Big, solid, superbly engineered and finely crafted, those are thoughts that the sight of a Mercedes-Benz readily brings to mind. But passionate? Passion is a word we might associate with Jaguar. Yet passion is an emotion Mercedes is laboring to claim for itself as it rolls out a wave of new models-all backed by a joyously addictive TV commercial featuring Marlene Dietrich crooning Falling in Love Again.
But does the image fit the product?
When the E-Class sedans were redesigned several years ago, Mercedes stylists gave this mainstay luxury sedan a personality infusion. The chic, asymmetric headlights, aggressive rake, and modern, streamlined grille provided a facelift to the traditional, boxy styling of the E-Class. The Mercedes tri-star was still there on the hood, but the car instantly became more contemporary, more hip. It was also more fun to drive. The E-Class is the best-selling Mercedes ever, and sales continue to grow.
For 1998, Mercedes has instilled its newfound passion into a new E-Class wagon. The entire E-line gets a pair of new engines that deliver better performance and increased fuel economy. And a raft of goodies shows that Mercedes can still deliver the technological breakthroughs one expects from the wizards of Stuttgart.
There was a time when new Mercedes features were more complicated-and more expensive-than anyone else's. The old 4Matic drive system was arguably the best all-wheel-drive technology on the road. But it may also have been the most expensive. For 1998, Mercedes introduces an elegant and effective all-wheel-drive system that doesn't require a second mortgage. And even with other new features, base E-Class prices weren't raised over last year's. That's certainly something all of us can get passionate about.
Visually, there have been no exterior changes to the E-Class this year. That's fine with us. The ovoid headlights are the most striking design feature, with big lenses flanked by smaller high beams that flow sensuously into the hood, giving the car an up-tempo elegance. It is, to our minds, the most attractive sedan in the growing Mercedes line-up. It may also be the most influential.
When Toyota's Lexus division debuted in 1989, its flagship LS400 was clearly modeled after the midsize Mercedes sedan. Perhaps not coincidentally, strong Mercedes elements are evident in the sporty new Lexus GS models including ovoid headlights. Maybe Lexus, like most us, is looking for a little more passion, too.
While there aren't many obvious visual changes, there are certainly plenty of technical improvements, almost too many to list in any semblance of order. Some have been adopted from other Benz models, such as the Baby Smart intelligent airbag system first introduced on the two-seat SLK. When a youngster is buckled up in a specially designed front safety seat, the system automatically disables the passenger-side airbag. Different size seats are available for just about any child up to age 12. Still, Mercedes recommends belting youngsters into the back seats whenever possible.
Another borrowed feature is the SmartKey. Actually, there is no key in the traditional, metal sense, just a small, electronic device that slips into the ignition switch. It draws from a vast range of digital codes that are virtually unbreakable, minimizing car theft. Better yet, the remote keyless entry system now uses a radio signal, rather than infrared, so you don't have to attach a gunsight to make sure you're aimed precisely before the doors will open. And a Summer Opening feature allows you to open or close the sunroof without first getting into the car.
Climb in and there's no mistaking this is a Mercedes. There's plenty of burlwood and leather and lots of switches, dials and gauges. The dashboard layout is elegant and ergonomic. It's a little stark, however, when compared to the warmer interior of the new Audi A6 or the even the new Mercedes CLK.
The climate control is easy to operate and features individual driver and passenger settings. It's also smart enough to automatically seal off the outside world if in case you pull up behind a smoke-belching diesel bus.
As is the norm, the seats in our E320 were Mercedes firm. You ride on them, not in them. The base seats feature electric controls handily mounted on the door that are intuitive and easy to use. An optional seating control system lets driver and passenger dial in just the right level of back support. And for those used to Mercedes models of old, there's a switch that lets you not only tilt, but telescope the steering wheel. There's also a genuine remote trunk release mounted on the center console.
Room is one thing you get plenty of in an E-Class. There's more than enough room to push the front seats back without cramping the back passengers, and you'd have to be an NBA All-Star to bump the roof.
If cargo space is a checkpoint on your shopping list, explore the new E320 wagon. It boasts 43.8 cubic feet of cargo space. That's a full third more than the new Audi wagon, 15 percent more than the Volvo V70, and nearly 10 percent more than the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
With the E320, there's big news under the hood in the form of an all-new 3.2-liter V6 engine. It's a sophisticated package, with twin single overhead camshafts and two spark plugs per cylinder. Made of aluminum, it's 100 pounds lighter than the old V6. Horsepower is up from 217 to 221, and fuel economy has been improved as well. In current form, it meets the LEV, or Low-Emission Vehicle, standards, and with only minor changes should meet the challenging Ultra-Low-Emission mandate California is about to put into effect.
With plenty of torque at the low end, the new V6 seems better suited to U.S. driving conditions than the old powerplant. It's mated to a slick 5-speed automatic. Our only grumble is that it takes too long to downshift for a quick pass.
A new turbodiesel engine gets 26/34 EPA mpg city/highway, yet delivers 174 horsepower, up from last year's 134-hp normally aspirated diesel.
The popularity of sport-utility vehicles has led to heightened awareness of the advantages of four-wheel drive. So Mercedes is offering a new all-wheel-drive system for the E-Class this year. It has a full-time 35/65 percent front-to-rear torque split, meaning most of the power goes to the rear wheels when cruising down the highway. But if those rear wheels start to lose traction and spin, a computerized traction control system shifts torque to the wheels with the best traction; it does this by regulating the brakes. This is a $2750 option, bringing the base E320 AWD in at $49,250. That seems like a bargain compared with the old $61,700 300TE 4Matic.
Another new active safety feature is called Brake Assist. After studying countless accident reports, Mercedes engineers discovered drivers often fail to apply enough brake pressure in emergency situations, or they ease off when they feel the brake pedal pulsating as the anti-lock braking system cuts in. These people crash harder than they would have had they used the brakes to their fullest potential. Brake Assist's computer system has a complex algorithm built in designed to recognize panic stops and, with lightning speed, it applies full braking force.
With its handsome design, sophisticated new powertrain and countless other new features, the E320 is a must-consider for anyone looking into a mid-price luxury car. It delivers a commendable blend of performance, handling and prestige and with Mercedes holding the line this year on price, it can even be classified as a good value.
If you haven't been in a Mercedes in the last few years, you could be in for a surprise. You may even agree with lily Marlene that it's just like Falling in Love Again.