Mercedes SLK32 AMG (2002)

WOLF retro DESIGN  REVIEW. 22nd November 2023

A design statement that was misunderstood by those most loyal to the three-pointed star.

A Retro Review looks at products that are at least over ten years old from a present-day WOLF design and craftmanship perspective. While the technology and fashion of an era influence design, and are taken into consideration, great design ideas will transcend their eras to be timeless.

Interesting and factual information may be provided, but our review aims to deliver insight into the eyes and mind of designers.

The next baby SL classic.

Introduction

Product description

The R170 SLK was produced from 1996 to 2004. This first generation SLK is understood as a descendant of the 1950s 190SL. Indeed, it was a smaller SL designed as a more youthful and affordable alternative.

Price and Availability.

The SLK32 AMG was a top of the range model produced in limited numbers from 2001-2004. Only a few hundred Right Hand Drive cars were produced with roughly 30 imported to Australia. They are rare and prices range from $35,000 to $70,000 depending on condition.

Additional information

The SLK was a huge step for Mercedes with development driven by competition. Mazda launched its MX5 roadster in 1989 in the same year that Mercedes launched its new R129 SL. At a fraction of the SLs price the MX5 was hugely successful and inspired a new generation of compact and affordable roadsters. Mercedes had to wait 7 years to have a slice of that pie. Although arriving on the scene relatively late, it hit its target and was considered very successful even though many frowned on it for not being built to traditional Mercedes standards.

Review

First impression/ Delight

We remember this car from the time of launch, and from a design perspective was a significant breakthrough. For over two decades Mercedes designs were so rectangular that you could almost draw them with straight lines by ruler. The SLK broke away from that with braver lines and shapes. While still relatively straight by today’s standards most of its lines are curved and at the time felt quite futuristic. Further to the stylish curves throughout the car looks and feels like a smaller baby SL and is well deserving of the “K” in SLK which stands for Kurz, “compact” in German.

Exterior Design Review

The SLK’s sleek shape and the form was designed such that each panel connects effortlessly from one to the other. From the bonnet to the front guards and then up the A-pillars, it all seamlessly flows as if the body was sculpted from a single block. This is not immediately obvious since by today’s standards this kind of flow is common but in 1996 it was quite radical. This SLK sports a chromed front grill which looks very smart against the classic silver body colour. Both front and rear lights are bold and turn more gently around the corner than any previous model.

Proportionately the bonnet is long and has two humps that remind us of the original 300SL roadster. In comparison to the front end the roof section looks rather small. The trunk section is short and can look stumpy from certain angles. The tail of all AMG models come with an additional mini spoiler in body colour. This AMG model also differs from non-AMG models with a more aggressive front and rear bumper design. The alloy wheels have a five double spoke design that present a sense of strength and speed.

Interior Design Review

Internally the SLK was basic but still rather cool in a 1990s sense. The cabin space is small and there is literally no space at all behind the two seats. The controls are more rounded in general and laid out in that simple, clear, and clean Mercedes tradition. It is not luxurious because it was not meant to compete against the R129 SL. It was meant to feel youthful and artistic and to some degree it did at the time. The seats in the AMG models do not have separate headrests to be sportier. The leather pattern and designs are traditional and very conservative by modern AMG standards.

The interior in this SLK is predominantly in anthracite grey with touches of chrome and Birdseye maple. It is an elegant but safe palette compared to other trim and colour options available back in the day.

 The car in this review is optioned with a Designo steering wheel which matches the birds eye maple on the center console and doors.

Craftsmanship.

The large smooth external body panels do not have any folds or lines that would usually add rigidity and this makes the SLK relatively prone to dints. The plastic bumpers feel soft and being quite low to the ground are normally always quite scratched. The front grill with all its holes is a break from Mercedes traditional slats but would be even nicer in real metal rather than painted plastic. Other than that, most of the exterior is built to a reasonably good quality.

By contrast the interior does not age well and points clearly to where Mercedes cut their costs. Much of the interior is painted in a rubberised paint that is thin and soft to touch. This paint deteriorates easily and if not pealing will often be sticky to touch. Only the lowest mileage cars are known to still have original rubberized paint and even then, are likely to have obvious marks or some stickiness. Other cost savings include lower grade plastics, carpets and fixed protective roller bars behind the seats as opposed to pop up ones seen on both the R129 and A124 convertibles.

The seats are not particularly well contoured to be hugging or comfortable. The leather is not soft with a look and feel that is more like vinyl. While the maple woodwork in this car was still in excellent condition it looks thin and fake.

Function – Experience.

With the quality of the interior below normal Mercedes standards, it is hard to be impressed with the way the car feels. The buttons and controls overall are very basic and do not have the solid tactility we have come to expect from Mercedes. The seats feel average and even the adjustment controls feel somehow too basic despite being electric. With no space behind the seats there is nowhere to put bags or personal belongings when the car is fully occupied. The white faces of in the instrument cluster is a little exciting and unique to the AMG models but otherwise the cabin fails to feel better than most other brands.

Despite all the cost saving measures that compromised quality, the SLK did have one very big Ace up its sleeve. This was the World’s first car to have an electric folding metal roof and watching it in action is still quite marvelous. Back in the day it was almost magical.

Desirability – Collectability or Value for money

The R170 SLK has suffered a lot with depreciation and the poor build quality has furthered its reputation as a bad investment. Being a Mercedes, their parts are not cheap either so there is little incentive for people to own or restore them currently. However, as a good-looking Mercedes that is cheap and reasonably safe, a low mileage example would certainly be a car that many youngsters would enjoy.

The top of the range AMG model in this review is in a different category. Being fast, exclusive, and rare, they are holding their value firm with good examples starting to appreciate. We expect this first generation of SLK cars to be highly collectible and follow in the tradition of the 190SL.

WORD OF THE WOLF

When you study the marketing material for the SLK from the time of launch, it is evident that it was very focused on design. Perhaps that was a strategy to distract from the all the cost cutting measures with build quality. It was indeed a step out of Mercedes comfort zone to respond to market trends and be affordable. Many saw that as compromising the brands integrity for profits, and to some degree they would be correct considering the Merger with Daimler Chrysler that came shortly after in 1998 (in hindsight a controversial decision).

Certainly, against previous cars the quality is poor, but we should try to remember what this car was all about. Compare the car instead to the roadster Mazda’s and BMWs of the day and you might understand how well conceived the SLK was. From a design perspective the car is excellent, and over time more will appreciate the thinking behind its creation. Let us also not forget that remarkable folding hard top which will still bring a smile today.

WOLF DESIGN EXCELLENCE SCORE = 6.9

Disclaimer

The information in this review is intended for informational or educational purposes to provide readers an understanding of how something may be seen from a certain design perspective. In this case it is from the view point of WOLF DESIGNS. As design is subjective this review should only be considered as an independent opinion. Information further to being of an opinion is provided to the best of our knowledge based on our own research at the time of doing the review. We cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracies or inconsistencies and reserve the right to change or update any content as appropriate.
The final responsibility of the design resides with the original manufacturer.