to falter on a long uphill run.

Although in New Zealand you get an automatic unless you specifically order the six-speeder, the local spec for the SLK 320 V6 includes a sports-oriented AMG option package which comprises bodykit, five-spoke 17-inch wheels and sports suspension.

Tyre sizes differ front to rear with 225//45 ZR17 Michelin SX Pilots leading the car and wider 245//40 ZR17 boots putting the power onto the road. That's a lot of rubber on the road for a car that's no more than 50mm bigger than a Mazda MX-5 in any exterior dimension - but about 300kg heavier of course.

The firm and occasionally thumpy AMG suspension combines with the SLK's relatively short wheelbase and low profile rubber to produce a somewhat unresolved low speed ride. Around the city across uneven surfaces the car reacts somewhat abruptly and there's a sense that the SLK 320 V6 is over-tyred.

The 17-inch low profile rubber rumbles and bangs a bit across bumpy city streets and over level changes while the steering wheel fidgets as the wide front tyres pick their path through the minor ridges and hollows.

Things settle down as open road speeds are approached but the SLK 320 V6 never feels as nimble as its compact dimensions might suggest. In the twisty stuff you get more impression of its 1400kg-plus bulk than its small size.

As for the steering the SLK - with its ball and nut-type mechanism - provides prime evidence that the recent shift to rack and pinion in the new C-Class saloon was a long overdue improvement for Mercedes-Benz products. The SLK isn't as informative through the steering as I'd want a sports car to be.

Adhesion is something that's in generous supply and the big Michelins grip confidently. Well before the limits of the car can be fully explored the Electronic Stability Programme steps in and keeps the SLK within pre-determined dynamic parameters thanks to automatic individual wheel braking and throttle intervention.

No question marks loom over the brakes. Big diameter four-wheel discs stop the SLK with assurance and have the sophistication of the latest ABS technology with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and the Brake Assist function which senses an emergency brake application and automatically delivers maximum braking power.

It may be strictly a two-seater but the SLK still provides reasonable cabin space. With the roof raised there's still plenty of headroom to accompany the hardtop advantages of security, low wind noise at speed and a glass rear window with demister. There's a big centre console and small door bins for storage.

The multi-adjustable power-operated front seats are a standard part of the V6 specification (and optional on the 230K model). The driving position is supportive in the firmly upholstered style of German cars and the seats do seem quite narrow across the shoulders. The steering column is tilt-adjustable.

The major compromise demanded by the Vario hardtop is the amount of load space it occupies when stowed. The 348 litres of load volume is pretty good by sports car standards when the SLK is a coupe but that's more than halved to 145 litres when the roof is stowed.

If you're planning a weekend away and need to carry any more than a few small items then the roof will have to stay in place. There's a cover in the boot which separates the luggage from the roof and some bold graphics to warn of the damage that might be done by cramming too much into the load space and then expecting the roof to stow successfully.

Standard equipment on both SLK 230K and 320 V6 versions include frontal and side impact airbags, Speedtronic cruise control, a new 10 disc Compact Disc sound system, air-conditioning with pollen filter, infra-red remote central door-locking, headlamp washers, power windows and mirrors and a stretch-out draught stop which can be fitted over the roll bars and significantly reduces wind noise and turbulence in the cockpit at open road speeds.

Additional equipment provided as standard on the V6 model over the 230 K are the 17-inch AMG wheels and bodykit and the electric seats.

An impressive variety of interior trim choices allows customers to personalise their SLK. There are three fabrics and five leathers along with the choice of two wood finishes or the contemporary fashion of aluminium with a structured polished finish on the centre console and door handle surrounds.

The test car cockpit blended the timeless elegance of anthracite leather with the alloy trim treatment.

Considering the aggressively chunky looks of the AMG kit on the outside - and the drilled pedals, polished metal on the sills and sports style white faced instrument cluster in the cabin - the alloy treatment seems the more appropriate choice.

Priced at $125,000 the SLK 320 V6 is slight more expensive than a Porsche Boxster 2.7 and significantly dearer than the Audi TT Roadster. Most of the price difference can be down to the complexities of the Vario roof.

Given that it effectively delivers two cars in one enhances the value-for-money aspect of the SLK. But for the sports car enthusiast the SLK doesn't match either the nimbleness of the Boxster or the enormous all-weather quattro adhesion of the TT.

AutoPoint NZ road test team.

Auto Trader New Zealand