2000 Mercedes-Benz SLK230 Kompressor R170

2000 Mercedes-Benz SLK230 Kompressor R170

The R170 Mercedes-Benz SLK is another German recession-baby. Its big-brother R129 SL was considered one of the finest cars in the world upon its 1989 launch, retaining R107 deportment while adding Corvette-like sportiness. But it was eye-wateringly expensive. By 1991, Mercedes was feeling the need for something smaller and cheaper, based on the shortened floorplan of its forthcoming C-class 3 Series rival. But it needed a USP of a kind its rivals couldn’t muster. In 1993, rather than releasing a concept car in the manner of Porsche, Mercedes filed a patent. One that I’m about to enjoy the fruits of as I hold back the little roof-shaped switch on the centre console.

An SLK’s Vario-Roof in action is pure automotive theatre. Mercedes even went to the extent of ensuring its angles mimicked those of a Fifties 300SL’s gullwing doors as it arced backwards. Interestingly, 300SL bonnet humps aside, Mercedes designer Bruno Sacco avoided the retro-inspiration road paved by Mazda, BMW and Porsche. Viewed side-on, the SLK is a striking wedge. The deliberate dischord between the angles of doors and bonnet, and the way the rear light clusters eat into as much of the sides as they do the rear, bring to mind Nineties postmodern architectural forms from the likes of Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, all clashing steel shards and towers of unusual glass formations.

Don’t let its almost inevitable automatic gearbox fool you into thinking it’s not a proper sports car. Compared to the cramped Z3 and ergonomically awkward Boxster, its driving position is straight-legged and hard to fault. Flick the gearbox into Sport mode and it holds ratios a little longer, the supercharged 2.3-litre straight-four whooshing and screaming beyond 5000rpm, genuinely translating into Boxster-humbling pace. Left to its own devices, changes on the automatic gearbox are slow-witted. Thankfully though it has a manual-override mode that allows ratios to be flicked through sequentially, and changes are near-instantaneous so long as they’re accompanied by a throttle lift. Once you’re acclimatised to moving the gear lever right to shift up and left to shift down, you can go on a proper B-road attack in the SLK.

Admittedly its recirculating-ball steering lacks feel and feedback compared to the rack-and-pinion setups it’s up against here. But unlike Mercs of yore there isn’t a slack dead-zone in the middle. Insulated it may be, but it’s precise, and similar to the MGF. There is scuttle-shake though, although you can pretty-much neutralise it by pressing down on the little plastic model roof and watch the Vario perform in reverse. Roof up, you hear little squeaks and rattles, but those slabs of steel effectively brace the car in a way that no canvas top could hope to.

The result is a remarkable dual-role machine. With roof up, Sport mode engaged and shifting manually, it’s a compact and defthandling coupé to bother BMWs with. But with roof down, Sport mode off, leaving the gearbox to do its own thing and settled in to relaxed wafting down a motorway, it’s – well, a Mercedes-Benz SL. Ultimately, it robs you of the kind of tactile involvement that the Mazda really excels at – the steering doesn’t kick back at you, there’s no scope for clutch control or jumping two ratios in the automatic, and if you do manage to find a rare manual it’s a clunky, longwinded affair that makes the Porsche’s shift feel like the Mazda’s.

But no other car here is quite so adaptable. And it’s also interesting to see how BMW, in evolving the Z3’s Z4 successor, has gone down the electric-hardtop sequential-shift route.

Incredibly, given its abilities and £32k price tag when new, the SLK230 Kompressor is the cheapest car here. This one, laden with Special Edition options when new, cost its owner just £700, and we found one with just 87k miles on the clock in Leicester for £1900. A Birmingham dealer is selling an unusual green one with 113k miles for £1695 complete with warranty. Even the very best, like the one at Rix Motors in Warrington, will only muster £5950.

Unfortunately one of the reasons for these low prices is the car’s complexity, plus unfortunately poor build quality. Although German-built, it suffered the cost-cutting compromises of Mercedes’ short-lived merger with Chrysler, and rust issues are common. Rear subframe rot can cost £450 to put right. Surface rust is easily tackled but if it eats through a wing you’re looking at another £400 per panel. Electrical faults can get serious too. Replacing a faulty headlight switch assembly costs a scary £450.

But the worst-case scenario involves fixing the Vario-Roof. Make sure it drops all the windows, flips open the bootlid, folds the roof in two, stores it under the lid and raises the front windows on one hold of the button. Any hesitation or jamming and you’re looking at a combination of electrical and hydraulic work that won’t leave much change from £3k to fix. But it’s still an attractive gamble.

Owning a Mercedes SLK230

‘It’s actually my first car – I’m learning to drive in it,’ says Nicola Weeks of her SLK230 Kompressor. ‘After contemplating some old C-class Coupés, this SLK came up, surprisingly within my price range, so I decided to take a punt on it. It was a bargain – on sale for £800, but I haggled the seller down to £700 on account of it having no service history. However, it had been owned by a professional mechanic who had always kept it serviced. I kept the rest of my budget aside for any remedial work, bit the bullet and took it to a Mercedes main dealer for a full checkover, but it turned out that aside from some cosmetic rust spots around the wheelarches it was a really good car.

‘Running costs are average, but the main concerns are electrical. If the roof fails it costs a fortune to fix, and the dashboard is prone to throwing up MoT-failing warning lights that turn out to be false alarms on professional inspection.’

2000 Mercedes-Benz SLK230 Kompressor R170

  • Engine 2295cc in-line four-cylinder, dohc, Bosch ME-Jetronic fuel injection, Eaton M62 supercharger
  • Max Power 193bhp @ 5300rpm
  • Max Torque 207lb ft @ 4800rpm
  • Transmission Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
  • Steering Power-assisted recirculating-ball
  • Suspension
  • Front: independent, wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
  • Rear: independent, five-link axle location, coil springs, telescopic dampers
  • Brakes Servo-assisted discs front and rear
  • Weight 1250kg
  • Performance 0-60mph: 7.3 sec;
  • Top speed: 142mph
  • Fuel consumption 24mpg
  • Cost new £31,640
  • Classic Cars Price Guide £1200-£4750

Mercedes-Benz SLK230 Kompressor R170

Less visceral than some of the other convertibles here, but more flexible. Pushed hard, the forced-induction four-cylinder is a proper screamer.

‘Don’t let the almost inevitable automatic gearbox fool you into thinking the SLK is not a proper sports car’
Article type:
No comments yet. Be the first to add a comment!
Drives TODAY use cookie