Forgotten Heroes Part 1: Mercedes-Benz AMG SLK32

In this, the first of a new series that looks back at cars that should receive greater attention, we focus on the hottest version of the first-generation (R170) Mercedes-Benz SLK.

I remember some cars because of a single moment in time. With the Mercedes-Benz AMG SLK32, it was a particularly hot summer's day in early 2002. I was running late for a meeting, and upon arriving in test garage, found the sparkling blue SLK already with its top down. I wasn't the first-generation SLK's biggest fan, but other choices included a Peugeot 307 and Daihatsu YRV, so I opted for the 'Benz.

It very quickly became apparent that this was no ordinary SLK. Now, remember, this was in the days before every model in the Mercedes-Benz line-up had a dedicated AMG variant. And this AMG version arrived pretty late in the then-ageing R170's lifecycle. 

Still, as I roared away, I started warming to this "hot-rod" version of what was previously regarded as nothing more than a "pretty face" in the rapidly expanding Mercedes-Benz line-up. This SLK appeared to have some character, and certainly some muscle.

Using the same 3.2L V6 as a base, but with a compact IHI supercharger (in addition to other internal changes), this SLK packed a 260kW and 450Nm punch, massively more than the standard SLK 320.

There was sadly no manual transmission option, with the SLK32 instead featuring the marque's then-new 5-speed "Speedshift" transmission that allowed for manual shifts by tapping the lever sideways. Sadly, there were also no shift paddles back then.

The throttle mapping was certainly done with quick blast-offs in mind. I remember this clearly because I had to consciously be "soft" on the throttle, or the SLK would roar, squirm on its back wheels and launch itself forward at every opportunity. And then I entered an underground car park, and the lovely sound from the supercharged V6 was amplified. 

I made my meeting in time - the SLK was claimed to do 0-100kph in 5.2 seconds, which matched the then-new BMW M3. In terms of straight-line performance it blew the contemporary Porsche Boxster S into the weeds. Top speed was limited to 250 kph and you got there quickly.

When I arrived back at the office (I took the long road back), I was rather smitten with this SLK. The few suspension changes (stiffer, lower, wider rear track etc.) seemed to also play a part in making this a far sportier machine than its siblings. Yes, the steering was still a bit dull, and the cabin was dated, but I liked the subtle (by today's AMG standards) upgrade to the exterior design, and it was just such a laugh to roar around in. 

Back in 2002 it cost just over half a million Rand, making it a lot more expensive than an M3, and only slightly cheaper than the aforementioned Boxster S. Not too many were sold, because not too many were built. It is reported that Mercedes-Benz manufactured only 4333, of which nearly a thousand stayed in Germany, and about 2000 went to America... leaving the rest of the world, including us, with just over a thousand to play with.

So it's pretty rare to find one of these on sale these days. But when you do, they also tend to be very cheap. You can probably pick up an SLK32 AMG for around R150 000 today, and that's very tempting, indeed! 

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