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SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

New Car/Review

1997 Mercedes-Benz E320
A dual package of elegance and performance

by Mary Iacoponi

"MOTOR-MOUTH" ™

After being thrust aside by the upstart Japanese luxury cars for quite a few years, Mercedes-Benz has once again regained it's foothold. By adding more performance, styling and value to their engineering mastery, they have targeted a more youthful, upscale audience. And nobody sings the story any better than Janis Joplin did in 1970 - "Oh Lord won't you buy me a Mercedes -Benz - My friends all have Porsches - I must make amends."

Whether I'm wearing jeans and Reeboks or my dressed-for-success business suit, as I slide behind the wheel of this weeks test car - a Mercedes-Benz E320 - I feel great - like the ethereal princess. What I am wearing hardly matters as this air of elegance permeates the "cabin" and seduces me into motoring heaven.

As I breeze on down the highway in my Mercedes-Benz, I find myself beguiled by all the airy sophistication and classy styling of the E 320. But soon, a surprise is in store. As I hit the throttle, I discover plenty of power and a quick, aggressively shifting transmission. This ample engine power coupled with a stiff, balanced, suspension will make it a hit with even the raciest members of your household.

The E 320 sports a 3.2 liter, 217 horsepower, double overhead-cam inline six-cylinder engine mated with a new five-speed automatic transmission. Mercedes calls this a driver-adaptive electronically controlled transmission. More simply, it's an automatic with a 5-speed manual shifter that's lots of fun to drive in the city.

The firm suspension of this full size sedan is impressive. In city driving, it's tight and quick cornering. And it handles those annoying bumpy stretches of highway with ease. You don't get any of that hopping that happens with a too stiff suspension.

The six-cylinder engine is plenty powerful yet offers excellent fuel economy. My test drive of 1,088 miles included a round-trip to Los Angeles and short city trips. I averaged 22.5 miles per gallon.

The tan-colored all-leather seats of this test car were quite comfortable. The rear passenger area included three seats with adjustable headrests for safety, two separately controlled airvents and allowed plenty of room to give comfort to all passengers.

There are a couple of interior trims not quite up to par for Mercedes-Benz. A velour type fabric is used under the dash area and on all door panel pockets. This fabric scuffs and soils easily when getting in-and-out of the vehicle. Another trim item, the speaker covers, are made from inexpensive looking plastic material - not the elegance one would expect in this class sedan.

Also, the remote entry was redesigned this year using new sensors in the driver's door handle and the trunk that were supposed to make it easier to open. I did not find this to be the case. Sometimes, no matter how I aimed the key fob, the locks did not want to open.

Some extras included in the 1997 model E 320 are: door-mounted side air bags for more safety; passenger airbags do not deploy in an accident if passenger seat is unoccupied (huge savings in repair costs); base price increase of $1,300 is only 1.3% higher than 1996; improved fuel efficiency with new transmission; auto-dimming driver's side-view mirror is standard feature.

This full-size luxury sedan is traditional Mercedes styling -- still a bit stodgy -- but now features a distinct four headlight face which adds some pizzazz. The E320 has a suggested price of $44,800. With luxurious extras such as sunroof, xenon headlamps, Bose sound system and mobile phone, the total price of this test car came to $49,820.

An optional Sport Package for the E420 includes a 4.2 liter V8 with 275 horsepower, ASR traction control using brake and throttle intervention to control wheelspin, and P235/45ZR-17 tires mounted on sharp-looking monoblock alloy wheels. An exterior kit designed by AMG completes the sportier looking E420 with a deeper front air dam, side skirts and deeper rear apron. This entire package with 58 extra horsepower adds only $3,900 to the base price of the E420 - a great choice if you want to go for the gold. But the E320 is plenty of car and dollar for dollar it's one of the best buys in the biz this year.

It took Mercedes awhile to hone back in on Lexus, Infiniti and Acura. But this new E-Class Benz resets the benchmark all over again. Peruse your vintage cassette collection and bring Janis Joplin's hit along when you test drive a new E 320 Mercedes-Benz. I guarantee you'll want one.

I suggest separate SIDEBAR boxes:

GEARHEAD CHECKLIST:

TYPE:             Luxury sedan
SPECIFICATIONS:   Front engine, rear wheel drive, 4-door, 5 passenger 
ENGINE:           3.2 liter in-line 6 cylinder, 217 horsepower at  
                  5,500 rpm, 232 foot pounds of torque at 3,850 rpm
CURB WEIGHT:      3,605 lbs. 
FUEL CONSUMPTION: 22.5 miles per gallon (observed)
PRICE AS TESTED:  $49,820
FOR:              Great handling & performance
AGAINST:          Upgrade interior trim
MOTOR-MOUTH TALLY:

We rate this vehicle against similar luxury sedans in four categories important to Bay Area customers - plus a fifth category for relative dollar value. Maximum score in each category is 20 points.

1.COAST ONE CURVES / SAN FRAN TO SANTA CRUZ:
quick, stiff suspension let's you do the S's with confidence	19 points												
2.SILICON VALLEY LOGJAM / THE COMMUTER'S BANE
plush, roomy interior with Bose sounds calm your nerves		18 points										
3.THE FAST LANE / PEDAL-TO-THE-METAL 
cruising I-5 to LA turns boredom into blithesomeness		19 points						
4.THE CITY SLICKER / STYLE & TASTE
traditional styling is elegance - but still a bit stodgy;
interior door panels need upgrade				17 points

5.THE 1997 BUYER / FACE VALUE 				
superb dollar value for luxury class / lots 
of extras - great performance		                        19 points										

					AUTO CHANNEL TALLY	92 points

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