But, a few years down the line, all this was put to rights with the launch of the V6-engined SLK320. Despite its autobox, this version had enough punch to exploit the excellent chassis, giving it, in the words of one of the CAR testers, “a rapier-like quality” in cut-and-thrust situations. And, in response to enthusiasts’ pleas, a manual gearbox was introduced, though this option was limited to the four-cylinder 200 Kompressor.
Forget all that when considering the AMG SLK32. Mercedes-Benz’s tuning arm has completely changed the car’s character. In this guise, the SLK is a musclecar that will challenge many a supercar, a broadsword that cuts a swathe through the accepted pecking order of leading zero-to-100 acceleration times. Keeping things in a South African context, it’s faster to 100 km/h than the new BMW M3, and the old 3,4-litre version of the Porsche 996 Carrera we tested back in 1998. It also trounces the old Carrera to the kilometre, and matches the new M3, breaking the tape at an impressive 219,8 km/h. And all this is achieved simply by stomping on the loud pedal with the automatic (AMG Speedshift) transmission in Drive . . .
The key to the dramatic transformation is the supercharged V6 powerplant, the same unit used in the dramatic C32 saloon. Starting off with the standard Mercedes 3,2-litre V6, the AMG engineers have upgraded the camshafts (while
retaining the s-o-h-c three-valve configuration), valve springs, con-rods, crankshaft and oil-pump, and fitted a compact Japanese IHI helical supercharger. The IHI blower is claimed to be more efficient than conventional super-chargers. It works in conjunction with a water-to-air intercooler fitted between the engine’s two banks, and delivers over one bar of boost. With a fairly high 9:1 compression ratio, power and torque outputs are increased by huge amounts, rising from the non-boosted V6’s 160 kW at 5 700 r/min and 310 N.m at
3 000, to 260 kW at 6 100 and 450 N.m at 4 400.
Sports car purists will initially be put off by the transmission. As in the C32, it’s a five-speed Speedshift automatic, featuring shift times reduced by 35 per cent compared with Stuttgart’s usual five-speeder, and incorporating a computer that matches shiftpoints to driving style. Still no good for a sporty roadster? Wait till we get to the “on road” section of this test report . . .
Suspension changes are minor but, as we were to discover, pretty effective. The C32 has stiffer springs and uprated shockabsorbers, there’s a wider rear track, and a bigger-diameter front anti-roll bar. Brake diameters are also increased, with 334 mm discs in front and 300 mm units at the rear. They run inside 17-inch alloy wheelrims, shod with 224/45 ZR Michelin Pilot Sports in front, with 245/40 versions employed at the rear. There’s the full array of electronic
active safety aids, including ABS, EBD, and a specially tuned ESP system that steps in milliseconds after the tyres break loose.
The wheels and tyres give the AMG roadster a more aggressive look than the other SLKs, but other changes are more subtle. There is a new front airdam (housing foglights), plus a new rear valance and new sideskirts, contributing to a reduction of over 50 per cent in rear axle lift.
Inside, the SLK32 is well-appointed, though some testers didn’t like the darkness of the plastic-and-leather trim. AMG detailing, including white-faced instrumentation, adds something special to the cockpit. Switchgear is standard Mercedes-Benz, but a measure of the SLK’s age (it’s due for replacement within the next couple of years) is the “old-fashioned” (but still supremely practical) flick-fold key unit, incorporating the remote control for the central locking and alarm-immobiliser systems. On the safety front, there are seatbelt pretensioners, dual front airbags and a pair of sidebags.
The chairs, upholstered in black leather and equipped with electric adjusters, are supremely comfortable – if you’re of average height. As is the case with so many compact roadsters, the string-bean member of our test team complained that he just didn’t fit.
And, of course, there’s the SLK tour de force, its dramatic and supremely effective folding top. Until the arrival of the new, improved version in the latest SL, this was the best folding top in the business – and it’s still better than any other we’ve tried. Simply pull the red button on the console backwards,
and the roof folds into the rear deck, occupying part of the luggage space. Push the button forward, and the top is raised, connecting up automatically with the top of the windscreen. Magnifique!
But, well-equipped as the SLK32 may be, luxury accoutrements are not what this
roadster is about. Almost 200 kg lighter than its C32 sister, the SLK32’s most memorable attribute is the way it rockets off the mark in response to the driver’s right foot. There’s simply no more to be done: keep your foot down hard, leaving the engine and autobox to do the rest, and you’ll embarrass a lot of really serious machinery away from the traffic lights. As with the C32, we found the most effective technique for sprint testing was to switch out the traction control, hold the car for a split second against the brake while we got a few revs on the dial (not more than a few hundred, or the back wheels would
unstick, wasting precious tenths as the rubber scrabbles to regain grip), then floor the throttle pedal as the left foot was removed from the brake. The result: an M3-bashing zero-to-100 time of 5,4 seconds, and the kilometre completed in 24,6 seconds, an identical figure to that recorded with the
manual M3 we tested in September last year.
But the clinical description above falls way short of doing justice to the SLK32’s accelerative performance. The engine note, while not in the BMW league, is pretty stirring as the car goes through its paces. And the thump in the back reminds one of the feeling in AC Cobras of yore: despite its technological sophistication, there’s more than a little of the hot-rod in this SLK top-liner.
For those who prefer changing ratios themselves, the gearbox has M-B’s “side-to-side” Tippshift function. But, while this may be more satisfying, it’s generally not as effective as leaving the shifter in Drive and controlling the ‘box with your right foot. See a gap in the traffic? Just put pedal to the metal, and you’re through. Yet, if you prefer to boulevard cruise, the SLK32 responds
gently and smoothly to a light foot – once you’ve got accustomed to the ‘box’s fairly steep “ramp-up” angle on take-off. Like the C32, this car offers the best of both worlds.
Braking is superb, the big discs stopping the car consistently in 2,9 seconds in our standard 100-to-zero emergency stopping programme. As one would expect, there’s no trace of fade, and the car tracks true as the EBD apportions the pressure between the four corners.
But sports cars need to be more than straight-line performers. Take the SLK32 on a twisty road, and it impresses with the levels of grip, as well as its ride comfort. The recirculating ball steering is not as razor-sharp as that of a Porsche Boxster, but it’s reasonably precise, and feedback is acceptable. And scuttle-shake, the bugbear of convertibles, is virtually absent: only a series of regular, and fairly harsh, corrugations will induce any kind of twist in the stiff shell.
With all the power on tap, it’s easy to momentarily unstick the back wheels before the ESP takes over. Switch it out, and you can really get the tail
sliding, and the back wheels smoking, but there’s still a degree of electronic control limiting such antisocial antics.
Perhaps because a roadster inspires harder driving, the SLK32 test car didn’t quite match the fuel economy of the C32 we tested for the February 2002 issue of CAR. Because we could not plumb our Pierburg flowmeter into the Kompressor’s fuel system, the index figure of 12,7 litres per 100 km is a tank-to-tank
average over almost 1 000 km covered during the test period, and includes a figure of 14,93 litres/100 km recorded during performance testing. European statutory figures for this model are 16,2 litres/100 km in urban conditions, 8,4 litres per 100 km in extra-urban driving, and 11,2 litres per 100 km overall. But owners who use the car’s performance fairly regularly are likely to get results closer to our index figure.