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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Mercedes' New E-Class: For the Rich and Playful

November 10, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mercedes-Benz would like to shrivel its image as a builder of cast-iron coaches for middle-aged cardiologists.

It wants younger buyers.

It wants more female buyers.

It wants to restore fun, emotions and a little irreverence to the previously ponderous responsibility of owning and driving a two-ton German sedan.

Above all, Mercedes wants us to fall grille-over-trunk in love with the redesigned E-Class and its Barney Google headlights, popup Jack-in-der-box cup holders and overt youthfulness that is a total loosening of the Teutonic girdle.

Unlike the old Andre Agassi, however, image isn't everything to the new series. Changes for 1996 aren't simply cosmetic and visual, they are a measurable juvenescence of construction and concept.

The three cars in this mid-size, mid-price luxury lineup are about two inches longer and wider outside, and subsequently larger inside with added head, shoulder and knee room. But thanks to weight shaved from the engine and front suspension, plus more slippery lines to the grille and rear window area, they are quicker and faster. Also thriftier with gas.

Mercedes has dumped its hereditary recirculating-ball steering for a rack-and-pinion system. That makes the car quicker to the wheel and less like an armored personnel carrier.

As the younger generation is a safety-conscious population, so the E-Class is a trauma specialist's dream car. Crumple zones have been toughened; traction controls continue to be monitored by a computer fed by brakes, engine and transmission sensors; unique to Mercedes are three shoulder and lap belts for rear seat riders--and side-impact air bags.

And of course the E-Class comes with toys.

Cup holders: Touch a walnut door fo'ard of the center console and a recess appears. Press a chrome button and a small platform rises while cup holder claws swing out and open like an articulated tarantula.

Telephone: Place another fingertip to the dash and a second French-polished panel hisses open to reveal the hands-off and preset number controls to a cell phone. The handset is buried in a two-tiered center armrest. Peculiarly, the lower half of this same cubby is fed by heating and cooling vents. We presume to keep Big Macs warm. Or Eskimo Pies solid.

Smog sniffer: Only in L.A.--or maybe Tokyo, Mexico City, Bangkok and other emphysema capitals--do you need cars with airborne muck detectors and mechanical nostrils that twitch at the first whiff of urban oxides. On the new Mercedes, when pollution levels rise, sensors automatically close outside air vents and begin recirculating existing cabin air.

This upper-class E-Class--formed by the E320 in showrooms this month with a 217-horsepower in-line six, the E420 with a 275-horsepower V-8 due to arrive in February, and the 134-horsepower E300 diesel also in the November lineup--leaves few conveniences or ultra considerations unturned.

Infrared locking sends a different signal with each activation, snookering car thieves who use electronic scanners to read remote control codes.

Seats and doors, of course, are leather-lined in all but the E300 diesel. Installation of a passenger-side air bag has not canceled provision of a glove box big enough for catchers' mitts.

And in flagrant, yet flattering larceny of Infiniti, E-Class sun visors have three buttons for remote opening of the garage, turning on house lights or unlocking your doggie door.

*

The 1996 cars are styled comfortably close to the old E-Class, which has been with us since 1984. If there is any distinction, it is a subtle lengthening of the hood and a shortening of the rear deck to imply a coupe's dimensions and purpose.

And, of course, those bullfrog headlights with oval, sloping, Orphan Annie orbs on the outside and Felix the Cat ovals on the high beams inside.

Radical. Shocking. Yet adorable visuals bringing innovation and distinction to Mercedes' most popular vehicle and the world's best-selling luxury car.

Our first taste was a double--prototypes of the E320, expected to sell for a base price of $43,500, and the slightly heavier E420, stickered at $49,900.

Don't choke. Although certainly beyond the reach of cub reporters and apprentice gaffers, E320 prices are unchanged, and actually represent a 5.7% reduction owing to new equipment added to the car.

E420 prices are a tangible, cash-in-your-pocket drop from $52,500 thanks to fewer parts, improved factory efficiency, lower production costs--and Mercedes' determination to take full advantage of the soggy yen and Japan's resistance to lower luxury car prices. Price of E300 diesel slides from $41,000 to $39,900.

Untouched, thankfully, is that purposeful handling and feel so unique to Mercedes; a sense of perpetual coddling of owners and a show of inexhaustible performance from a mechanical object that seems to have been carved from a single piece of stainless steel. Rottweilers are equally capable, durable, reliable and hefty.

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