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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Mark of the Marque: Attention to Detail

The Mercedes SLK230--Just Think 'Sleek'

March 28, 1997|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Very gently, displaying much dignity and all the corporate courtesies, Germany's Big Drei are at each other's throats.

It has to do with their convergence on America's demand for roadsters, a market that was supposed to have withered to zilch. Until 1989, when Mazda's Miata stirred memories of how much fun we once were in underpowered, breezy, cozy, kicky, affordable, trunkless two-seaters.

BMW--obviously impressed, even motivated by the durable momentum of Miata--became the first new seducer. Its saucy Z3 roadster was sold out for a year before the first cars had been delivered. The only criticism was its pallid four-cylinder engine, later silenced by the availability of a bloodthirstier V-6. Then the only gripe was the self-absorption of a car measled by more than a dozen BMW badges.

Next, the Porsche Boxster, another first-year sellout. Although relatively inexpensive and aimed at junior Porschephiles, this mid-engined two-seater has been acclaimed as an example of perfect automotive handling and a handsome, raucous retrospective with more Teutonic body and verve than boar bratwurst and pilsener.

Now Mercedes-Benz has joined this polite punch-up.

You want premature anticipation?

The Mercedes SLK230 was named North American car of the year before it was driving North American streets. Sales orders stretch through 1998. It's a Mercedes with a sense of humor, has better looks than Boris Becker without the buzz, and $39,700 is a total betrayal of SL pricing we have grown to loathe for starting at $80,000.

By most acceptable definitions, the SLK (for Sportlich, Leicht, Kompakt) is an unadulterated sports car. It is indeed sporting, light and kompact, with playful looks. The top comes down, and it seats two with nothing behind those seats but breathing room for whatever flourishes in small, dark

places. There's a 2.3-liter, supercharged (hence the word Kompressor on front fender panels) four-banger delivering 185 horsepower and enough performance to moisten the upper lip of Superman.

But the SLK's characteristics are many concepts removed from major standards of the sports-car culture. An automatic five-speed is the only available transmission, which will cause some harrumphing among disciples of the low-slung and snarly.

The SLK doesn't leak, creak, lift its outside front wheel in corners, develop washboard clatters over Third World road surfaces or bake your feet. There's room for huge persons and trunk space for a Wilson Super Six-Pack tennis bag and two sacks of groceries; even with the top down and stowed in the same compartment. That translates to 4 cubic feet of cargo room with top down, 10 with it up.

A compliant suspension--but not doughy enough to censor road and steering information--has the car feeling more like a coupe, while delivering a ride that will not herniate even decrepitated disks.

The SLK's windproof, sound-resistant, rain-damming top stands alongside America Online and staple guns as one of the man-made miracles of our time. For this is a retractable steel lid. Top down and you have a roadster and fresh air in your face; top up you are in a snug, hard-hatted coupe.

And like all one-button, no-latching convertible tops by Mercedes-Benz, this one functions with the mouth-agape drama of a climate change at the Sky Dome. A deliberate, articulated ballet for hinges and braces, it has been known to draw applause from pedestrians at crosswalks. For maximum effect, lower the top with the six-speaker sound system booming something Wagnerian.

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As this is a downsized, lighter Mercedes--and trimmed to within inches and ounces of the Miata, Z3 and Boxster--expect to find a matching reduction of the solid, weighty heft so typical of the marque. Also, some of the major luxuries--ultra-refined traction controls, seats with memories--are unavailable because we're talking a Mercedes at $40,000.

Black lettering on white dials, with red needles and chrome bezels, bring a sensational, retro touch to the instrument cluster. But faux carbon fiber covering the center console and dashboard is a high-tech disaster. It looks like Barbie's cosmetic case, and we suggest Mercedes returns to the wood trim it does so well.

We were also disappointed by utboard motor noises burping from the exhaust pipe. This is not the sound of Bavarian muscle and lust, but the song of a pretender trying to squeeze something manly from four cylinders. And seven-spoke wheels are a little fussy on a car this diminutive.

Despite its sour-tummy rumbles, the SLK is definitely all-Mercedes, which means superb engineering, thorough assembly from expensive materials, and quite serious handling and performance.

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