SLK stands for Sportlich (sporty), Leicht(light) and Kurz (compact). The SLK Klasse was introduced as a brand new 2 seater compact roadster model for Mercedes Benz in 1996 with the R170. Sitting below the SL but with an innovative (and very unusual at the time) folding hardtop roof that offered the best of both worlds (transforming the car from coupe to convertible in seconds), the first generation of SLK was a resounding success and proved to be a popular conquest model for the marque.
The R170 'Varioroof' in action
R170- the first SLK, introduced in 1996
The second, very stylish edition of the SLK, the R171, was launched in 2004 at the Geneva Motor Show and entered production shortly after. It took a giant leap forward over the first generation in terms of quality, driver involvement and all-round sophistication. It was slightly larger in every direction, better built, more aerodynamic, more fuel efficient and with significantly more torsional rigidity than it's predecessor, plus greatly improved ride and handling.
Mercedes Benz engineers took the opportunity to revise and improve the folding hardtop roof, known as the 'Varioroof', and it now took a mere 22 seconds to turn the car into an open-top roadster. It also featured an abundance of safety equipment, such as adaptive front airbags, side airbags, side curtain airbags, seatbelt tensioners, force limiters for all seats and solid roll-over bars behind the seats helping to prevent injury in the unlikely event of an accident. This was also the first car to feature an innovative new system called 'Airscarf' that blows warm air around the occupants necks. The system now features, at least as an option, on all Mercedes Benz open-top vehicles.
An AMG version of the R171
The R171 was designed by the award-winning Chief Design Officer at Daimler AG, Gordon Wagener, who devised the long-running Mercedes Benz design style 'Sensual Purity'. He designed many of the brands most notable cars, including the legendary SLR McLaren. Whilst the SLR McLaren is an extraordinary performance model, it's easy to see the visual similarities between the SLR MacLaren and the R171 SLK, especially in the F1 inspired 'nose cone' styling at the front fascia. There are even various modifications available for the R171 intended to make it look even more like a mini-SLR.
The Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren provided inspiration for the styling of the R171, particularly that F1 style nose-cone
The R171 cabin is still a great place to travel 18 years after it was first designed
The R171 was replaced, predictably, by the R172 in 2011, featuring slightly more conservative, almost sombre styling, although performance and technology was improved as you'd expect with a new model. The R172, whilst attractive and desirable in its own right, didn't quite capture our imagination in the same way the R171 did with it's SLR influence. The SLC facelift of 2015 improved the front end styling of the R172 but by then the decision had already been made to quietly retire the SLK/SLC brand due to gradually diminishing sales of convertible models. Mercedes Benz instead focussed on rationalising their coupe and convertible offerings into fewer models and the trailblazing SLK was no more.
The R172 replaced the R171 in 2011
The R171 is still a good looking car- the version that we consider to be the best looking in the history of the SLK/SLC range.