Twenty-four bleary-eyed hours of travel have taken us to a cluster of volcanic rocks just off the coast of Africa. The Canary Islands aren’t the place one typically thinks of when it comes to testing a new car, but the Mercedes-Benz SLK isn’t your typical automobile.
When it made its debut, four years ago, it was one of a trio of new European roadsters that delivered a breath of life for the long moribund American sports car market. In a world filled with look and drive-alike commodity cars, there was no way to confuse the SLK, the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3. Of the three, Mercedes’ entry was the most elegant, with its slick, retractable hardtop. But the SLK was also the least sporty, a ragtop more at home at the club than on the track.
For 2001, Mercedes hopes to change that perception, with the introduction of the SLK 320. Along with the original SLK230 Kompressor — which remains in production — the new model undergoes a minor, mid-cycle facelift. The changes are modest and likely to be missed by anyone not closely familiar with the original SLK. Even so, they’re worthy of note. The roadster now has turn signals integrated into the mirrors, a nice safety touch for such a small automobile in a world dominated by massive trucks. There are new marker panels and body-colored door handles.
On the interior, you’ll find a new steering wheel and shift lever, and with the SLK230, the carbon fiber look has been replaced with machined aluminum, a very hot style among European manufacturers these days. Wood trim is standard with the SLK320.
2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class
Without question, though, the most significant change is apparent in the new models designation. The SLK320 gets a new, 3.2 liter V-6 instead of the original car’s supercharged 2.3 liter in-line four. The impact is notable, with the SLK320 churning out 215 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque, compared with the SLK230’s 190 hp and 200 lb-ft. (The pony count for the Kompressor model will rise by five for 2001.) Zero-to-60 time drops to 6.6 seconds, down from 7.2 for the SLK230.
Of course, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. No matter how much better a car might look on paper, the truth is in the driving, and that’s why we’ve suffered through a series of missed flights, awkward connections, and a bad case of jet lag to get to the island of Lanzarote.
An uncharacteristically chill breeze is blowing in from Morocco as we begin our day-long drive, but the SLK just doesn’t feel right with the top up. The retractable hardtop is easily this roadster’s most endearing feature, a one-touch operation that takes less than 30 seconds to raise or lower. As it stows away, we get our first look at this desert island paradise.
Lanzarote is punctuated by volcanoes, most dormant, a few still active, a fact made all the more apparent by the lava fields that cover a sizable chunk of the island. This time of the year, there are more tourists than natives on this Spanish possession, its villages scattered amidst hills and valleys. Despite its initially rustic appearance, there’s something about Lanzarote that appears, well, almost planned; not surprising thanks to Cesar Manrique. He was more than just an artist in residence. Before his death, a decade ago, Manrique influenced — some would say dictated — virtually every aspect of the island’s life and look. He even demanded that homes be no more than two stories tall, with white walls and green doors and window trim. And so, with the breeze in our face, we head out on a winding route that feels as if it’s carrying us into a Manrique painting.
2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK Class
You can’t miss the added performance offered by the new V-6, but we’re even more impressed by the SLK320’s new six-speed manual transmission. (A five-speed automatic is optional.) It’s a short-throw stick that’s smooth and seamless, a significant improvement over the awkward and jerky five-speed manual the original SLK suffered from. The V-6 has a wide power band that minimizes the need to shift, something that gets to be an annoyance with many six-speeds. The engine’s exhaust note is also worth mentioning; a gutsy rumble that adds to the perception of speed.
SLK 2 shot
Steering feels tighter than with the older Kompressor model, though there’s still a good bit of understeer. The suspension is firmer and predictable as we bob and weave along Lanzarote’s crystal shoreline. But it’s still not nearly as taut and precise as the Porsche Boxster. Part of that has to do with suspension tuning, our Mercedes hosts explain, as well as their choice of tires. The German automaker is still positioning the SLK as a luxury touring car, rather than a high-performance sportster. For those who like the car’s looks but would prefer a little more sporty handling, a change of tires should provide a fast, if partial fix.
The styling changes for 2001 are generally quite attractive. The wood trim is conservative but apropos for the SLK320. With the 230, our personal taste runs more to the lines of the old carbon fiber, though it did look a bit plasticky. The brushed aluminum is a tad garish.
Overall, the 2001 SLK is a roadster worthy of note. It’s got great lines, some nice features, and with the SLK320, performance is markedly improved for the new year. If you’re seeking maximum performance, you might consider the Boxster, the Z3, or even the Honda S2000, but if you want a balanced mix of style and suspension, Mercedes’ little roadster delivers handsomely.
|2001 Mercedes-Benz SLK320
Base Price: N/A|
Engine: 3.2 liter V-6, 215 hp (SLK230 Kompressor: supercharged 2.3 liter in-line four, 190 hp)
Transmission: six-speed manual, optional five-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 94.5 in
Length: 157.8 in
Width: 76.7 in
Height: 49.8 in
Weight: 3091 lb
Fuel economy: NA
Major standard equipment: