Although first mooted in showcar form back in 1994, Merc's

baby sportster (the K stands for kurz, or short) is as crisp as ever, thanks

to a mid-term facelift that has subtly changed the bumper line and side mouldings.

Complementing the subtle styling revisions are 16-inch alloy wheels (7J in

front, 8J at the rear), reworked front and rear foglights, restyled rear lights

and a painted

radiator grille. Headlights are now xenon units.But the makeover is more than

skin-deep. For starters, there's a change of engines, the previously

offered SLK200 and SLK230 Kompressor models being replaced by the SLK200 Kompressor

and V6-engined flagship SLK320. But the real

excitement for dyed-in-the-wool South African sports car fans is the addition

of a manual version of the new 200 Kompressor to the local range. Much as we

loved earlier versions of the SLK, we have always lamented the lack of a sporty

stick-shift. The new Kompressor model puts this to rights, offering the choice

of a five-speed auto or a six-on-the-floor manual set-up that transforms the

driving experience.

Up front is a power-unit we already know well, having sampled it in the new

C200 Kompressor (tested for January 2001 CAR). In SLK guise, it has exactly

the same outputs, with a peak power figure of 120 kW at 5 300 r/min, and maximum

torque of 230 N.m, available across the band between 2500 and 4 800 r/min. Although

based on the company's normally aspirated two-litre four, the power-unit

has a range of detail modifications, including sodium-cooled exhaust valves,

a modified piston design, and spray cooling of the piston crowns. The belt-driven

supercharger is far lighter than the one used on earlier SLK and C-Class Kompressor

models as a result of the elimination of the electromagnetic coupling between

the unit and the engine. Like its predecessors, it is a Roots-type blower with

two three-lobed rotors, set at an angle of 60 degrees to each other, that rotate

without touching inside the housing, forcing the charge air into the combustion

chambers. Dropping the electromagnetic coupling, which previously separated

the supercharger from the engine when idling, was made possible by new bearing


Among the other advances incorporated into the new-generation engine are redesigned

inlet and outlet ports for better gas-flow, single-spark ignition coils integrated

directly into the cylinder head, the adoption of platinum spark plugs (with

a life of around 100 000 km, provided the fuel doesn't contain metallic

compounds), new Siemens electronic engine management, and a redesigned exhaust

system. Several measures aimed at reducing engine noise have been adopted, including

rubber-coated timing chain sprockets, a cover over the induction pipe and a

newly developed suction fan for cooling. The new supercharger design also makes

for quieter running.

SLK models now feature ASSYST, Mercedes-Benz's active service system,

which varies the engine maintenance schedule according to the measured load

on the engine oil, and ESP (electronic stability programme), the latter being

integrated with the ABS and engine management systems. Suspension is the same

set-up as before - double wishbones in front, with a multi-link system at

the rear - but with detail mods to improve driving dynamics. Changes include

a reinforced stabiliser in front, a torsion-bar stabiliser at the rear, and

retuned shockabsorbers with reduced spring travel and a slightly lower ride


Although Mercedes's compact sports car featured state-of-the-art crash

safety systems from the start, the latest SLK incorporates measures to bring

it into line with the latest Euro-NCAP standard. Intrusion by the engine into

the passenger cell in offset frontal collisions has been further reduced, and

side and rear impact protection has been improved.

Arguably the SLK's greatest tour de force is its superb Vario folding

roof, a feature that can turn the car from a well insulated coupé to a

wind-in-the-hair sportster at the touch of a button. The steel top folds into

the upper section of the boot, the process being effected by a powerful pump

linked to five hydraulic cylinders. For safety reasons, the mechanism can only

be activated at up to walking speed.

Inside, the SLK is a snug-fitting two-seater that caters for the so-called

"90-percentile male". Taller folks may struggle somewhat to get

comfy - our resident beanpole kept hitting the car-phone cradle when selecting

reverse - but the electrically adjusted seats allow plenty of adjustment

for average-sized people. Facia, controls and instrumentation are typical Mercedes-Benz,

crafted in high quality materials. Ergonomically, the controls are great, although

one tester commented that he could not instinctively get to grips with Mercedes-Benz's

generic multi-function column stalk.

In the 200 Kompressor, facia inlays are in turned aluminium, imparting a bright,

sporty feel to the interior, and seats and steering-wheel rim are wrapped in

fine leather. Among the other standard items are air-conditioning (with recirc

function), front and side airbags for driver and passenger, remote-controlled

central locking/alarm/immoboliser, Audio 10 radio with front-loading CD and

Bose sound, pop-out cupholders, electric windows (one-touch on driver's

side), and a reach-

adjustable steering column.

Fire up the big four on a sunny morning, press the dark-red button to lower

the top, and you're in motoring heaven. Almost, we should say, because,

though the engine is quieter than previous versions, it's a touch rattly

at idle. And, even at higher revs, its tune doesn't bear comparison with

the symphony played by a BMW six...

Head out onto your favourite driving road, however, and the slight initial

disappointment is forgotten. With its stocking-like deflector in place, the

cabin is cocooning, even with the top down. And using the 'box as you

hurtle along a twisty route is immensely satisfying. Even though the manual

shifter has the typical metallic, switch-like Mercedes feel, it transforms the

SLK from a sporty tourer to a fun-to-drive sports machine, imparting a feeling

of control that only a direct link between driver and cogs can achieve. The

extra responsiveness, along with crisp steering, pin-sharp handling and high

grip levels place this car among the great driving machines. And the ESP allows

just enough leeway for fun before it steps in to keep you on the straight and


Out on the test strip, we were able to sample both manual and automatic versions

of the SLK200 Kompressor. Weighed down by two occupants and a full complement

of test equipment, the six-speed manual car managed the zero to 100 km/h sprint

in 9,56 seconds, just short of half a second less than was needed for the five-speed

auto (see our additional results sheet). The two cars' top speeds were

identical at 223 km/h. This reinforces Mercedes-Benz's standard claim

that the automatic transmission versions of each of its models are virtually

as quick off the mark as the manual-shifters.

Fuel consumption is a whisker better for the six-speed, which manages a CAR

fuel index of 10,11, compared with the auto's 10,43. That translates

to a range of 593 km on the new 60-litre tank for the manual, with the auto

trailing only fractionally at 575.

But the bald figures don't tell the whole story. The manual 'box

turns the SLK into a driver's car, and we would lay odds that, expertly

driven, it would demonstrably be the quicker car from point to point over a

twisty route. In town situations, however, we can see that the manual shift

might be too much PT for some. In an urban commuter role the automatic, with

its traditional, unflustered Mercedes-Benz character, would be the choice of

many buyers. Both machines make excellent highway cruisers, whether in well-protected

top-down form, or in coupé guise.

Original article from Car