The first-generation Mercedes-Benz SLK was presented at the Turin Motor Show in April 1996 and was launched on the market in autumn of the same year. It added a new dimension to series of „SL“ (sporty, lightweight) vehicles, the K in the name „SLK“ standing for „kurz“ or „short“. The engineers were uncompromising when it came to safety, comfort, environmental compatibility and suitability for everyday use. They developed a vehicle that differed from other roadsters in its class in many respects, the most noticeable, perhaps, being the vario-roof – a steel roof which could be fully retracted into the boot.
A near-production study of a sleek but safe roadster with the now familiar name „SLK“ had been exhibited at the Turin Motor Show two years earlier in 1994. Since then the SLK had caused a sensation wherever it appeared. At the Paris Motor Show in October of the same year a further study appeared, this time featuring one of the most spectacular details of the subsequent series-production vehicle: the vario-roof.
In Germany the SLK was available in two variants: the SLK 200, featuring a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine with an output of 100 kW (136 hp), already familiar from the C‑Class and E‑Class, and the SLK 230 KOMPRESSOR, with a turbocharged 2.3‑litre four-cylinder engine that delivered an output of 142 kW (193 PS) and also featured in the C 230 KOMPRESSOR. A 2.0-litre variant of the supercharged engine was developed for Italy, Portugal and Greece. This had an output of 141 kW (191 hp) and, in addition to powering the SLK, was also fitted in an export version of the C-Class Saloon.
The supercharged engine not only delivered more output than a comparable naturally aspirated engine but beefier torque too. In the SLK 200 KOMPRESSOR the figure was 270 newton metres and in the SLK 230 KOMPRESSOR 280 newton metres. With both engines this was available from as low as 2500 rpm and remained constant up to 4800 rpm. Both engines achieved a top speed of 231 km/h, and acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h took 7.7 and 7.6 seconds. The SLK 200 did not lag far behind: it offered 190 newton metres between 3700 and 4500 rpm, took 9.7 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h and had a top speed of 208 km/h.
The fully retractable, electrohydraulic vario-roof was made of steel and folded away into the boot at the touch of a button, turning a weatherproof coupé into a roadster in next to no time. The mechanism was sheer poetry. First the two-part roof pivoted upwards. At the same time the parcel shelf disappeared beneath the boot lid, which tipped backwards and upwards in order to make room in the boot for the roof. The roof folded and glided into place, the boot lid closed, and the parcel shelf returned to its original position. The whole process took just 25 seconds.
The two fixed roll-over bars, positioned behind the seats, were made from heavy-walled tubular steel (diameter 40 millimetres, wall thickness 2.5 millimetres) and tapered towards the top. Together with the particularly robust A-pillars, they ensured the exceptional standard of safety for which open-top Mercedes-Benz vehicles are known. The roll-over bars were bolted to a robust cross-member towards the top of the rear bulkhead. The A‑pillars concealed two tubes with diameters of 20 and 25 millimetres which were inserted into one another, shaped and welded to the outer shell of the A-pillars using special fittings. Each of the tubes had a specific task in the event of a roll-over: the upper one reached as far as the frame of the windscreen, improving its rigidity, while the lower tube reinforced the A-pillar at dashboard height. Other safety features included two airbags (driver, passenger), automatic seat belts, belt tensioners and belt force limiters. Sidebags, which unfolded between the occupant and the door, were available as an option.