The SLK-Class started off as an inferior competitor to the Boxster and Z3 and its only saving grace was a retractable hardtop roof.
Before starting this piece, we would like to clarify that we are talking about the first-gen SLK here. Subsequent generations have offered genuine sporting credentials, all of which has served to highlight just how far the first generation fell short of the mark. An AMG version gave the car a bit of extra credibility, but there also existed some genuinely sad versions of the SLK, and thanks to its folding metal roof, the SLK was always incredibly heavy.
The SLK first debuted in 1996, and at the time, the business case for the car could not have been more clear-cut. This was the same year that Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3 also debuted, both of which had generated huge amounts of buzz beforehand and would become big sales hits. The SLK would debut in the US in 1997 for the 1998 model year, available at first with only a 2.3-liter supercharged four-cylinder engine producing 193 horsepower. That’s not going to be the fastest car you’ll see all day, but this wasn’t even the slowest SLK. Europe had the SLK200 to deal with.
This was a 3,036-lb car with a 136-horsepower engine (for those keeping score, that’s four pounds less and two horsepower more than the current Prius) which Mercedes wanted you to believe was a sports car. The SLK was also noticeably worse in the handling department than its competitors as well. Though the BMW Z3 wasn’t fast either, it was an immensely fun classic roadster with handling that kept it selling in numbers which the factory had a hard time keeping up with. But fortunately for the SLK, it had something the others didn’t: a folding metal roof.
This was one of the first retractable hardtops in the modern era, and it was the feature which saved SLK sales. Convertibles always attract a larger proportion of female buyers, and the novelty of the SLK’s roof combined with the lackluster power meant that it wasn’t long before the car had the reputation as a hairdresser’s car. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, hairdressers need cars too, but the SLK was positioned against a couple of actual performance machines, and Mercedes seems to have felt insecure about this, leading to a number of performance enhancements during its first generation.
The first was a slightly more powerful SLK230 Kompressor, but this wasn’t terribly significant. That same year (2000) saw the debut of the SLK320, a version with a 3.2-liter V6 which produced 218 horsepower, which really isn’t so great either. But 2001 saw an SLK 32 AMG with 349 horsepower. This was to compete with the Boxster S and the M Roadster, and it did a good job of at least offering up similar power. But it still didn’t hold a candle to the Boxster S in the handling, department, and was never as popular a car. It was a number of years before Mercedes would change the SLK, but there was no real reason to change it. It had the upscale hairdresser’s car market largely cornered.
After all, not every single hairdresser wanted to drive a VW New Beetle. The retractable hardtop made for a car that was still attractive with the top up, and the car sold well for quite some time. But eventually, the novelty of the roof started to wear off, as well as become more common. And without much else to offer, sales of the SLK started to cool. Help for the SLK came in 2004, when a new SLK with a nose from the SLR debuted, complete with a more powerful range of engines. The AMG version now even had a V8, and it was an altogether more serious car. Its rivals would get more serious as well, but the SLK was finally in the game.