A cabin-class hot rod from Stuttgart.by Daniel Charles Ross
In addition to the satisfaction of a job well done, success also provides more tangible rewards, and few rewards are more gratifyingly tangible than climbing behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz E420 sedan. Or, for that matter, any member of the Mercedes E-Class lineup. While the pot of gold at the end of the fabled rainbow is questionable, there may very well be one of these.
The Mercedes E-Class is comprised of three models. The least expensive of this trio (from $40,495, including destination charges) is the E300D, powered by a thrifty 3.0-liter six-cylinder diesel. The E320 (from $45,395) is the most popular member of the line, with a 217-hp 3.2-liter DOHC 24-valve in-line six-cylinder engine.
The E420 tops the E-Class range, powered by a robust 4.2-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8 with 275 hp. With this kind of thrust, the senior E-Class entry rates as one of the planet's premier cabin-class hot rods.
All three Benzes send their horsepower to the ground through an ultra-smooth five-speed automatic transmission driving the rear wheels.
The sophisticated stance of the E420 emphasizes its solidity. The car remains a traditional Germanic sedan that presents a mature, '90s interpretation of conventional styling, relieved by its raked-back, ellipsoidal headlamps. In between them is a traditional Benz chrome grille opening to bridge the gap between old and new.
It's a daring look by Mercedes standards, one that enhances aerodynamic efficiency. The tidy overall design includes a large wheel/tire combination that fills the wheelwells with grippy rubber whose competence we'll discuss again later.
In synch with today's upscale design practice, the E420 is devoid of excess chrome embellishment. This is a true example of the less-is-more principle. Besides the grille, the coveted three-pointed star, and modest badging on the rear, the only other chrome is a narrow strip virtually encircling the car at the beltline. The E420 is a clean and subdued design, and one that doesn't need any chrome dress-ups. That would be like pinning an orchid to a tuxedo. You can do it, but what's the point.
There are desirable features galore in this car, but the one that grabbed our attention like a 200-point rise in the Dow was the powerful V-8 engine. Few other world-class automobiles produce such a sensational combination of sound and fury. In addition to the 275 hp at 5700 rpm, it pumps up 295 pound-feet of torque and scores EPA fuel economy ratings of 18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.
The engine's variable intake-valve timing is a bit of technical wizardry that brings some important benefits. By continuously adjusting the opening and closing of the valves, maximum performance and optimum fuel economy is achieved throughout the operating range. Ancillary blessings include smoother idle quality, improved torque, and more power at high speeds.
Though our test car wasn't so equipped, Mercedes' intelligent Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is an option worth checking into. With this quick-witted system, electronics constantly monitor the car's forward progress and compare many simultaneous inputs to determine if the sedan is going in the direction the driver is trying to achieve. If not, the computers decide a skid or slide is in progress, reduce engine power, and selectively engage the anti-lock brakes to square the car to the steering inputs.
The Inside Story
Before Mercedes began creating its recent string of high-tech road rockets, its principal claim to fame was as a first-class luxury liner. That hasn't changed in the modern era.
German cars, this make included, are sometimes criticized for a perception of spartanism, a chilly sort of luxury. It's true that Mercedes refrains from overt ostentation. But it's hard to think of this car's quietly sophisticated interior as cold.
Tasteful use of burl walnut wood trim and a matching color scheme make the E420's interior easy on the eyes. Dual front airbags face front bucket seats, and two more airbags reside in the front door trim panels to help protect against side impacts. Leather seat covering is standard for the E420 and E320, optional for the E300D.
A laundry list of standard equipment includes all of the usual comfort and convenience suspects, including all the power-operated amenities. Chief among them are some of our favorites, such as keyless remote entry, integrated universal garage door opener, automatic dual-zone climate control with a charcoal particulates filter (very nice for those of us with hay fever), and an anti-theft system.
But then, this being Mercedes, we get a few decidedly non-standard standard items. Two we especially like are the power tilt/telescope steering column and the power headrest adjusters. We like the tilt/tele feature for its ultimate convenience, but we like the power headrests mostly because they're so darn cool. And they provide fast adjustment to an individual driver, too, of course.
One of the few extra-cost options with which our tester was equipped had two constituents: the integrated hands-free mobile phone installed in the center-console armrest, and a six-disc CD changer located in the trunk. These were supplements to the E420's standard AM/FM/Weather band radio, a unit that can pump out more volume than most of us would care to hear on short notice.
Ride & Drive
The overall best use of the E420 is not for commuting to work, impressing our mothers, or making sibs jealous. It's for driving as though you were being chased by dogs. Across Montana.
If you think high-speed fun is somehow inappropriate for a Mercedes, you've been away. Speed limits are higher now and this car just pleads for a chance to show what it can do.
After its initial tip-in, the E420 has the throttle response of an aircraft carrier catapult. Pushing the pedal to the softly carpeted floor returns a thrilling explosion of acceleration, pushing you back into the seat as the car builds velocity. The cabin fills with the engine's refined snarl and the tachometer's needle climbs toward the redline.
The car comes alive at speed. It has responsive, speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering to guide its hefty (3748-pound) bulk around fast corners, an activity that's enhanced by a well-bred independent suspension system, double wishbones in the front and a five-link arrangement in the rear. The blending of comfortable ride quality with retention of impressive handling characteristics is notable.
BMW's 540i may have a slight edge in absolute handling, but the distinction would be hard to detect on public roads. Though the suspension tuning favors ride quality, we found the car well-balanced in hard cornering and a joy on typical highway curves. There's no wallowing, no indecision at turn-in, and feedback from the steering and through the driver's seat is at once informative and reassuring.
Braking performance, always a Mercedes strong suit, matches the E420's speed potential and then some.
Construction quality is another area where Mercedes has always scored high marks, and in the E420 it's almost off the charts.
If ever it could be believed that a car was machined from a single billet of high-strength steel, this is that car. The doors close so soundly that you'd swear they pressurized the car. Neither road nor wind noise can achieve much of an auditory foothold to mar the driving pleasure.
The E420 is a yardstick of quality in its class of high-end touring sedans. Frankly, the car is as good as it is because of rampant competition in this segment, with serious challenges available from the Cadillac STS, Lexus LS 400, Infiniti Q45, and, of course, the BMW 540i. Nevertheless, the car still acquits itself very well among its peers. It's clear that the three-pointed start still stands for something special.
Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084
1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.