LANZAROTE, Spain - DaimlerChrysler has given the 4-year-old Mercedes SLK a facelift and some new features in a bid to boost share in the flat U.S.-market sports car/roadster segment.
The 2001 SLK, shown to reporters here last week, goes on sale in April in the United States. It gets an optional V-6 for the first time; a new, six-speed manual transmission as standard; an exterior facelift; and some interior upgrades in leather, wood and other materials.
Its single most distinctive feature, its folding hard top, is unchanged.
The U.S. market now will have two SLK models: the V-6 320 and the 230 Kompressor. The six-cylinder is the same 3.2-liter engine already in several other models, such as the ML320. Maximum horsepower is 215 at 5,700 rpm; maximum torque is 229 pounds-feet at 3,000 rpm.
Mercedes also has wrung an extra five horsepower out of the supercharged 2.3-liter four that powers the 230 Kompressor. Maximum horsepower is now 190 at 5,500 rpm; maximum torque is unchanged, at 200 pounds-feet at 2,500 rpm. Zero-to-60 time is shaved to 6.9 seconds from 7.2 seconds for the 2000 model.
U.S. pricing was not disclosed. But the company has had record U.S. sales for three consecutive years, in part because it has kept price increases to a minimum or even cut prices, while adding new models and more features.
In Germany, though, the suggested retail price for the V-6 model will be about $5,800 higher than the four-cylinder 230 Kompressor.
A new, six-speed manual transmission will be standard equipment on both U.S. models. About 20 percent of U.S. SLK buyers have opted for the current standard five-speed manual, Mercedes officials said.
An all-new SLK is not due for another four years. But Mercedes believes the 2001 model is new enough to attract more buyers, even though the company expects the U.S. sports car segment to remain flat, at around 70,000 units.
Competitors include the BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster and Audi TT. Mercedes also has a high-performance version of the SLK in the works in conjunction with its AMG subsidiary.
'The typical life cycle in the sports car segment is that cars are really hot the first year,' said Bernhard Glaser, product manager for coupes and convertibles for Mercedes-Benz USA Inc. 'The segment is very much driven by new product.'
Glaser said the U.S. sports car segment peaked around 90,000 units in 1998.
Glaser said the company expects to sell 12,750 SLKs this year, including 2000 and 2001 models, up from 10,600 in 1999. In its first year, 1996, the company sold almost 7,000 units in the United States.
'Our strategy is to launch with the new, attractive engine and new styling,' he said. 'With the new engine and all those upgrades ... we will increase our market share, even if the competition is really tough. You will see very aggressive pricing on our part, too.'
The exterior facelift includes new front and rear aprons; new, body-color rocker panels; turn signals integrated into the rear-view mirrors; new taillamp covers; and a bumper strip that can be replaced in case of dents.
Inside, the SLK230 gets machined aluminum panels, replacing carbon fiber. The SLK320 comes with a choice of two kinds of wood paneling, dark brown or black; plenty of leather surfaces; power seats, for the first time in the SLK; and a telescoping steering wheel.
Worldwide, Mercedes expects to sell about 50,000 SLKs this year, said Frank Knothe, head of model series S/SL/SLK class. Demand has evened out since 1996, when the all-new SLK had a long waiting list.
'We had initially estimated that we could sell around 36,000 models in the first year,' he said. 'But we actually sold over 55,000.'