The history: The original is now 20 years old

Apr 4, 2016

The SLK's debut as a standard production model back in 1996 caused a sensation. Not only was this a compact roadster from Mercedes-Benz, but it featured paintwork in the vibrant launch colour yellowstone and, instead of the traditional soft top, a tough vario-roof. The SLK marked the start of a new era for the traditional Mercedes-Benz brand and its roof design served as a model for many other open-top vehicles.

In April 1994, roadster enthusiasts had been able to gain an initial impression of Mercedes-Benz's vision for a compact roadster in Turin: the SLK design study was a show-stopper in brilliant silver, with a sporty yet somewhat spartan flair. Short front and rear overhangs, plus a very pronounced wedge shape, epitomised the fun of active driving, while the two "powerdomes" running in the direction of travel along the bonnet represented a tribute to the granddaddy of all SLs from the 1950s. The SLK concept car revealed considerable expanses of gleaming metal.

Just how seriously the SLK project was taken, right from the beginning, by the powers that be at Mercedes-Benz became clear at the Paris motor show of that same year. A second design study, this time with a vario-roof, was presented here. This was an elegant hand-finished model in blue, with a blue leather interior and further comfort features such as an automatic transmission, air conditioning, power windows, hi-fi system and so on.

The SLK set trends, even before going into standard production 

The automotive enthusiasts began to queue up. For many, the SLK appeared to herald the future. Mercedes-Benz had done something completely unexpected and proved that a small and inexpensive roadster can offer tremendous fun at the wheel and yet still be an absolutely serious contender when it comes to safety and quality. By doing this, the SLK studies had opened up a new niche in the market and made the SLK a trendsetter, even before it went into series production.

Its moment came in 1996: series launch of the new SLK, with the internal designation R 170, at the Turin motor show. A particular focus of attention was the fully retractable vario-roof, which made the SLK a car for all year round, without any ifs and buts. Thanks to an intelligent electrohydraulic system, this disappeared completely into the boot in just 25 seconds, opening up the view to the sky.

Engines with an output range from 136 to 354 hp

The sportive talents of the SLK were given free rein by two engine variants – a four-cylinder unit with a displacement of two litres and an output of 100 kW (136 hp), plus a mechanically supercharged 2.3-litre engine, also with four cylinders but in this case with 142 kW (193 hp). From the spring of 2000 the two-litre engine was also fitted with a mechanical supercharger, so pushing 120 kW (163 hp) to its rear wheels. The engine range was later expanded by the addition of two six-cylinder versions: the SLK 320 with an output of 160 kW (218 hp) and the SLK 32 AMG with 260 kW (354 hp).

The SLK continues to evolve

In February 2000, Mercedes-Benz significantly upgraded the specification of the roadster to include innovations such as the Electronic Stability Program (ESP®) or the six-speed manual transmission among its standard equipment. New bumpers and side skirts made it even more dynamic in appearance. In addition, all detachable body parts and even the door handles were now painted in the vehicle colour, giving the body a particularly coherent look in terms of both shape and colour. New tail lights, stainless steel trim on the exhaust tailpipe and a painted radiator grille likewise added character to the design of the SLK.

Even more driving enjoyment with the second-generation SLK

Spring 2004 brought the debut of the second generation of the SLK (internal model series designation R 171) – even sportier, even more dynamic and offering even more fun at the wheel. Powerful engines, a redesigned suspension, direct steering and a precise six-speed transmission meant that the driving experience in the second-generation SLK was characterised by its enhanced agility. Mercedes-Benz also celebrated the world premiere of its AIRSCARF neck-level heating system. At the touch of a button, this generates warm air that flows out of the head restraints. This made it possible to drive the SLK open even in cooler weather conditions, so allowing open-air enjoyment of the roadster all year round. The mechanism of the vario-roof was also modified by comparison with the previous model. The rear window now rotated within its frame to allow the curvature of the rear window, when folded, to face upwards, thus increasing the capacity of the boot.

The third generation once again sets the benchmark

This trend is once again followed by the third model generation, launched in January 2011 under the internal designation R 172. The SLK melds fleet-footed sportiness with stylish comfort, distinctive sports car design with absolute viability for everyday use and top performance with an ecological approach. From April 2016 it will be appearing with significant technical and visual enhancements under the name SLC. The name change acknowledges the close relationship with the C‑C lass, with which the roadster shares much of its technology.

Chronicle of a model: Mercedes-Benz SLK and SLC

  • 1994: Design studies in Turin and Paris

  • 1996: World premiere of the SLK at the Turin Motor Show

  • 2000: Comprehensive facelift for the SLK

  • 2004: World premiere of the second-generation SLK at the
    Geneva Motor Show

  • 2008: Facelift for the second-generation SLK

  • 2011: Third generation of the SLK

  • 2016: Facelift for the third-generation model, renamed as the SLC