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SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

1996 MERCEDES-BENZ E320

by Tom Hagin

SPECIFICATIONS

     Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price              $ 43,500
     Price As Tested                                    $ 45,850
     Engine Type                             3.2 liter I6 w/PFI*
     Engine Size                                 195 cid/3199 cc
     Horsepower                                   217 @ 5500 RPM
     Torque (lb-ft)                               229 @ 3750 RPM
     Wheelbase/Width/Length                   111.5"/70.8"/189.4
     Transmission                           Four-speed automatic
     Curb Weight                                     3525 pounds
     Fuel Capacity                                  21.1 gallons
     Tires  (F/R)                                      215/55R16
     Brakes (F/R)                              Disc-ABS/drum-ABS
     Drive Train                   Front-engine/four-wheel-drive
     Vehicle Type                        Five-passenger/four-door
     Domestic Content                                        N/A
     Coefficient of Drag (Cd.)                              0.29

PERFORMANCE

     EPA Economy, miles per gallon
        city/highway/average                            19/26/24
     0-60 MPH                                        7.6 seconds
     1/4 mile (E.T.)                       16.2 seconds @ 90 mph
     Top Speed (Est.)                                    130 mph
     * Port fuel injection

After 10 years of success, Mercedes-Benz has unveiled its new series of E-Class sedans. In previous years, however, caution would have been taken regarding any dramatic restyling of the venerable sedan. But the new E320 doesn't adhere to this caution, although it continues as a benchmark to which other luxury car makers measure success.

The three E-Series vehicles, E300, E320 and E420 are virtually identical on the outside, but vastly different under the skin, each using its own, distinct powertrain. We spent a pleasant week behind the wheel of the mid-level E320.

OUTSIDE - While previous E-series vehicles were purposely styled without much flair, the new version adds a bit of passion to Mercedes' prior rational styling commitment. The familiar hood ornament and signature chrome grill have been retained, but the overall package is quite different. The redesign has smoothed its shape to achieve a low, 0.29 coefficient of drag, with flush, oval headlamps sweeping into a highly contoured hood. A new suspension system has allowed the company to lower the nose of the vehicle, which further enhances its aerodynamic shape. Also new this year are longer front and rear crumple zones and a unique subframe assembly designed to break away and slip beneath the vehicle during a severe frontal impact.

INSIDE - The new E320 has been stretched and widened, which adds more interior room than before. The interior features new controls, all placed in logical fashion with clear, analog gauges and simple buttons for ventilation. E320 is equipped with such standard luxury features as burled walnut trim and leather upholstery, 10-way power front seats with memory features, dual climate controls, electric tilt and telescoping steering column and auto-dimming rearview mirror. Power windows, mirrors and door locks are standard, along with a remote locking system and an interesting ventilation system which automatically switches to the recirculate mode when sensors detect outside pollution levels have risen. A new, more powerful stereo system is also standard.

ON THE ROAD - While the exterior has changed, the E320 continues to use the same 3.2 liter inline six cylinder engine that has powered it for years. With dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, it develops a healthy 217 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque, but it feels like much more. By using an advanced fuel delivery system with variable length intake runners to optimize the engine's torque potential at different engine speeds, the power delivery is smooth and strong, surprisingly so since it has to push a car loaded with luxury and safety features. Noise reduction is a primary goal at Mercedes, and that goal has been reached as the only noises we heard were the faint sound of the twin-cam engine, and a bit of tire noise. The sole transmission offered, a four-speed automatic, shifts firmly under wide open throttle, but more mundane driving habits give almost imperceptible gear changes.

BEHIND THE WHEEL - Switching from the previous E-Series front strut suspension to a new double control arm setup, and teaming it with a new rack-and-pinion steering system has made the ride feel more smooth and vibration-free, with neither too much or too little steering boost. The new suspension has also allowed Mercedes engineers to soften its shock absorbers and stiffen the springs, giving it better defense against bumps, while maintaining its quiet ride and predictable handling. The independent multi-link rear suspension of the previous model remains, while larger diameter four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock control are standard equipment. The ride is typically Mercedes, as the car soaks bumps with ease, with violently uneven roads feeling more like perfectly flat pavement.

SAFETY - In addition to class-leading crash strength, electronic traction control and anti-lock brakes are standard, as are four airbags, two in the instrument panel, and two more in each front door panel. An upgraded driver-controlled traction control system is optional.

OPTIONS - Our test car featured a power glass sunroof at $1070, and special exterior paint for $685.

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