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SPORTY, LIGHT & COMPACT The SLK roadster is a significant addition to the Mercedes-Benz line-up, for it marks the return of a true production sports car to the Stuttgart manufacturer's extensive range. But how good is it? Dick Suter finds out

In the '70s, Ralph Nader made a name for himself in the US by declaring certain cars unsafe, unfriendly and unwelcome. Open 2-seater roadsters bore much of the brunt of his pronouncements and, because many European manufacturers depended heavily on the vast American market and didn't believe that Europe alone could soak up their production for open 2-seaters, 'GTi's - compact, quick four-seater tin-tops - largely replaced them as the transport of the young and sporty. It was Mazda in the mid 'eighties which first saw a niche, once again, for 2-seater roadsters, the highly successful MX-5. The rest, as they say, is history. Alfa Romeo, BMW, Fiat, Mazda, MG, Porsche and in the US, Chrysler and Chevrolet, have joined the party. And currently most of them have waiting lists for their roadsters, itself good news in an industry suffering general over-production.

Mercedes-Benz has always had a name for solid, durable cars. Machinery that won't let you down, cars that are the benchmark for build-quality. Very desirable cars, generally. But not particularly sporty cars, even though tuning-company AMG has produced super quick versions of some Mercs over time. Lately, however, Mercedes has created a range of cars that covers many more market segments, from the trail-blazing A-class to the sleek CLK coupé and the lithe, sexy SLK roadster.

Available in 2-door coupé, 3-door hatchback and 4 or 5-door saloon configurations and with a wide choice of petrol engines plus the 2.0i TD (turbodiesel), the latest Civic is positioned at the top-end of the C-segment. In other words, the higher quality end of the medium size car sector. The high-quality layout and finish of the 5-door's interior makes it an ideal vehicle for transporting business colleagues and clients. There's lots of space for a long-legged family inside and a useful size boot for the family's luggage, too.

Available in 2-litre or 2.3 litre supercharged forms, it's the SLK 230 Kompressor car which I tried recently and, just as the kilometres sped past under the massive acceleration of this supercharged 4-cylinder engine, so did the week when it was available to test. One of the advantages of supercharged cars over turbo-charged versions is that there is absolutely no throttle lag when you accelerate hard so, if you floor the accelerator as you drive out of a bend, you'll know about it instantly. Combined with this great punch you get from the engine is a well engineered, nicely balanced chassis which allows fast driving on undulating B-class roads without effort or drama.

Styling is always a matter of individual taste but the SLK is a real head-turner and, for me, it's one of the best lookers in this select niche and one of the most desirable looking Mercs ever to come from this hitherto somewhat conservative car-maker. One of the problems with many open cars - however beautiful - is that their bodies are not as rigid as those of coupes and saloons but the SLK does not suffer from flexing and feels secure at high cornering speeds, even over poor surfaces.

Thanks to an innovative metal roof which folds and then tucks into the boot, you can convert the car from a GT coupé to a sports roadster in less than 25 seconds just at the press of a button and then change it back into a snug coupé in the same few seconds. There are many other neat features, such as the retro looking instruments, black numbers on a white face, the numbers changing from black to orange when the lights are illuminated. Easy to read and restful for the eyes. And there are not only air bags in the steering wheel and in front of the passenger seat, but also in each of the side doors, so that if you are involved in a side-on collision, then you have extra protection. Added to which the ABS brakes are hugely powerful: reassuring in a car of such performance

So if you're thinking of investing around BEF 1,419,000 in a classic of the future, one that offers the best of open-air driving with the comfort of a coupé, has fabulous performance and generates a buzz every time you drive it, take one for a test drive. You'll like it a lot.

The A-Class Revisited

Those of you who read our November issue (under the old Plug-In title) may rember that we featured the revolutionary A-Class Mercedes on our front cover and on the inside pages enthused over its concept, its build quality and its wacky looks. Weeks later, this innovative model made the news big-time as someone had rolled one during zig zag 'moose avoidance' tests at high speed in Sweden.

Of course, if you play around with tyre pressures or fit tyres which don't match, roadholding can be seriously compromised, can it not? Since then, Mercedes' testers have put a number of competitors' cars through the same high-speed zig-zag test, managing to roll a few of them, although the company is not saying which cars rolled and which passed this extreme test.

At the same speed, the A-Class did not tip-over. Motorsport enthusiasts will know that even double world-champion Michael Schumacher goes over the limit on occasion and has been known to rol But we stick to what we originally stated about the A-Class: "It has good acceleration, first class roadholding, a super driving position, is comfortable and spacious" Try one when you arrange your test of the SLK.

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See also:

Charismatic Coupés

©Dick Suter - April 1998 - (images source - Internationals in Belgium)

Original article appearing in "Internationals in Belgium" Dick Suter was an editor of the magazine and contributor and Ginny Suter was a regular contributor in the late 1990's and 2000's - The magazine had a circulation of 10,000 Please note that this article was first published many years ago and telephone and fax numbers are likely to be out of date and email addresses have been removed.

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Source of images, unless otherwise stated - Suter family archives


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