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Mercedes-Benz SLK generations

What is the Mercedes-Benz SLK?

For two decades and three generations of model, the Mercedes-Benz SLK name was synonymous with upmarket-but-dinky roadsters.

Launched in the UK back in 1996 as the Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class, it was the first small, more affordable two-seater convertible from the German carmaker since 1955's 190 SL.

Mercedes-Benz SLK Mk3 aerial

It was an innovative product for the company as it reintroduced - and significantly improved upon earlier iterations of - the concept of the folding hardtop in an era when this technology was still very much in its infancy. This basic layout has been retained for all subsequent SLKs.

Although you can no longer buy a new car badged SLK, the final third-generation version, often known by its R172 development code, was facelifted in 2016 and renamed Mercedes-Benz SLC.

On paper, the SLK's a direct rival for the likes of the Audi TT Roadster, BMW Z4 Roadster and even the mid-engined Porsche Boxster, although in reality it was a different proposition alogether.

At-a-glance 2011-16 Mercedes-Benz SLK specs

  • Top speed: 147-155mph
  • 0-62mph: 4.5-7.1 seconds
  • Fuel economy: 33-70 mpg
  • Emissions: 114-195g/km of CO2
  • Boot space: 225-335 litres

Which versions of the Mercedes-Benz SLK were available?

Although there were relatively few third-generaton Mercedes-Benz SLK Roadster permutations compared with the brand's other ranges, there was potential confusion as the numerical aspect of the model name rarely coincided with the engine capacity.

Take the petrol-powered SLK 200 and and SLK 250, both of which featured a four-cylinder 1.8-litre supercharged motors in two different states of tune. 

Similarly, the diesel-drinking SLK 250 CDI (later renamed SLK 250 d) employed Mercedes' gruff-but-gutsy 2.1-litre turbocharged diesel.

Mercedes-Benz SLK folding roof

The only model playing ball was the V6-engined, 3.5-litre SLK 350.

All SLKs barring the V6 were available with a six-speed manual gearbox, although the vast majority are equipped with the more desirable seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic, complete with a steering column-mounted gear selector.

Trim levels are similarly simple: you've either got an entry-level standard level of specification or the gussied-up AMG Sport, the latter being the only one available with the SLK 350.

What is the Mercedes-Benz SLK AMG?

For each generation generation of SLK, the fastest has been fettled by Mercedes-Benz's AMG division. Performance was suitably beefed-up, with the final incarnation of SLK 55 AMG being capable of thrusting from 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds.

Mercedes-Benz SLK AMG dynamic front three-quarters

Despite its petite dimensions, AMG shoehorned a 5.5-litre V8 engine under the SLK's bonnet, producing a rudely healthy 421hp and a sonorous exhaust burble.

Although the previous-generation model was also badged SLK 55 AMG, it featured a 360hp 5.4-litre V8, while the first-generation SLK 32 AMG made do with a 354hp 3.2-litre V6.

Mercedes-Benz SLK styling and engineering

Although the SLK's much more than simply the street theatre of its folding roof's contortioning performance, it's not an out-and-out sports car like many two-seater roadsters. This final generation shared many design and engineering elements with the larger Mercedes-Benz SL Roadster, itself long-since evolved from the lightweight sportscar the original was.

Consequently it's heavier and broader than many of its rivals in order to emphasise the car's comfort and everyday usability. After all, roof-up, the SLK's essentially an accomplished two-door coupe, albeit without the convenience of a tailgate.

Mercedes-Benz SLK dashboard

Overall, the platform engineering is sophisticated but traditional: all SLKs have their engines mounted up-front, with the transmissions directing power to the rear wheels. 

Was the Mercedes-Benz SLK good to drive?

Don't be fooled by the roadster marketing, the SLK was a comfortable cruiser with a roomy cabin, comfortable seats and on the whole, relaxed steering and supple suspension. Although the third-generation was notably sharper than the two before it, other contemporary sports cars trumped it in the handling stakes.

That's not to say that the SLK wasn't enjoyable - the AMG-badged versions in particular were very lively - but ultimately Porsche's Boxster was the roadster of choice for enthusiasts who wanted to be truly sated.

Not that such a notion held the SLK back as it sold well - there's an undoubted gravitas to having a car with a three-pointed star being parked on your driveway.

How much does the the Mercedes-Benz SLK cost?

On list price alone, the SLK was competitive, but options soon pushed that cost skywards. Popularity with fleets, the age of the car and the relative competitiveness around the roadster market have ensured some impressive incentives were available, and at times the leasing figures for an SLK dipped below £250 per month.

Running costs are very dependent on model. Go for an SLK 350 or SLK 55 AMG and you'll find servicing and consumable prices match the performance: they're high. Regular four-cylinder versions are cheaper to run and as the cars get older Mercedes has a policy of keeping consumables and mechanical spares affordable.

Find out what this generation of roadster is like to live with in our Mercedes-Benz SLK owners' reviews.

Mercedes-Benz SLK rear three-quarter dynamic

Mercedes-Benz SLK Model History

Second-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK (2004-11)

Mercedes-Benz SLK

Renewing the formula resulted in a very different Mercedes-Benz SLK when the Mk2 arrived in 2004.

Styled by Steve Mattin, who previously introduced the quad-headlamp look for the late-1990s E-Class and CLK, the two-seater roadster took cues from contemporary Formula 1 cars for a very distinctive front end. The looks may have divided opinion, but in every other aspect the second-generation SLK was a significant improvement over its predecessor.

Wider, roomier and more comfortable, the SLK's cabin improvements were joined by an increase in luggage capacity with the roof down, thanks to a three-piece folding roof. Steering feel benefited from rack-and-pinion technology and McPherson strut suspension improved both compliance and roadholdering.

The high-performance SLK 55 AMG enjoyed a welcome boost thanks to its 5.4-litre V8 engine, delivering a soundtrack to match its speed.

Find out what drivers think of the car with our Mercedes-Benz SLK owners' reviews and find used examples for sale.

First-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK (1996-2004)

Mercedes-Benz SLK

Take the wheelbase and visual cues of the original 190 SL, bring it into the very late 20th century and you have the first-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK - or the R170 if you're so inclined. Setting the new roadster apart from the crowd was the folding hardtop, a genre-defining moment in post-war car design that proved sophisticated engineering could be reliable, (relatively) affordable and effective.

At launch, the hardtop consisted of just two pieces that folded in 25 seconds, taking the impressive 355-litre boot down to a slightly awkwardly shaped 155-litres. With the roof up, the cabin offers good refinement and security, ensuring the SLK is remarkably cheap to insure.

A fairly basic interior offers few technological tricks, but supportive seats in a wide range of colour schemes, easy-to-use controls and decent cabin storage. Dashboard and door trims are often matched to bright leather colour schemes but the finish wears badly revealing black plastic beneath.

Search the classifieds for used versions for sale as well as finding out what those who had them thought with our Mercedes-Benz SLK owners' reviews.