In the motoring media, the question keeps being asked: Is the new Mercedes-Benz SLK230 really a sports car?No one disputes the fact that SLK is fun to drive and great to be seen in. The baby Benz complements Mercedes' more expensive SL roadsters, and manages to combine the vibrant personality of a sports car with the stolid practicality of corporate Mercedes. In doing so, the two-seater makes compromises - some good, some not so good. To wit: SLK is both a coupe and a convertible. This is good. The hardtop provides a snug, quiet, weather-resistant cabin for two, eliminating the inevitable flapping, fading, tearing, vandalizing, etc., associated with cloth tops. It folds away quickly, easily and completely, providing a true roadster experience. No one else has created a hardtop/convertible anywhere near as functional as this one. It's a marvel of engineering, a ballet of moving parts that open, close and fold away with the touch of a button. Like most sports cars, the SLK looks better with its top down. When up, the top looks kind of ungainly and too small for the body. Top down, SLK looks sleek and aggressive. For '98, SLK comes only with an automatic transmission. This is bad. For an automatic, it works well enough, even downshifting electronically for braking and shifting manually, to a degree. But this type of car cries out for stick shift. In Europe, one can buy most Mercedes cars with stick shift, but not here. The automaker says its market studies show U.S. drivers want automatic in Mercedes-Benz cars, so the decision was made not to offer stick shift in any of them, including SLK. This was a big mistake, one that undoubtedly has caused prospective buyers to step into Porsche Boxsters and BMW Z3s instead of SLKs. As a result, the automaker has changed its mind, and stick-shift SLKs will be making their way to our shores later this year. In its interior styling, SLK seems unresolved in whether to be retro or postmodern. This is neither good nor bad, just interesting. The styling, by and large, is strongly postmodern, with industrial-type styles and textures throughout the appealing design. But then, the gauges are vintage-looking, with parchment backgrounds and stylized type. The gauges are attractive but seem out of tune with the overall theme. The ride is relatively soft, for a sports car, but good suspension geometry and a well-engineered rear setup make the SLK plenty of fun to throw around curves. This is either good or bad, depending on your personal preferences. Personally, I'd like a slightly stiffer ride to enhance the sports-car allure. But many drivers will appreciate the extra comfort and long-legged touring-car abilities, while still being able to handle crisply with poise and precision. The suspension tuning is a compromise, and one that helps erode the vision of SLK as a bona fide sports car. Whatever you call it, the SLK is a sharp little automobile. It' s like a wedge-shaped sample of Mercedes' sports-car history, harking back to the 190SL of the 1950s, which was an affordable four-cylinder alternative to the mighty 300SL roadsters and gull-wing coupes. Like the 190, the SLK is powered by a four-banger. But this is now, and the SLK engine is a silky-smooth supercharged version with 185 horsepower that makes angry snarls while pulling like a bulldog. It is blunted, though, by the automatic transmission, which fails to take best advantage of the engine's high-revving power. The four-cylinder engine has been criticized as not being up to snuff for a $40,000, luxury-oriented automobile. But the supercharged four is quite satisfying, especially when it sends up a throaty howl during acceleration, and will be even more so once it has a stick shift backing it up. SLK has advanced safety features worth mentioning: four-wheel, independent anti-lock brakes; an upgraded type of traction control called automatic slip reduction; dual front and side air bags; and an automatic sensor that shuts off the passenger-side bag if a specially designed infant seat is used. At $40,000, the SLK is certainly a luxury item, but Mercedes' legendary durability makes the price seem right in there. At least for those who can afford such a fine toy. There are only three options available on the SLK: heated seats, metallic paint and a choice of phone/CD player combinations. Our tester had the trick stereo. The SLK comes to us as part of the Germanic trio of midrange sports cars, including Boxster and Z3. Then there's the redesigned Chevrolet Corvette. All four of these cars are priced in the $40,000 range, and each of them brings something else to the table. Corvette has the power and flash, Boxster offers history and driving finesse, and Z3 upholds the tradition of classic sports cars. For the SLK, it's more like looking into the future. Overall refinement and unique, practical features make the SLK stand out in terms of real-world ownership, if not in performance or image. 1998 Mercedes-Benz SLK230 Vehicle type: Two-passenger, two-door convertible, rear-wheel drive. Base price: $39,700. Price as tested: $41,160. Engine: 2.3-liter in-line supercharged four, 185 horsepower at 5,300 rpm, 200 pounds-feet of torque at 2,500 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,036 pounds. Length: 157.3 inches. EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway. Highs: Unique folding hardtop. Excellent handling. High comfort level. Lows: No stick shift. Ungainly appearance with top up. Ambiguous image.
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