Voices

Why would you buy a 2002 Mercedes-Benz SLK 32 AMG instead of a brand new car?

For about the same amount of money as a new Mazda MX-5 you could buy a 2002 Mercedes-Benz SLK 32 AMG…but why would you?

IN 2002 THERE WAS no Facebook, Google wasn’t a verb, Nokia was cool and this Mercedes-Benz SLK 32 AMG was sold in Australia for around $160,000 plus onroads . Its supercharged V6 was good for 260kW and 450Nm delivered to the rear wheels via a five-speed automatic gearbox which made it capable, back in 2002, of a 0-100km/h time of 5 seconds. Even today that’s a respectable acceleration capability.

Fourteen years later the AMG has 54,000km on the clock and is worth around $43,000.  I’m taking some photographs of it for a friend, work which included a drive, of course, so I thought it’d be interesting to ponder the choice spending that $43k on an older car like this one, or something suitably sporty, top-droppable and brand new.

For instance, if you took your $43k to a Mazda dealer then you could drive away in brand-new MX-5, as opposed to this much older Mercedes. The little Mazda is more nimble and better fun to drive than the SLK, has a warranty, would be more reliable and cheaper to run, and have most of the ‘luxury’ features that in 2002 were considered special. If all you want is cheap open-top motoring then the MX-5 is what you should buy.  But if you wanted to spend a little bit more then the Mustang awaits, available as automatic only but with a choice of four cylinder or V8 power. The Mustang is a much more practical car than the MX-5, just as modern, albeit not as much fun to drive and more expensive. 

Each of those three cars – MX-5, Mustang and SLK – are roadsters, yet each have very different images and say very different things about their owners. I’ll leave it to you to decide what those things are (feel free to comment below, that will be interesting), but one general observation – people tend to look more kindly on owners of well-maintained expensive old cars than expensive new cars.
 
Then there’s the question of why you might buy the older version of the SLK rather than the new one. Well, price is the obvious reason…while I didn’t have a 2016-spec SLK to hand, I’ve driven something pretty close, the $230,000 (plus onroad costs) bigger cousin, the SL400. If you could afford one of those, or even $95,000 for the 2016 base model SLK200 or $175,000 for the SLK AMG version, then surely you’d buy new?
 
Maybe not. A 2002 car experience is different to, but not necessarily worse than, a 2016 car experience. You may think that’s a mad statement, but it’s not. The more automated and complicated a car becomes, the less ‘directly’ enjoyable, in many ways, it becomes, and to me older cars offer an uncomplicated charisma newer vehicles hide behind layers of electronics. Maybe that’s because I’m past 40, I don’t know… but as buyers of SLKs are unlikely to be in their youth I’m unlikely to be alone in my views, and the price premium paid for the generation of cars just prior to the invasion of electronics also bolsters the case.
 
Fundamentally, the 2002 model is still an AMG SLK, and it would do the same basic job as the 2016 model, providing a pleasantly genteel and safe way to wander from cellar door to luncheon spot on a tranquil Sunday, handling daily-driver duties during the week, yet able to show an unseemly degree of pace when required. It’s not like driving a car from the ’60s, where the experience is different again and would probably involve spanner work as part of the journey. 
 
So let’s say you have $100k to spend – you could buy the base model 2016 SLK, or this car, set aside another $10-$15 towards parts replacement and refreshing over the course of your ownership, and generally be prepared to spend more on maintenance because expensive cars become cheap to buy, but never to maintain. After three or five years the 2016 model will have depreciated quite savagely, whereas this one won’t, so the extra maintenance bills will largely be cancelled.
 
There’s no question modern vehicles are quicker, more capable and safer so if this was a beige little hatchback there would be no debate, new is better. But a car you buy as an object of desire? I’m not so sure. Let’s take a closer look at the SLK 32.
 
Any car you own for pleasure has to look good, and from the outside the AMG doesn’t look particularly dated. The Mercedes-Benz roadster look is rather timeless, and today’s models are still wedge-shaped. Here’s the current model side by side with the older car.
 
 
 
It’s when you slide into the car that you really notice it’s from a different era.
 
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Every single control is a button, dial or switch. There are no touchscreens, no pads, no cursors. I’ve written before about the perils of such modern interfaces – basically they are too hard to use as you can’t operate by touch, you need to look, and very often common controls are buried three or four tiny-icon menu selections deep. There’s no such problem with the SLK 32 as there are no menus to scroll though. Personally, I think that’s the way things should be.
 
Another sign of the times is the stereo unit, not an infotainment unit, and it’s a single DIN model so it can be swapped out for an aftermarket option. Today, that sort of replacement is not really possible in many instances, or even worth doing as sound quality has improved so much, and the infotainment units are so tightly integrated with the rest of the vehicle. But in 2002 you could, and did change your car’s stereo. There’s a CD player too, something which is now often omitted and not missed on modern cars.
 
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In its day, this was a top-end vehicle. Today, its luxury features are normal. There are electric and heated seats, cruise control, split-cycle aircon and electric mirrors. The only thing missing is Bluetooth integration for your phone, but that’s why you’d swap in an aftermarket stereo.
 
Settling into the driver’s seat I notice another difference to a modern car. The steering wheel is larger than the current trend, it has no buttons or switches, and it is a heavier, thicker design with wider spokes. I prefer the smaller, more aesthetic steering wheels of today, and I like steering wheel controls provided they don’t get in the way.
 
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Below is the current model for comparison:
 
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The inside of the SLK 32 has aged well, with just some wear on the doorhandles, no obviously cracked plastics. That’s probably because it’s done, on average, less than 4000km per year over the course of its life and been cared for.
 
I start the engine, and operate the roof which unfolds to make the car an open-topper. It’s not very fast to stow away, and takes a lot of room in the boot… something that hasn’t really changed over the decades. I guess owners of such cars aren’t overly bothered.
 
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Pulling out onto the road and there’s a muted whine-grumble from the V6 supercharged engine. The engine note never really excites the senses, but at least it’s authentic, unlike modern cars with artificial noise. Personally, I’d rather have the true sound.
 
The weight of the car is 1500kg, so with 260kW at the ready that makes for respectable performance even by 2016 standards, yet the car doesn’t feel as responsive as you’d expect given the very good power-to-weight ratio. That would be partially due to the age, but also the 5-speed automatic gearbox which isn’t as sharp as modern units to shift, and today’s gearboxes would offer six, seven or even eight speeds and a more direct connection from engine to wheels. Still, in the right gear at the right revs the car does feel like it is capable of its claimed 0-100 time of 5 seconds.
 
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There are no paddle shifters, only the usual Mercedes-Benz manual shift style of flicking the shifter left and right. It works well enough, but it’s not quick and engaging. A bit like the drive, which like most Mercedes Roadsters is designed more for effortlessness than involvement. The SLK has year-old tyres – tyre age is always a concern with low mileage cars – so this car is quick, stable and easy to drive fast. Thoughts of overwhelming the rears with excess power… well, the car isn’t designed for that. It’s a cruiser that can cover ground fast, not made to demand and reward like a true sportscar. The ride is acceptable, I’d criticise it for poor damping over rough parts of the road if the car were new but it’s not. As with tyres, suspension ages even if the car isn’t used and replacement shock absorbers can work wonders.
 
The Mercedes did very well for safety in 2002, with several airbags, ABS, traction and stability control. Electronic calibration wasn’t then what it is now, so while the safety aids may be mostly in name the same, they won’t be as effective as modern equivalents, and this car would not rate a 5-star safety rating in 2016. But it’s still safe and comfortable.
 
So, there you have it, the thought bubbles and side streets of pondering whether to go for something older, or to spend the same money on something brand new. I don’t know what you’d do, I’m just here to help you consider the options. But while I can, I think I’ll drive this older car just a little bit longer…

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper