Whenever we talk about the Mercedes-Benz SLK, the BMW Z3 and the Audi TT, it is tempting to add “when the passion was still there”. It was the mid-1990s when Germany’s leading auto manufacturers unveiled three cars destined to catch the imagination of car enthusiasts. With the birth of the premium roadsters, it was as though they had invented a whole new market segment (now practically vanished). With just two seats and only 4 meters long, these cars were perfect for relishing the experience of driving in the open air, for the first time in cars offering the full range of comforts in addition to sportiness. First up was Mercedes, which, in 1994, amazed everyone with the SLK. The following year brought the birth of its two direct competitors: the BMW Z3 and the Audi TT, two different interpretations of the same concept. All three models, if we exclude the special versions, today have prices within the USD/EUR 10,000 mark, an affordable amount for those wanting to approach the world of classics or, more precisely, youngtimers. They really are a blast from the past for anyone now in their thirties who, as a school kid, fantasized about trips and weekends spent driving with the roof down, and dreamed of owning one of these three roadsters.
Mercedes SLK. The good
Penned by Bruno Sacco, this was the first road car to be offered with a retractable metal roof rather than the classic canvas top. It was initially sold with 4-cylinder engines, but the liveliest version of the first series was the 230 Kompressor, powered by a 6-cylinder 193-hp engine. The SLK is the most balanced of the three models, beautifully combining sportiness and comfort in a vehicle that can be two types of car: both a coupe, when the roof is closed, and a true roadster.
BMW Z3. The tough
BMW’s interpretation of the roadster concept, designed by Joji Nagashima, combines the traditional kidney grille front and sporty side grilles with a very harmonious muscular and compact body. Strikingly sporty in true BMW style, it is, of the three, the most demanding to handle, but it can also be hugely satisfying to drive. In the first year, it was available with 4-cylinder 1.8- or 1.9-liter engines, delivering 115 hp and 140 hp respectively. These were subsequently joined by a 4-cylinder 2.8-liter unit putting out 193 hp.
Audi TT. The provocative
With the roadster developed in Ingolstadt, it was all about design, this car being a modern reinterpretation of the traditional lines of the Group whose DNA came from Ferdinand Porsche. The name was a great choice, with the meaning Tradition und Technik, carrying a very clear message. The car’s highly provocative lines were not to everyone’s taste, but the minute attention to detail, even extending to the interior, made this a very attractive car. The first series, with front-wheel drive, was offered with a 4-cylinder in-line turbo engine delivering 150 or 180 hp. Later, with the adoption of four-wheel drive, the output was increased to 225 hp, before going on to reach 250 hp with the naturally aspirated 3.2 V6.