STUTTGART - The last time Mercedes-Benz performance car subsidiary AMG built an E55 sedan, they sold 12,000 of them over four years, making that E55 the most successful AMG product of all time.

That means they wouldn't exactly be fooling around or taking chances with the new E55 AMG, making it more attractive to more people by upping performance ante all the way to a 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds or less. It's AMG's 35th anniversary present to the speed-crazed and torque-starved, and it has apparently toppled the BMW M5 from the performance sedan throne.

The standard E500 sedan is already pretty spectacular. It's styled like a cross between C-Class and an S-Class and comes off as exactly that, with bigger size (0.9 inches longer), a wider stance (0.5 inches wider), trimmer proportions (0.3 inches taller), a much stronger rear quarter treatment, and a crisply styled tail panel that echoes S-Class and C-Class designs. With much more standard equipment, it has become the S-Class for those who cannot afford an S-Class.

Lighter in the loafers

The E55 AMG, like the E500, has more aluminum in it than any other E ever, including hood, fenders, doors and decklid, and about twice as much high strength low alloy (HSLA) steel, 37 percent of the car by weight. Only one percent of the car is plastic.

The E55 AMG version takes that basic E-Class formula and moves everything - power, torque, braking and handling - up a notch or two, to the point where it has become the quickest sedan in Mercedes history, lighter than the S55 and CL55 that share this same mighty blower engine.

The Lysholm-supercharged 5.5-liter V-8 engine packs a sweet rorty/sporty exhaust note, an eye-popping 469 horsepower, and a seriously huge 516 lb-ft of torque. It feels twice as good in this car as the old E50 AMG engine felt in its body shell in 1997, with enough torque down low, peaking at 2650 rpm and staying there until 4600 rpm, to conquer any canyon and enough brakes to stand the car on its nose. These are AMG's own brakes, with eight-piston calipers in the front and four-piston calipers in the rear, and 14-inch diameter ventilated rotors.

The SpeedShift manumatic five-speed automatic comes with AMG steering-wheel-mounted upshift and downshift buttons on its backside, and the transmission now has a console-mounted mode selector switch for selecting Comfort, Sport, and Manual modes. The shifting, up or down, stick or button, is instantaneous and smooth as butter, and doesn't hold at redline; it upshifts. Its drive-by-wire, shift-by-wire system could use a little sharpening, but generally, it was fine.

Profundity at speed

The interior of the E55 has undergone a profound change. Where all previous generations of the E sedan have had serious expressions on the faces of their instrument panels, dashboards and consoles, the new generation E55 is far more sporty, far more modern, more space-age than any previous E55 sedan. In many ways, it's like a four-door version of the new SL 55 roadster.

While the graphics of the main instruments and their pods mimic the new Deco style and layout in the CLK500 coupe, almost every other switch, dial and instrument have been changed to a new style that's not seen in either the C-Class or the S-Class. There's more wood and more chrome, and in the E55 AMG, dark grey wood accents and special AMG markings sex it up a bit.

There are many more LED information presentations in this car, including four individual air conditioning monitors and controls for the four outboard seating positions. There are red and blue dots all over the place for hot and cold air and seat controls (cooled, heated and massage-giving seats are all optional). The door buttons have new shapes and what seem to be slightly larger markings, but nothing we had to deal with, touch or operate frustrated us for very long. We pretty much had the car figured out in two full days of driving on those amazing mountain roads of Bad Wuerttemburg and the autobahn system around Stuttgart.

The E55 adds to all that its own sporty, more colorful instrument faces, AMG sill plates, AMG sport seats with Nappa and Nubuck leather, and on the outside, special front, side and rear bodywork and badges, a completely retuned suspension, and 18-inch 10-spoke wheels with hollow spokes and vermiculite cores, 20 percent lighter than the previous AMG 18-inch wheel design. At the rear, there are two pairs of bright twin exhaust tips that separate the AMG version from the E 500.

Complex safety

The electrical and electronic architecture and equipment on this new car are staggeringly complex, but the human interfaces are easy and the rewards are equally complex and wonderful. With eight airbags, side impact and rollover side curtain actuation, ABS, traction control, ESP, electronic braking taken directly from the new SL, drive-by-wire throttle, 10-way seats, and the standard 10-speaker stereo system, there's not a lot left to want.

Driving the E55 in southern Germany is like flying a bizjet at very low altitudes. If you get an opening on the autobahn, you can be at 250 kph in the left lane in about 20 heartbeats from a dead stop. Once at speed, the E55 is quiet, smooth, and unperturbed by pavement imperfections or undulations. It tracks beautifully at high speeds because underneath, there is science at work.

The AMG-modified AirMatic DC air suspension system has four-link front suspension, which was designed to mate perfectly with the new and patented aluminum five-link rear suspension, and it is really, really good. It soaks up crummy pavement choppiness, damps out undulations quickly, and keeps the car stable and upright because it's the first E55 with air suspension and adaptive control of both the air spring media and the shock absorber units, hence dual-control or DC.

AirMatic DC is electronically and mechanically paired with Adaptive Damping System II or ADS II to read conditions and apply one of four air spring settings and three driver-selected damping maps, in addition to speed-related variable ride height up to the maximum electronically limited speed of 155 mph.

The fact that all the suspension and steering mechanicals are hung from subframes, and that the E55 body is 18 percent stiffer in torsion, means quicker reactions, lots of isolation from the road, but not numbness or floatiness. This E55 tracks and turns in better and more authoritatively than any previous model on its staggered 245/40ZR-18 front and 265/35ZR-18 rear tires with their aggressive but relatively quiet tread pattern. The steering is nicely weighted and assisted, well connected to the road even at ridiculous speeds, and quick to react in a pinch.

The brakes, especially, feel different because they are the first electric brakes on an E55, so they take some getting used to in terms of pedal feel and action. These brakes are always on, and your pedal attack pressure and speed tell each corner's brake exactly what to do next, depending on information from the sensor network around the car, steering, ABS, ESP, suspension and body. And second, because their amazingly fast-acting high-pressure plumbing has taken the pulsations completely out of the ABS actuation. From now on, the ABS system just works, without the pedal-juddering feedback that frightens some drivers into backing off of the brakes just when they shouldn't. With electric actuation, these huge rotor sizes, and the eight-piston/four-piston layout, the AMG brakes are world-class.

The pity of all this is that, like the new Viper, the E55 AMG sedan is going to be in perpetually short supply. Only 800-1200 per calendar year will come our way during the car's projected four-year lifespan, at a pricing starting in the neighborhood of about $72,500 to $75,000. After that, they will almost automatically become valuable collector cars, because they are so very cool and so competent at what they do.

2003 Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG
Base price: $72,500 (est.)
Engine: 5.5-liter supercharged V-8, 469 hp/519 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 190.9 x 71.7 x 50.9 in
Wheelbase: 112.4 in
Curb weight: 4037 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18 mpg combined (est.)
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags; front side and side curtain airbags; four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock control, traction control, ESP
Major standard equipment: Tilt/telescoping steering wheel, AM/FM/CD player, xenon lamps, Brake Assist, power windows and mirrors, power seats, cruise control, automatic climate control, multifunction steering wheel
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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