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Just back from Palm Beach, visiting the US arm of uber-tuner Carlsson. The German manufacturer sells performance mods and window dressing for Merc owners who just can't leave well enough alone. Although Carlsson is a major player in Europe and number one in Japan, their US presence ranks somewhere between minimal and microscopic. The American franchise changed hands a couple of years ago, when Carlsson pulled the plug on a dead-end deal with The Tire Rack. Claude Ratte is the new go-to guy, part of the team responsible for re-introducing the Carlsson brand to the world's largest aftermarket market. I drove Claude's modified SLK350. Click through for the inside dope.
Carlsson US lives in a single garage, shared with a mechanic who fashions turbo-charged, three-rotor RX8?s (I love the sound of waste gas dumping in the morning. Sounds like? 400hp). I was a bit skeptical about Claude?s ability to piece together an AMG-beater in such humble surrounds. The SLK provided immediate reassurance. Its silver paintwork was stunning? as you might expect from the man once charged with re-painting the black Ferraris given to Miami Vice. The fit and finish was flawless. The Carlsson car looked as fundamentally sound as an AMG product.
Normally, I?m not a big fan of cosmetic modifications. That goes double for cars with cosmetic modifications without performance upgrades. If you look faster, go faster. Driving the Carlsson car around Palm Beach, I changed my mind. For one thing, there are no corners. (This picture was taken at a rotary inside a housing development.) For another, there are plenty of police. A true hot rod SLK would be both pointless and provocative. But a faux hot rod makes perfect sense? especially when you consider the enclave?s extraordinarily high SLK-to-well-groomed-women-of-a-certain-age ratio. If you?re a straight guy, live in a poser?s paradise like south Florida and want to drive an SLK, you need this car.
From most angles, a stock new-shape SLK looks distinctly French, with its ass is up in the air atop skinny little tires. Carlsson fixes the convertible?s prissy image problem by lowering the chassis by an inch, stuffing 20? wheels in the wells, adding low profile tires and testosteroning wherever possible (e.g. the front splitter, side skirts and rear wing). The Carlsson steel exhausts could stand a bit further proud of the body work and I?m not so sure about those glittering rollover hoops, but the overall effect transforms the SLK from a chick car to a chick magnet.
The Carlsson interior goes for the Burberry effect, repeating the brand?s logo ad infinitum on leather (for those who don?t quite get it). The little horsie logo that adorns the glove box falls flat, coming across like a weak reply to Maranello?s mighty steed. The Carlsson kick plates add a touch of bling: a welcome signal to owner and passenger alike that there?s an additional $30k in the Carlsson mods.
All in all, I can see the Carlsson brand going places. But not where they think they should go. I reckon they?re more likely to sell $30k?s worth of mods to young kids driving $15k Mercs than rich middle-aged white guys shelling out $50 - $60k for a box-fresh, fully-waranteed Mercedes-Benz. Will today?s Japanese import modifiers ?graduate? to Mercedes and buy Carlsson? Perhaps. Meanwhile, the Germans should invest more heavily in their US operation. The brand needs a proper showroom, website, US catalogue and three or four official demo models. Carlsson?s got some great products, but they?ve got to push them a lot harder if they want to succeed.