It's never an easy life for a new Mercedes-Benz. Stuttgart's outgoing models are inevitably a tough act to follow. In the case of the new E-Class that emerged in 1996, it was doubly difficult, since the car it replaced had been praised widely as one of the best sedans ever put on the road.
Enough to give a debutante shaky knees, no?
If so, the E-Class never let on. In fact, it went out of its way to grab attention. Its choice of eyewear in particular drew rapt attention from the automotive press: Those four goggle eyes didn't just indicate a break in Mercedes-Benz styling, they tipped off a near-revolution in the company's somewhat offhanded approach to its customers. Style came back in style; value became the new buzzword.
Mercedes' sales haven't been the same since, and it's in large part due to the natty E-Class. Riding on the broad shoulders of the volume-selling E320, the E-Class has helped boost Benz sales above and beyond the 100,000 mark.
Rippling V-6 muscle
A few days behind the wheel of a winter-white E320 reminded us why this vehicle egged on Mercedes' zooming sales. Few sedans without Lexus or BMW badges rival the E320's velvety ride, the artful weight of its steering, or the pounce of its strong, fade-free brakes. And even those rivals are hard pressed to offer the interior room and comfort of the current E-Class.
The $46,200 E320 does have siblings with similar talents. Eco-nuts will weep over the $42,400 E300 diesel, now in its last year. There's also the $51,300 E430, a V-8-powered four-door for entertaining the steak-and-martini set, and a V-6 wagon with 4Matic all-wheel drive ($49,900) for Aspenites and dog lovers who don’t dig the M-Class sport-ute.
But it’s the E320 that is most satisfying and most reasonably priced midsize Benz. Its 221-horsepower V-6 is the same powerplant found in the M-Class sport-ute, but there's nothing unrefined about its rippling voice as it rises to its 6000-rpm redline. In combination with a perfectly staged five-speed automatic transmission, Mercedes says the V-6 propels the E320 to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds and to an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph.