New & Used Mercedes-Benz SLK Class: In Depth
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The Mercedes SLK-Class is a two-seat hardtop convertible that's been a part of the German automaker's lineup since the 1996 model year. Pitched as the smaller, nimbler (and less expensive) alternative to the luxurious SL-Class, the SLK offers a wide range of powertrains, from a turbocharged four-cylinder to a 415-horsepower AMG V-8. It's also the only Mercedes to be offered in the U.S. with a manual transmission, albeit only on the base model.
Not surprisingly, the car has been a runaway success for Mercedes-Benz and has been the market leader for its segment for a number of years. With a starting price in the high $40,000 range, the SLK has always been slightly more expensive than its closest rivals, the Audi TT Roadster and BMW Z4, but its uniqueness in the market has won it many fans.
MORE: Read our 2015 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class review
The SLK was one of the first modern roadsters to offer a power retractable hard top. It would be followed in short order by the VW Eos, Pontiac G6, BMW Z4, even the Mercedes SL and Mazda Miata.
The SLK was originally offered exclusively with a four-cylinder engine, which most enthusiasts deemed too feeble for a sports car. However, a 3.2-liter V-6 engine was added to the lineup in 2001 and the standard models were joined that same year by a high-performance AMG variant with 354 horsepower on tap.
By 2005, those rival hardtops gave Mercedes a reason to replace the SLK, so for 2005 Mercedes-Benz introduced the second generation of the car, built on a brand new platform. This saw the SLK move to a much sleeker and sexier design as well as adopt a range of much more powerful engines--including a V-8 for the AMG model.
While overseas variants still offered a four-cylinder option, the base SLK in the U.S. would adopt a V-6. This base model was the SLK300 and it came with a 228-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6. Next in line was the SLK350 with a 300-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6, followed by the range-topping SLK55 AMG, which came with a 355-horsepower 5.5-liter V-8.
In 2009 the car was given some minor styling revisions to keep it fresh against its rivals, especially the BMW Z4. A limited edition Black Series model based on the SLK55 AMG was also launched, offering slightly more power and a range of other performance modifications.
Mercedes-Benz launched a third-generation SLK as a 2012 model. Initially available only as the SLK 350, the sportscar has been restyled to incorporate the latest corporate grille, though the platform has remained essentially the same as the prior car. A 3.5-liter V-6 with 302 horsepower provides strong acceleration, while a new SLK 55 AMG edition turns the car into a super-convertible with 415 horsepower.
Mercedes added an SLK 250 model shortly after the 350, powered by a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder. While a seven-speed automatic is standard on most SLK models, the turbo four 250 comes with a standard six-speed manual, making it the only Mercedes available in the U.S. with a clutch pedal. The latest SLK handles better than its predecessor, although its size and interior volume are similar to the last model.
Today's SLK has a surprising amount of interior space for its size, partly since Mercedes has further refined the top mechanism to take up less space. The hardtop now offers what Mercedes calls Magic Sky Control, an electrochromic layer sandwiched within two pieces of glas that can block out light from above or let it through. One of the SLK's standout features, the neck-warming AIRSCARF vents, returns for this generation as well.
For 2013, Mercedes-Benz bolstered the SLK 350's equipment set by making the Premium Package items standard; the Eco Start/Stop system was also made standard on both the SLK 350 and SLK 55 AMG. Adaptive Highbeam Assist was also newly optional, and the mbrace2 telematics system was added.
The SLK carries over unchanged for the 2015 model year.
A name change is in store for the SLK and is likely to coincide with a mid-cycle refresh that is due soon for this generation. Mercedes has announced plans to align the naming scheme for its various models with the established names of its core sedan offerings. As a result, many of the SUVs and crossovers are getting new three-letter designations, while the SLK will revive the SLC badge, since it is related and closest in size to the C-Class sedan. History buffs will remember that the SLC name was used in the past on a longer, 2+2 version of the SL coupe; this new SLC, however, will of course be shorter than the SL roadster.