SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide
The second-generation of Mercedes-Benz E-class midsized luxury sedans were a radical departure from company tradition when the first models were introduced last fall. Slightly larger than the popular cars they replaced, they offer unique style and very competitive pricing - attributes that once were hardly associated with Mercedes-Benz. The E-class lineup has been extended with the recent introduction of the high-performance E420.
Mercedes-Benz has long had a reputation for meticulous craftsmanship, precision engineering, and conservative elegance. Not too many years ago, its advertisements boasted of the number of white-gloved inspectors at the factory in Stuttgart, Germany. But human inspectors and old-world construction techniques have a high cost. With increasing competition from Japanese, American, and other European luxury car makers, Mercedes-Benz has recently made some revolutionary changes in both the automobiles it produces and its methods of production. Lessons in design and manufacturing efficiency learned in development of the latest compact C-class cars, introduced in 1994, were used in development and production of the new E-class.
The E420 is a high-performance luxury car in the finest German manner. It shares the distinctive styling of the other E-class cars, but is of a much more sporting intent with a 275-horsepower V8 under the hood. With sports car speed and handling and the quiet comfort of a luxury car, it is a true gentleman's express. It is the Mercedes for people who once would have gone elsewhere for performance and style in a luxury sports sedan. A week spent with an E420 gave me some new benchmarks for luxury comfort combined with exciting performance.
APPEARANCE: With few exceptions, the styling of previous Mercedes-Benz automobiles has been functional and conservative. The current E-class is a radical departure from that conservatism. Without losing any functionality, it is friendly, even playful. Four oval headlights and the ever lower and wider Mercedes grille give it a definite, unique face in front. The car is slightly larger than its predecessor and well-proportioned. The E420 may be distinguished from other E-class Benzes by its 5-spoke alloy wheels and the badging on the trunk lid.
COMFORT: The E420's leather and walnut-appointed interior may seem a bit lean and Spartan to people accustomed to American or British opulence. Don't be fooled. The 10-way power-adjustable front seats are firm, supportive, and work very well for long distance comfort. Rear passengers are treated well with three headrests and shoulder straps, climate control vents, and plenty of room and storage space. Instruments and controls are logically designed and placed. The full complement of convenience features are standard equipment, including power-assisted door locks, mirrors, and windows, infrared keyless remote entry, and a fine Bose sound system. My test car was fitted with an optional tilt- and-slide sun/moon roof and a cellular phone in the (air conditioned) center console.
SAFETY: All E-class Mercedes-Benzes have safety-cage construction with deformable crush zones, front and door-mounted side air bags for the driver and front passenger, 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, and an anti-theft alarm system. The E420 has the sophisticated ASR5 traction control system.
ROADABILITY: The E-class chassis has a new double wishbone front suspension. The 5-link rear suspension has been refined. The result is an impeccable combination of comfort and handling. The ride is firmer than the American luxury norm, but not harsh. As Mercedes puts it, the driver "is insulated from road shocks without being isolated from road feel." Ride and handling in everyday use are nearly perfect. A couple of laps around Sears Point International Raceway showed excellent handling and composure in high-speed driving. With the E420, there is no need to compromise between comfort and handling.
PERFORMANCE: The E420's engine compartment is home to a dual overhead cam, 32-valve, aluminum alloy V8 engine with variable intake valve timing. It supplies 275 horsepower to the rear wheels through an electronically-controlled 5-speed automatic transmission that benefits both performance and fuel efficiency. The transmission adapts its shift timing according to the way in which the car is driven. Shifts are smooth, crisp, and quick. The capabilities of the Mercedes-Benz E420 are such that it will rarely work hard in American driving.
CONCLUSIONS: The Mercedes-Benz E420 combines the refinement of a luxury sedan with the heart and soul of a sports car.
SPECIFICATIONS 1997 Mercedes-Benz E420 Base Price $ 49,900 Price As Tested $ 53,060 Engine Type 32-valve V8, dual overhead cams per bank Engine Size 4.2 liters / 265 cu. in. Horsepower 275 @ 5,500 Torque (lb-ft) 295 @ 3,900 Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 111.5 in. / 189.4 in. Curb Weight 3,750 lbs. (est.) Pounds Per Horsepower 13.6 Fuel Capacity 21.1 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium Tires Michelin Energy MXV4 215/55 R16 m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent, upper and lower control arms with coil springs & gas shocks/ independent multilink, coil springs & gas shocks Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18/25/20 0 to 60 mph 6.7 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 14.9 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.29