Brian Reider called the R170 a“rich man’s miata” and I hope he’s wrong. I’ve never driven a Miata, but can tell you right now that if the NA or NB Miata handle anything like this car does...
it sucks ass.
The R170's full name is Mercedes Benz SLK-class 230 Kompressor. It doesn’t say “supercharged” on the flank because people wanted it to be written in German. In the same way Harley Davidsons appeal to middle age Europeans because the name of the bike is “Fatbob special america freedom screamin’ eagle model” or whatever they call them nowadays.
This isn’t a good handling car; the chassis is as stiff as gelatin at room temperature, the front wheels understeer as much as a puppy on a hardwood floor, and the suspension is as compliant as a spoiled teenager. No matter what you do; roof up or down, traction off or on: this car isn’t a good handling car. which is what makes the 190hp supercharged 2.3l 4cyl engine so redundant. But Mercedes knew that sticking such a powerful engine in such a small car that wasn’t meant to handle was stupid, so rather than fixing the chassis and the suspension’s geometry they put long ass gearing and made it a fantastic highway cruiser instead.
But a rich man’s miata? Fuck no! This is just a poor, impatient man’s SL! Think about it for a moment: When this car came out the R129 was on sale, and the R129 was stylistically a decade late! It was too eighties for the 90s! How about the price for an SL! Bonkers expensive! What was an inpatient/mildly wealthy person to do in 1998 if they wanted a convertible poser machine?
They bought the SLK, that’s what they did in droves. 90's styling,90's B R A N D requirements, 90's optimism about the mechanically complex folding hardtop roof and DOHC engine. Perhaps Mercedes might have looked at the Miata for inspiration, but really, who puts a shortened C class chassis on a sports car? No one! Because it isn’t a darn sports car!
But, dammit, they got it so right because this would’ve been a poser’s dream. Not everyone likes the R170 styling but I think it’s aging nicely, it looks cool and modern, with a hint of Bauhaus thrown into the mix. Yes, in the late 90s this car must’ve looked gaudy as hell, but everything was gaudy in the 90s. Plus, everything that looked gaudy when new looks retro twenty years later.
If you just stop clenching the steering-wheel, slow down and put the roof down you might understand it. Mind you, plan it out because the roof takes ages to lower and if you drive faster than 10km/h when doing it it stops and makes an annoying beeping noise. But once it’s down, the cramped cabin suddenly becomes airy and comfortable, the irritating buzzing inside the cabin suddenly transforms into the raspy 4cyl signing a tune, accompanied by a whistling supercharger. Take a corner 5..10...15 km/h under the speed limit: who cares. You’ll only be there 5 minutes late!
Is it cold out? Again, Who cares? The seat warmers are powerful enough to heat a whole village and, with the windows up and the little mesh attached to the rollover hoops, you can have enjoy a sunny winter morning without messing up your hair or catching a cold: It’s genius, but it isn’t fast, or enjoyable at a fast pace.
If you want to have fun in an SLK, you must make peace with that. If you want to enjoy the low down torque of the 230K you need to make peace with the fact that it is more complex than the v6 version and will probably take a bit more money to maintain. If you wanted a sports car you should’ve bought a Mazda Miata, and you need to make peace with that. Some irritations stand out too, like the gearbox.
The automatic gearbox of this one is just hopeless, it ruins the experience at times because it’s lurchy, and in “manual” mode it takes too long to change gear. I understand that if it’s going to be a cruiser, why not just stick with a slushbox? The control of the stick shift would add to the top down experience in my honest opinion. But that is now, when this car sells for 5,000 euros on Ebay. Back when it was new it was probably expected of it that it came with an automatic box and seat heaters, central locking and what not.
“Back then”, when this wasn’t a fun little car, it was a serious, grown up machine for people too self conscious to own a Miata. Any notion of it being a “hairdresser’s car” was dampened by that huge, honking badge and the straight line capabilities of most R170s, even the 200K. Actually, I bet many Miata owners who raced SLKs at the lights hated the SLKs because, in a straight line, it is faster: even with the long gearing. That says a lot about what would happen in a highway pull if an NA, or even an NB, was to challenge an R170.
But in the end, there’s little left to judge the car from the original owners who might’ve boughten the car as a fashion or socialite statement many years ago. It made them fit in I guess. I would’ve boughten a Miata for sure, and saved myself thousands of dollars. But since these are traded so cheap online, well, it doesn’t have the status it used to have as some sort of big posh boi poserbox. It liberated the SLK and it let people who have the chance not to take it seriously give it a go and let it have some fun.
I know the Oppositelock hive is made up of people who want performance out of their cars, which is why I can’t recommend this thing to any of you. But it’s a fun little car if you like cruising on the highway, just keep in mind that the Miata you left behind miles ago in the freeway is going to overtake you later when you enter a B road. Just make sure you get a manual one.
and those amazing heated seats.