The hardtop on the Mercedes-Benz SLK folds and stows automatically, giving the car a conversation piece.

Mercedes-Benz SLK

The Mercedes-Benz SLK brought true sport performance back to the German luxury manufacturer. Two-seat roadsters from Mercedes-Benz had grown less sports-car-like after the original 190 and 300. By the late 1990s, the flagship SL600 was a $120,100, 4455-lb luxo-cruiser with a 389-hp 6.0-liter V-12. It could do 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds and run at 155 mph, but even Mercedes didn’t call it a sports car. It called the new SLK a sports car.

Translated from German, SLK is an acronym meaning "Sporty, Light, and Short." Introduced to America in early 1997, this roadster is Mercedes’s answer to the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster, and is distinguished from both by its engine and roof.

The SLK rides a shortened Mercedes C-class sedan platform and has a new, all-steel body. Retaining the compact sedan’s independent suspension and generous wheel travel gives it good ride quality, while judiciously firming up the damping, replacing recirculating-ball steering with rack-and-pin-ion, and fitting more aggressive tires -- wider in back than in front -- produces curve-hugging handling.

The most unique feature is a fully automatic retracting hardtop. Pushing one button transforms the SLK from a closed coupe to an open convertible in 25 seconds. The electrohydraulic roof cleaves at the rear pillars, the trunklid opens backward, and the top retracts into a rear compartment. The trunklid then works conventionally, though luggage space shrinks from 12.3 cubic feet to 5.1 with the roof stowed. Still, the roof gives the SLK weather protection, security, and a conversation piece its rivals don’t have.

Mercedes returned to sports cars on its own terms with the SLK and gave all U.S. models a supercharged 2.3-liter twincam four.

"Kompressor" fender script signals presence of a "compressor," making this the first supercharged Mercedes since the 1930s. The crankshaft-driven blower fortifies a 2.3-liter iron-block, aluminum-head four-cylinder. European SLKs can have a naturally aspirated 136-hp 2.0 four-cylinder and a five-speed manual gearbox, but all U.S. cars get the supercharged 2.3 and a five-speed automatic that electronically adjusts shifts to suit driving style.

The American combination produces fine power through a wide rpm range. There’s little supercharger whine, but the exhaust emits a swaggering snarl. Simulated carbon-fiber interior trim substitutes for traditional Mercedes wood. Tube bars behind each seat offer rollover protection, and a special child seat is available that disarms the passenger-side air bag. Forty-three years after the original SLs helped rejuvenate one of the world’s great automakers, Mercedes-Benz is back in the sports-car business.

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