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MORE FUN WITH LESS

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Published on Tue, Sep 23, 2003

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

MORE FUN WITH LESS

By JOHN GRAFMAN

This is the right combination. Take a smooth, robust engine and stick it in a lightweight car. This winning formula has been around for decades. While many understand the principle, Mercedes-Benz is one of the few that actually puts it into practice.

As always, the 320 engine proves to be an excellent choice. Able to move the big M class, the V6 has no trouble making the little SLK fly. The lack of mass allows the driver to fling the car about with wild abandon. The SLK maintains a flat stance with almost zero body roll. The similarity to the Mini Cooper in this respect is evident. Driving around the coast in summer, the SLK puts a smile on my face once the top comes down. This is what the SLK is all about, one moment you're in a sealed tight container nearly impervious to the elements, the next moment you’re one with the elements.

Driving top-down along the coast, good. Driving alfresco up the San Diego freeway towards the Valley, bad - at least during a baking Southern California summer day during rush hour. You gotta love the smell of exhaust in the early morning… smells like victory. Nevertheless, in the name of critical journalism, I did experience firsthand the capability of the air-conditioner in the top-up mode. With the cabin volume seemingly just slightly more voluptuous than a large igloo cooler, the air conditioner is more than capable of turning the SLK into a rolling icebox. But the top-up driving seems to suck the charm right out of the micro Mercedes. This car really has a performance edge to it that comes out once the car is rolling. When static, the SLK just doesn't have a look that is really aggressive. The 320 reminds me of Danika Patrick, whose racing skills are formidable but her attractive looks get in the way of giving her a tougher image - even when she has her arms crossed and has a steely glare.

As with most cars coming near the end of their body style cycle, we look forward to the next generation. In particular, some of the interior feels a tad bit dated and could use some higher-quality materials. After getting over the initial shock of being dwarfed by mothers shuttling around their only (infant) child in massive three ton SUVs, the SLK becomes very easy to get comfortable with. It’s kind of like some well-tailored clothes or (more correctly) a good pair of track shoes. The 320 is ready to sprint at your beck and call. The steering had the right amount of resistance that gives the SLK a go-kartish like feel, but feedback from the road itself could use a little improvement.

In the sprawling and densely populated areas of Southern California, the SLK shines. True, fun drive and wind in the hair are great selling points, but sometimes it's the small things that make a big difference. The convenient carry-on size of the Mercedes can often be a value beyond measure. The “no parking spot too small factor” is worth the price and then some, far more often than most people ever realize. And the last time I looked, small wasn't on the option list of any cars we have driven lately.

For more information please visit www.mbusa.com

SPECIFICATIONS: Price: $ 45,050 (base) $ 51,705 (as tested) Engine type: 3.2 liters Chain-driven single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank, two intake valves and one exhaust valve per cylinder V6 with aluminum- and heads Horsepower: 215 hp @ 5,700 rpm Torque: 221 lb-ft @ 3,000-4,600 rpm Drive configuration: Front engine/rear-wheel drive Transmission type: Five-speed electronically controlled automatic with driver-adaptive shift logic, TouchShift selectable manual control Front suspension: Four-wheel independent Front Double wishbone (upper and lower control arms), coil springs, gas-charged shocks, stabilizer bar Rear suspension: Rear Five-link, coil springs, gas-charged shocks, stabilizer bar, anti-lift and anti-squat geometry Wheels and tires: 7.0x16-in., 5-spoke (7.5x17-in. AMG 5-spoke w/Sport Pkg.) 8.0x16-in., 5-spoke (8.5x17-in. AMG 5-spoke w/Sport Pkg.) 205/55R16 V (225/45ZR17 w/Sport Pkg.) 225/50R16 V (245/40ZR17 w/Sport Pkg.) Brakes: Front: 11.8 vented Rear: 10.9 solid Hydraulic power assisted 4-wheel discs with 4-channel ABS anti-lock; Brake Assist System Overall length: 157.9 Overall width: 67.5 Overall height: N/A Curb weight (lbs.): 3,099 (man.), 3,154 (auto.) EPA mileage estimates City/ Highway: 17 (auto 20) / 26mpg 0-60 mph: 6.6

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