The SLK is renowned for being a car with both style and a particular kind of substance — namely rust
14 May 2017

If you want to know how popular the first-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK (1996-2004) was, check the classifieds.

The name – SLK is short for ‘Sportlich, Leicht und Kurz’, or ‘sporty, light and short’ – succinctly encapsulated its appeal and these days there are plenty for sale, mostly 190bhp 2.3 Kompressors (power was increased to 194bhp in 2000).

See Mercedes-SLK for sale on PistonHeads

You’ll also unearth a sprinkling of 132bhp SLK 2.0 and 161bhp SLK 2.0 Kompressors, and 215bhp SLK 320 V6s. If you’re lucky you’ll even find a 344bhp SLK 320 AMG, capable of 0-62mph in 5.0sec.

You might think that worth seeking out, but your priority when shopping for a Mk1 SLK – preferably a five-speed automatic with a leather interior – is finding one that’s free of rust. The poor-quality steel succumbs first at the wheel arches. Frighten yourself by unclipping the indicator lens on pre-facelift cars and looking at where the wing is attached to the body: it’ll look like a Cadbury’s Flake. Stone chips can trigger extensive bonnet corrosion, too, while rear subframes can be a sight to behold.

The danger with buyer’s guides such as this is that problems get blown out of proportion – but not on this occasion. In the interests of research, I risked being confronted by an angry owner to check the front wings of his 'immaculate' SLK. There it was: rust bubbling at the bottom rear corners of each front wheel arch.

So why spend money and time on the model? Because the Mk1 SLK, codenamed R170, is, with its electric folding roof, still a stylish car and a wonderful tool for browsing the back lanes, as long as you don’t mind pulling over to allow a sportier BMW Z3 or Porsche Boxster of the same era to zip past. And huge numbers of used examples mean there’s no excuse for not actually finding a good one.

Standard kit included ABS, alloys and traction control. A facelift in 2000 included new front and rear bumpers and body-coloured side skirts (pre-facelift models have unattractive black sills).

A future classic? That’ll be a cherished, rust-free, low-mileage one, for which you should pay around £8000. Prices for the rest start at £1500. Classics they are not – unless you spend a considerable sum on overhauling and rust-proofing. Mileages are high at these prices, which says much about the car’s usability and the tightness of that Varioroof (it should open or close in about 25sec).

The supercharged and V6 engines are strong and powerful, which makes up for the car’s slightly wooden chassis. A full history is common, but most cars dropped out of the franchised and specialist dealer network long ago, so problems can be lurking. These include the electronics (water leaks wreak havoc in the boot) and automatic gearbox and ignition systems, where oil can make its way along wires to control systems. A specialist will know these problems and save you pounds on wasted diagnosis time and new parts. 

An expert’s view...


“I’m the club’s specialist on the SLK and have owned three: a 1996 2.3 Kompressor, a 2000 2.0 K and my present car, a ’99 2.3 K, which I have rebuilt to the tune of £8000. The ride is firm and you notice bumps but it’s fun to drive, even at 176,000 miles.

“I love the looks of the first-generation SLK, and the electric folding roof is so convenient. It still looks the part: Mercedes called it a mini-SL at launch. You can get them for £800 but it’s not a car you should buy on the cheap.”

Mercedes SLK problems


Post-facelift cars suffer engine oil contamination of the solenoid that switches the ignition from advance to retard. There’s an official fix, or you can replace the solenoid. A supercharger whine might be a failure.


Auto ’boxes like oil and filter changes every 35k miles. Pilot bushing where computer cable enters gearbox can weep oil into cabling and the computer.


C-Class underpinnings are tough, but front ball joints are prone to failure.


Check for rusty wheel arches and wings where they meet the body (OE wings are £200). Check behind the front indicator lenses for rust. Check panel gaps. Water leaking into boot can cripple the central locking pump.


Indicator problems may be a dirty bulb holder or issues with the CCM (multi-function module for the roof, wipers etc). Next to the battery is a box holding the CCM, engine ECU and the K40 fuse, which suffers intermittent solder failure, disconnecting the ECU and stopping the engine. If engine light doesn’t come on at ignition key position II, check stored fault codes.


If Vario Roof is unused, microswitches can seize. The pump in the boot needs regular fluid changes.


Plastics are coated with a rubberised finish that flakes away, especially near the handbrake. Check air circulation flap works as the fan turns on and off.

Also worth knowing...

Krytox synthetic grease can sort the roof’s squeaky rubber seals. Simply smear it on and — hey presto! — a squeak-free roof.

Mercedes SLK prices


Early cars to 2003, mainly 2.3 Ks and facelifted 2.0 Ks but also some 3.2s, most with more than 120,000 miles.


Mileages around the 80k mark. Some surprises, including a 97R 2.3 K with 33,000 miles and FSH for £2499, albeit in headache yellow.


Mainly 2002-on cars with mileages around 50-80k, including a 2002/52 dealer-sale 200 K with 68k, FSH and one owner for £3500.


Late-2004 cars with high-ish mileages; mid-mileage cars closer to £5000.


The best Mk1 cars, but for this money the Mk2 (R171) becomes available.

John Evans

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Join the debate


14 May 2017
Wouldn't touch an MB from this era, they were all dogs. Best left to be ragged and rot to death on council estates.

14 May 2017
Shame as they are fairly handsome in the right specification. I actually think they will become something of a future classic as their numbers will dwindle fast due to the shoddy build and terrible rust. Can't imagine spending 8 grand (!!) on one though.

15 May 2017
Apart from build quality issues and use of cheap materials, it was on 90s Mercedes when I first noticed appalling panel gap inconsistencies.
Today's Mercedes are no doubt better made, but panel gaps, while not inconsistent, are still very wide and nothing like the precision fit and finish found in a VW group product - haute couture versus pret-a-porter ...

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