FLORENCE, ITALY -- As far as I'm concerned, whoever it was at Mercedes-Benz AG to have finally "signed off" on producing the 1998 SLK roadster deserves a few extra "company matches" to supplement his or her pension. The SLK is a titanic achievement.
Titanic because this stubby 2-seater entertains like few other Mercedes road cars in recent memory.
The SLK responds to the driver's wishes with puppy-dog enthusiasm. The throttle pedal is flicky-sensitive, not moving through Mercedes' hallmark two inches of travel before anything happens. Jorg Prigl, SLK project manager, says that formula-car throttle sums up the company's new attitude about a lot of things: "There was much discussion about that (throttle "feel," or what engineers sometimes refer to as "tip in")," says Mr. Prigl. "We believe that younger customers will want that sort of dynamic from this car."
The SLK breaks from tradition, too, with unabashedly competitive pricing. Jurgen Hubbert, Mercedes board member in charge of passenger cars, says that when it's ready for U.S. sales in February, the price will be "close to $40,000." Out of range, still, for many American households, but nonetheless an almost blockbuster bargain for what will overnight become the gold standard of the 2-seater market.
All U.S.-bound SLKs are motivated by the most powerful available SLK engine: a 2.3L dual overhead cam (DOHC) inline 4-cyl. engine enhanced by a supercharger, or Kompressor as it is called by its German engineers. For any other company, launching a premium roadster with a 4-cyl. engine would be tantamount to marketplace suicide, but the decision to use the Kompressor turns that potential pitfall into a stroke of marketing genius.
SLK drivers will enjoy 191 hp at 5,300 rpm and a solid 206 ft.-lbs. (279 Nm) of torque -- solid because the most delightful aspect of the Kompressor's power augmentation is that it allows peak torque to be developed over a wide, fruitful range of engine speed; in the SLK's case it's 2,500 rpm to 4,800 rpm. Aiding in the torque-production effort is variable timing of the engine's intake valves.
As part of the SLK's comprehensive standard-equipment package, U.S. models will be fitted exclusively with Mercedes' new 5-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission. The decision to equip, at least for now, U.S.-market SLKs only with the automatic -- a 5-speed manual is available for Europe -- is unfortunate.
Even with the automatic, though, the SLK's performance is exemplary. The company's performance figures say the Kompressor-equipped automatic SLK accelerates from 0 to 60 mph (0 to 97 km/h) in 7.2 seconds and can punch on to a top speed of 143 mph (230 km/h).
"SLK" is an acronym of the German words Sportlich (sporty), Leicht (light) and Kompact (compact). The SLK lives up to its billing. The U.S.-specification SLK weighs 2,922 lbs. (1,326 kg), definitely "leicht" when judged by Mercedes' predilection for heavy curb weights. And its 94.5-in. wheelbase (Miata: 89.2-in. wheelbase) is nearly 10 ins. shorter than a Plymouth Neon's.
The SLK's Big Hook, apart from the projected price, is the so-called Vario roof, developed with coachbuilder Karmann. Hold a console-mounted interior button and, with the help of a few hydraulic struts, the hardtop splits at the rear, pulls away from the headliner and folds itself into the trunk. In 25 seconds. The roof-folding ballet is a crowd-stopper, but there are tradeoffs.
The Vario roof does put the SLK into a league apart from soft-topped roadsters, allowing an unmatched degree of comfort, climate resistance, sound-proofing and security. Yet the requisite apparatus and need to stow it all in the trunk means there remains little of the trunk's already scant real estate when the top is down.
U.S. models also have traction control, antilock brakes (ABS), auto air-con and side-impact air bags (and of course two dash-mounted front air bags) as standard equipment. In essence, there are no options.
The SLK's stunning list of virtues is irresistible. The $40,000 price almost seems like a bonus. If you see a line forming at the Benz dealer, get in it -- the SLK's virtually sold out in Europe for the next two years.