The Knowledge: Go hard-top, or go home – it’s the first-generation Mercedes SLK

It wasn't loved when it was launched – but there's a very good reason why that doesn't matter

1y ago

Alex has been a road tester and motoring writer for more than 10 years, and has written on new, used and classic cars for What Car?, Autocar, The Daily Telegraph and PistonHeads, among many others.


It’s fair to say that the Mercedes SLK was not universally loved when it first appeared on the scene in 1996.

Jeremy Clarkson said of it that “its miserable 2.3-litre engine belongs in a kitchen utensil, not a sports car,” while Richard Hammond described its handling as “not very exciting” – and the manual gearbox as “not very nice at all”.

Why on earth would you buy one, then?

Well, the problem with the SLK was that it was billed as a sports car, and being a sports car was the one thing the SLK was not very good at. So critics lamented its lack of pace, its woolly handling, and its standard – until a mid-life facelift in 2000 – automatic gearbox.

In truth, however, the SLK was about as far from such a thing in character as one could get; a lazy boulevard cruiser which was all about looks, comfort and a chilled-out driving experience.

So it goes today. The SLK’s styling has only improved with age, and these days it offers buyers the chance to own a glamorous convertible with the flexibility and security of a folding hard top and a smart interior, all for a bargain price.

Opt for a later car and you’ll overcome the lack of power the SLK was criticised for, too, as in 2000, a supercharged 2.3 and even a 3.2-litre V6 both added to the range, as well as the potent AMG version with its supercharged V6. We’d recommend choosing an automatic, though – as Hammond suggested, the six-speed we did eventually get was pretty awful.

Besides, Mercs and automatic gearboxes go together like frankfurters and chips – and given the SLK’s decidedly laid-back character, a slusher suits it down to the ground.

Why you should buy one now

SLKs are as cheap as they’re ever going to get. You can get slide behind the wheel of a daggy example for less than £1,000 these days, though we wouldn’t recommend it as the chances are it’ll be a bit of a money pit.

Instead, spend at least £2,000 on a car with reasonable mileage and a full history – the latter is crucial. £3,000, meanwhile, should get you a clean car with a low mileage, while prices upwards of the £4,000 mark should be reserved only for absolute minters. Still, that’s not bad for a two-seat convertible with the three-pointed star on its nose, eh?

What to look out for

One of the reasons the SLK is cheap is that it has a fearsome reputation for rust. Pretty much every steel panel can suffer from bad corrosion, and while new pattern parts are available, it makes more sense to spend more on a car that’s rust-free to start with than to try and make good a bad example. Later cars, it’s worth noting, are more rust-resistant.

Happily, most SLK rust problems aren’t structural, though you should still check the rear subframes and front suspension top mounts – a car with rust as extensive as this, though, is probably a ‘walk away’ job. Brake pipes can rust too, and most SLKs will have had these replaced by now.

The rest of the SLK is pretty robust, though, with tough engines and reliable gearboxes. The automatic is supposedly ‘sealed for life’, but can benefit from a fluid change nonetheless. Even that fancy roof has proven reliable, and while it does benefit from lubrication and correct adjustment, it rarely fails completely.

If you can find an example that isn’t rust-ridden, then, an SLK should prove a very relaxing and stylish way to get your open-air kicks – and stay cosy and warm in the winter, too!

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Comments (5)

  • The gearbox really isn’t that bad. You just have to know how to shift it and that it does behave a little bit like a non-synchro when cold - especially in 2nd and 3rd. But it’s much more fun, than the automatic. (Also less common, if your looking for resale value)

    I love my 230K. Yes, it isn’t a racer, but it’s quite agile and still comfortable.

    It has its flaws, but also a lot of character.

      1 year ago
  • If I remember right Hammond loved the SLK. As for Clarkson's opinion, I could not give a flying fig. My 98 230SLK Kompressor is a hoot and it gets used daily. It's developing rust on the front wheel arch but otherwise brilliant fun.

      1 year ago
  • I am on the lookout for these for a while, most notably with the basic engine (the 2.0 136 or the 2.0 compressor 163PS). The prices are at the bottom, in my view, the prices of surviving (well kept + rare) specimen are probably already on an upward path.

      1 year ago
    • I have a 230 kompressor. It’s not for sale as such, but I’m living in Japan now and want it to go to a good home. It’s yours for peanuts if you’ll take care of her

        1 year ago
  • Didn't it originally come with the 2.3 litre supercharged engine (which did indeed sound like someone had left a bag of loose spanners under the bonnet). The mid life facelift added a 2.0 supercharged and 3.2 V6 engines. I drove a 2.3 and a V6 back in the day and the latter is definitely the engine to go for.

    The reviews weren't all bad I seem to remember Car Magazine preferring the SLK auto to the early Boxster when the latter was equiped with a Tiptronic auto?

      1 year ago