Agile, small Roadster has pedigree

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When the 2012 SLK-Class goes on-sale in the U.S. this summer, it will feature an exciting new design, exceptionally high levels of comfort as well as exquisite technology and open-air driving pleasure. As such, the agile sports car is already prepared to continue the success story that started back in 1994 with the original show car. Strictly speaking, however, the pedigree of the SLK stretches back even further — to the 190SL, a vehicle that automotive enthusiasts were already dreaming about in 1955.

When the SLK appeared as a production car in 1996, it not only caused a stir on the road but also established a new market segment which has since grown by leaps and bounds. With the steel vario-roof, which transforms the roadster into an all-weather coupe within a matter of seconds, the roadster has been and still is the role model for many open-top cars. The success of the SLK has exceeded all expectations: to date, well over half a million owners have been delighted with their purchase of an SLK roadster.

With the SLK, Mercedes-Benz continued its roadster tradition that stretches back a long way. Its direct ancestor is considered to be the 190SL, which owes its existence primarily to the perseverance of Max Hoffman, the enterprising American with Austrian roots who imported European cars into the U.S. as early as 1946. In 1953, he urged the executive boards of Daimler-Benz to build another affordable sports car for the American market, in addition to the 300SL. As an elegant sports car from a well-known company featuring an exciting design at a low price, the 190SL was designed to charm American buyers.

After a development period of just five months, on February 6, 1954 the 190SL celebrated its world premiere in New York, alongside the legendary 300SL “gullwing”. Unlike the 300SL, the 190SL was not designed as a purebred sports car but rather as a sporty, elegant two-seater touring vehicle. Its chassis was the shortened frame assembly from the Mercedes-Benz 180 (W120), combined with the single-joint swing axle with lowered center of rotation, as used in the 220 (W180). The front-wheel suspension, including subframe design, came from the 180 model. The 190SL was driven by a newly developed four-cylinder engine with a displacement of 1900 cubic centimeters, overhead camshaft and producing 105 hp. Depending on conditions, it could therefore reach a speed significantly over 100 mph and accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 14 seconds. Series production began in May 1955.

The 190SL was available as a roadster with a soft top, as well as a coupe with a removable hard top, with or without a soft top as an option. A broad range of prominent social figures chose this elegant sports car to complement their image, including Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra, who drove a 190SL in the film “Ten Thousand Bedrooms”.

The Mercedes-Benz 190SL was produced until 1963. The clearest indication of just how well loved and successful the 190SL was, is demonstrated by the production figures: between May 1955 and February 1963, no less than 25,881 cars left the assembly lines in Sindelfingen — far in excess of the initial expectations.

Against this historical backdrop, it seemed only logical some decades later to revisit these considerations: would it not perhaps be appropriate for the SL-Class Mercedes-Benz models, now firmly established in their own right, to be joined by a younger brother? After all, Mercedes-Benz had launched an entirely new product initiative, to which a compact roadster could lend fresh emphasis by drawing attention to the sporting heart of the Mercedes-Benz brand.

An appropriate acronym for this newcomer was swiftly coined: SLK. In German, these three letters stand for the car’s characteristic properties — sporty, lightweight and short — and, given the great sporting successes of Mercedes-Benz in the 1920s and 1930s, they have an almost mystical resonance.

In Turin in April 1994, roadster enthusiasts were able to gain a first glimpse of how Mercedes-Benz believed a compact roadster should look. A brilliant silver concept vehicle with a distinct aura of spartan sportiness caught the attention of the industry. Bruno Sacco, Head of Design for the brand at the time, made the company’s aim clear: “We are exhibiting a forward-looking roadster study which delivers a unique synthesis of purist motoring pleasure with all the safety features for which Mercedes cars are renowned”.

To meet these requirements, some formal individuality was called for. The SLK study reflected this thanks to its compact dimensions and some evident highlights. Short overhangs at the front and rear, as well as a distinctive wedge shape, embodied the enjoyment to be had from an engrossing driving experience. The two “power domes” on the hood, running parallel to the direction of travel, were acknowledgement of the originator of all SL’s dating from the 1950s. The SLK study incorporated generous amounts of gleaming metal. Only 20 percent of the interior was covered, and the high-tech cockpit was dominated by bold shapes and high-quality materials.

To find out just how seriously the people in charge at Mercedes-Benz were taking this SLK project in its earliest days, you need look no further than the Paris Motor Show held in September of the same year. Here the company unveiled its second study, this time with a vario-roof and in the form of a customized version in blue, with blue-tone leather and a range of additional luxury accessories, such as automatic transmission, air-conditioning system, power windows, a hi-fi sound system and much more. This enabled Mercedes-Benz to demonstrate convincingly the wide appeal and potential inherent to a compact roadster.

Many viewed the SLK as a very auspicious prospect, indeed. Mercedes-Benz had done the unexpected and demonstrated that a small and relatively inexpensive roadster was capable of offering a great deal of driving pleasure, while still being a serious, practical car in terms of safety and quality. This meant that the roadster studies had already opened up a new market niche, making the SLK a trendsetter even before series production had begun.

By 1996 everything was in place: the series production version of the new SLK, designated internally as the R170, was launched at the Turin Motor Show. Of particular interest was the fully-lowering steel vario-roof, which substantively backed-up the SLK’s claim of being a car for any weather. Using an intelligent electro-hydraulic system, the entire roof folded down into the trunk in just 25 seconds, leaving the owner free to roam under an open sky.

The SLK also boasted other highlights. Take safety for example: two fixed rollover bars behind the seats protected occupants from injury if the car should overturn, and in conjunction with the exceptionally robust A-pillars, delivered a very high level of safety even when these Mercedes-Benz cars were driven with the top down.

The sporting character of the SLK was unleashed by impressive engine variants in the U.S. It debuted with a supercharged 2.3 liter four-cylinder engine, delivering 192 hp. Other powertrains included two six-cylinder models, a 215 hp unit for the SLK320 and the 349 hp powerplant in the SLK32 AMG.

In February 2000, Mercedes-Benz substantially upgraded the level of equipment for its roadster and incorporated innovations such as the Electronic Stability Program (ESP), a six-speed manual transmission and cruise control in its standard equipment package. In visual terms, a new bumper and side skirts gave the car an even more dramatic appearance. All the attachments and door handles were painted to match the vehicle body to enable the whole car to present an image of a unified whole, in terms of both color and form. New taillights, stainless steel trim on the exhaust tailpipe, and a painted radiator grille gave the SLK design an even more commanding identity.

In 2004, the second generation of the SLK (internal model series designation: R171) was launched — offering even more sportiness and driving pleasure. Thanks to powerful engines, a newly developed chassis, direct steering and a precise six-speed stick shift , the second generation of the SLK provided an even more responsive driving experience. As a world first, Mercedes-Benz introduced the AIRSCARF neck-level heating system. At the touch of a button, it blows warm air from the head restraints. This now meant that drivers of the SLK were able to enjoy open-top driving and the open-air roadster experience all year round, even when the outside temperature dropped.

True to the principle of ongoing development, the 2009MY SLK underwent a comprehensive restyling. The most significant visual changes included redesigned front and rear sections and also a carefully modified interior with new instrument cluster and three-spoke sports steering wheel. The distinctive stylish character of the two-seater was emphasized by the SLK350, courtesy of a highrevving V6 sports engine producing 300 hp along with the Direct-Steer system. In addition, despite their significantly increased performance, all of the engines were more economical in terms of fuel consumption and in turn therefore produced less CO2 emissions.

The new SLK, which was unveiled in January 2011 and designated internally as the R172, will now also follow in these same footsteps. Thanks to new engines the roadster will consume significantly less fuel, thus demonstrating that achieving pure driving pleasure while maintaining a clear conscience when it comes to the environment are not mutually exclusive. The new SLK combines nimble-footed sportiness with stylish comfort, a striking sports car design with suitability for everyday use, and top performance with environmental responsibility. In addition, a unique series of safety equipment makes the SLK benchmark in this segment. Standard equipment on the vehicle includes, among other features, the ATTENTION ASSIST drowsiness detection system. Mercedes-Benz will also be the world’s first automotive manufacturer to offer the panoramic vario-roof with MAGIC SKY CONTROL as an optional extra. With this innovation, the transparent glass roof can be darkened in a matter of seconds at the touch of a button. Thanks to such a rich array of technical innovations, the SLK will once more set the standard in its class.

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