The new SLK 250 CDI, 100% UnAmerican

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by Teddy Field

For the first time, Mercedes-Benz is offering the SLK Roadster with a diesel engine. The sporty SLK has been offered since 1996, but never with the diesel option. Featuring impressive fuel economy upwards of 40 mpg and a four-cylinder powerplant with 204 horsepower and 367 pounds-feet of torque, it is not just the most fuel-economical roadster in its class, but a zippy one at that. But guess what? Like most diesel sports cars, this one’s not made for America. Regardless of such tragedies, to honor this new diesel, let’s examine some MB lore to see how the 250SLK CDI came to be.

There once was a man named Max Hoffman. He was a man of great taste and influence. He was also a successfully retired racing driver…which meant he knew lots of people in the car industry.

Hoffman was also quite temperamental, which meant he wasn’t on anybody’s Christmas card list. However, he was the only Mercedes Benz dealer in North America. So when he demanded that Mercedes make him 1,000 road-going versions of their Le Mans winning 300SL…they did. And when he demanded that they also make him a cheaper version of the same car, the board of directors again said “yes”.


It was Mr. Hoffmann that brought Mercedes to America after World War II. It was also Mr. Hoffman who brought us the great-great-grandfather of the forthcoming 2012 Mercedes SLK250…the 1955-1963 Mercedes 190SL. And ironically, the original 190SL (like the modern SLK) had a diesel engine option that no one in this country ever knew about.

But first, let’s start with the obvious comparisons…

The 190SL was based on a sedan, and its sole mission in life was to fill a niche in the market. By competing with such sports cars as the Porsche 356A and the British-built Triumph TR3, Hoffman’s little bargain-Benz was able to attract people who wanted a Le Mans-winning 300SL, but couldn’t afford the supercar’s hefty sticker price. Hence, the 300SL Mini-Me styling. In a 1956 Mechanix Illustrated review of the 190SL, legendary car-journo Tom McCahill described the baby-300 as “a connoisseur’s automobile with more snob appeal than performance.”


Despite the car’s obvious lack of sporting intentions, the Hoffman Special quickly became one of Mercedes’ most popular models. And a (very, very rare) diesel-powered 190SLR racer was even offered.

Fast-forward a few decades, and Mercedes’ neutered-sportster, the SLK, burst onto the day-spa scene like the latest over-priced satchel from Louis Vuitton. Once the screaming on Rodeo Drive (“Oh My God! It’s sooo adorable!!”) had subsided, Mercedes realized that it once again had a Bargain-Benz-Hit.

The original SLK had Mercedes design cues, but it was basically a unique design. The next-gen SLK looked like baby-SLR McLaren, and the current model is said to be a shrunken version of the coming 2012 SL. The new car also has a more sporting chassis, and a better exhaust note. So, the SLK is progressing nicely.

Like the 190SL (W121), the 2012 Mercedes SLK has a diesel option. But the oil-burning powerplant is only available in Europe, and sadly, it’s not a racing version (but you could always spray-paint some numbers on a 2012 Mercedes SLK55 AMG).

The 2012 Mercedes SLK250 CDI looks just like a normal SLK, but it trades a wicked exhaust note for some muted diesel chatter. However, the SLK250d isn’t just an anemic concession to economy. The turbocharged, direct-injected (called common-rail in diesel-speak), oil-burning 4-pot produces 204-hp and a very sporty 367 lb-ft of torque. By comparison, the gas-fired 2012 Mercedes SLK 250 has to make due with just 201-hp, and 229 lb-ft of torque.

The two cars are separated by just 2/10ths of a second on the 0-60 run. 6.5 seconds for the gas-250, and 6.7 seconds for the CDI. Although, the Europeans usually measure 0-62 MPH, so the two cars are probably evenly matched (the CDI will also be available with a 6-speed manual).

When asked, Mercedes USA said that a (current generation) diesel-powered SLK won’t be available state-side. But as the hype for diesel makes its way stateside, we just might get one in a few years.

What do you think? Should MB release the diesel SLK in the United States? Are Americans finally ready for diesel? Voice your opinion here!

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